The really big problem is how to fix
corn without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Warm Heart
Foundation believes it has a low-cost and immediately replicable
solution. First, though, it would be useful to review the agricultural
origins of the haze crisis.
Corn is nasty stuff. The way we cultivate it in Thailand is inexcusable,
no question. Corn burning accounts for much of the Northern haze
crisis. Just three Northern provinces, Chiang Rai, Nan and Tak, grow
1.67 million rai of corn – 24 per cent of the national total.) The haze
kills and sickens tens of thousands; we all pay for their care.
What’s the corn problem?
Scale. Corn has gone from a regular part of the Thai diet to our biggest
and fastest growing crop – that we cannot eat. It’s hog corn, 95 per
cent of it unfit for human consumption. How did we get here? Demand for
meat, milk and ice cream from a fast growing global and Thai middle
class. Chickens, pigs and cows transform corn-based feed into
drumsticks, steaks and Magnum bars very inefficiently.
The cheapest places to grow – and the farmers most desperate to do it –
are in the rural North where steep slopes and bad soil are good for
nothing else. Laws protect such lands, but the officials charged with
enforcement ignore burning forest for new fields because more is better.
(In 2017-18, 3.67 million rai of corn – 52 per cent of Thailand’s total
– grew in protected forest.) The government itself, with the Thai
Animal Feed Association, encouraged rice farmers to plant corn as a
second crop in their paddies, to “conserve water”.
What, then, is the problem?
The overwhelming expansion of corn on fragile soils in protected forests
that are among the few remaining areas of biodiversity in Thailand.
Monocropped corn generates huge pest pressure and demand for pesticides
with lethal consequences. Corn itself is a particularly wasteful crop;
only 22.2 per cent is kernel, while 78.2 per cent remains in the field
to be cleared somehow before the next planting. (Burning is easiest, but
since more than half of fields lie within forests, the forests burn,
How do you “fix” this sick goose?
A recent article in The Nation highlights the work of leading Thai
organisations that understand the problem and have wise solutions (“Thai
govt urged to help farmers shift practices”, April 8). As BioThai
director Withoon Lienchamroon observes, because just a few large
companies, encouraged by government policies, are responsible, it ought
to be possible to force a sustainable public-private solution to support
integrated farming, not monocropping. Researcher Olarn Ongla adds that
policy must also address farmers’ poverty, which prevents them from
shifting to more sustainable techniques.
Sounds great – but despite the social costs of haze, neither government
nor companies have incentives to play. Today, government and companies
confront minimum costs and risks. Government has limited forest
monitoring and use-enforcement costs or agricultural extension costs at
the rural fringe. Elected with a popular majority, it can ignore
protests in an opposition area. Doing nothing also avoids the risk of
failure, dangerous when legitimacy depends on the ability to deliver
quick, tangible successes. Meanwhile the companies face no risk of more
costly corn, the largest cost component in animal production, and can
use CSR programmes to placate opposition as they transition to foreign
Killing the goose that lays the gold
What happens if such a scheme is imposed? The companies exit, with
terrible consequences for Thailand. Companies produce corn in the Thai
North because land and labour are cheap. If remaining in Thailand
becomes too costly, they move to Myanmar. The growing conditions are
similar, the labour is cheaper and there is no regulation. With the
Asean Free Trade Agreement, the cost of importing corn to Thailand is
minimal, although transportation is inconvenient. How best to solve
that? Move the chickens, hogs and cattle to Myanmar along with the
slaughterhouses, etc. The cost is soon paid back by the lower cost of
As a result, burning in Thailand, forest encroachment and the amount of
corn raised decrease. We outsource the problem, but ineffectively. The
haze continues from Myanmar, where tens of thousands more people are
exposed. Closer to home, tens of thousands of Thais employed in the
shipping, care, slaughter and processing of meats and dairy lose their
jobs, a fate shared by large numbers of landless farmers. There are no
ready replacement crops, sources of demand or funds. Rural communities
collapse faster, more uneducated and untrained farmers pour into the
cities. Thai imports of chicken, pork and beef spike. The goose is dead
without an alternative source of gold ready at hand.
Does the goose have to die?
Warm Heart thinks not. We are small Thai Foundation (CM273) without the
international and national funding of big NGOs. We do not make plans for
government or for major corporations. We believe that corn is here to
stay, essential to the lives of Thailand’s poorest farmers who are
forgotten in public discussion. We see a way to resolve the haze crisis
through the market and poor farmers’ hunger for better lives: give them
incentives and means to profit from not burning their corn waste. Right
Warm Heart believes that we, the citizens of the North, can choose
between two futures. The next decade can be clouded with haze or small
farmers can learn to convert crop waste to biochar and sell it as
briquettes or fertiliser.
There is nothing high-tech, high cost, imported or impressive about Warm
Heart’s solution. We teach poor farmers to teach other poor farmers to
make their own equipment and biochar. An old Thai farmer teaching
another farmer to make biochar from crop waste in a small, unkempt field
using equipment designed in Thailand and built by the farmer himself is
not something that goes on nice websites or merits a write-up in
academic journals. But it works. This is not a vague promise. This is
not a theoretical possibility. This does not require years of testing.
This is known and tested. If tens of thousands of small farmers learned
to do this right now, there would be far less haze in the air next year.
Michael Shafer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao, Chiang Mai.