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Cleaning up the kitchen

Thailand is not shy about promoting its farm products and national cuisine — a perhaps over-sized sense of pride that has emboldened the government to position the kingdom as the "kitchen of the world" and enshrine our gastronomic heritage as "soft power".

But rising global food prices, not to mention the recent Global Food Security Index (GFSI) report, should serve as a symbolic tap on the shoulder for our policymakers to reexamine food safety and food security.

In the 11th GFSI report released late last month, Thailand ranked 64th out of 113 countries, sliding from 51st in 2021. Among other Asean members, it fared poorly compared to Malaysia (41st), Vietnam (46th) and Indonesia (63rd).

Finland ranked first followed by Ireland and Norway. On the opposite spectrum, Yemen was 111th, Haiti 112nd, and Syria 113rd.

The report, issued by the Economist, is not an agricultural trade forecast or a gastronomic review, so it may not align with the government’s food policies that focus on food exports, subsidised farm prices, and promoting Thai cuisine.

Rather, the GFSI looks at food security by examining four pillars: food affordability, availability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation. The report shows Thailand performs best on the affordability pillar with a score of 83.7, and weakest on quality and safety (45.3).

Despite having affordable and tasty food, Thai consumers are not well informed about food safety and food quality. State agencies work in silos in checking this and most of their tasks have been done to serve the purpose of trade.

Consumers must rely on testing by consumer groups, which often highlights worrying issues.

For instance, the Thai Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-PAN) issued a report in December 2020 stating that its laboratory tests found nine fruits and 18 vegetables — out of 509 sampled — contained excessive levels of chemical residue. Some were imported; most were not.

The report is not an outlier, either. The group has been running random food tests for years.

Hopefully, the government, policymakers and, above all, responsible agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) operating under the Public Health Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture will see these red flags and correct the problems accordingly.

The government and responsible agencies have done little to improve food safety. A glaring example is the state’s failure to enforce a ban on two toxic farm chemicals — paraquat and chlorpyrifos — while also being unable to properly control the use of glyphosate. Despite the ban having been in effect for two years, these products are still being sold online. Moreover, pro-chemical groups keep lobbying the Department of Agriculture to revise the ban.

We hope the government will tighten the law to make farmers cultivate clean and environmentally friendly food for local consumption and export. It’s about time the authorities started investing money in opening food safety agencies to provide better quality controls. They should also fork out more to help farmers produce organic foods and reduce their use of toxic chemical sprays.

If we are to serve as the “kitchen of the world”, we must do more to improve and clean up our supply chain — and focus less on boasting about how delicious Thai food is, and how rich and abundant our food and farm products are.

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