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Fix PM2.5 at the source

The year's end is also known as the season of air pollution. In Bangkok, it's the time when PM2.5 fills the air. In the northern region, open burning and forest fires spew air pollution, choking residents. In sugar cane farm areas in about 20 provinces in the central and northeastern region, villagers suffer from "black snow" PM2.5 dust resulting from sugarcane farmers conducting their pre-harvest burns.

But there’s some hope in tackling the “black snow” with the pre-harvest burns being one of the factors that the government, stakeholders and farmers are seeking to address. While it’s not a problem that’s far from over, there are signs of improvement and continual efforts.

The government yesterday announced it set a target that only 5% of harvested sugar cane yields can come from burnt sugar cane for the season covering November-March. This is a high target as over the past two decades the amount of burnt sugar cane was about 50% of all sugar cane yields.

There once was a time when there was no “black snow” because farmers used a “fresh-cut” method which became time-consuming and expensive with manual labourers being hard to find.

Over the past decade, the government has spent money to help farmers use sustainable harvesting methods, partly due to pressure from environmentalists and global buyers who demand sustainable sugar products. This fiscal year, the government approved 8.1 billion baht to help farmers return to using the fresh-cut method. Money has also been used to pay premium prices and subsidise farmers who harvest sustainably. Part of the funds has been loaned to farmers to buy new machines that make it easier to cut fresh sugar cane.

Yet, more needs to be done for the Thai sugar industry to adhere to zero-burning goals. The Pollution Control Department has yet to install air monitoring stations at sugar cane farm areas, especially Dan Chang district in Suphan Buri which is the largest sugar cane plantation zone in the country.

There, farmers need to sleep in air-conditioned houses during the harvesting season as dust fills the air and contaminates food, water or even clothing. The Ministry of Public Health has yet to send researchers and medical staff to address the health issues in these farming areas.

The police, meanwhile, need to work harder to arrest and enforce laws aimed at lessening the burning of harvests.

There should also be a campaign to encourage companies to sell only clean sugar and consumers should be educated on how to purchase products made up of sustainable sugar, while sustainable businesses should also be recognised for their efforts.

The government likewise needs to revise its trade policies to ensure Thailand has a clean supply chain in relation to this matter.

Unfortunately, the government has not conducted similar approaches with other contributing factors to the air pollution issue with farmers planting other monoculture crops, such as maize, still using open burning to clear land for harvesting.

In the capital city, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and central government will in the coming months probably still rely on water spraying, ordering school closures and people to work from home when the PM2.5 peaks. They may also plant more trees and talk about having fewer vehicles on roads, but this is an issue that needs to be resolved at the source.

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