Chemicals over Herbs

 Are they crazy?


On February 10th 2009 Thailand’s farmers woke up to a new law they knew nothing about. An ‘announcement’ had originally taken place on February 3rd, signed by Industry Minister Charnchai Chairungruang. This ‘announcement’ was then made public by the Ministry of Agriculture one week later. The results provided front page news for a month.


So what was the new ‘law’ that caused such a stir?


Thirteen traditional Thai herbs had been listed as ‘Hazardous Substances type 1’! These were basic and everyday herbs – neem, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, Chinese ginger, African marigold, Siam weed, tea seed cake, Chinese celery, ringworm brush, glory lily, stemona and (would you believe in the land of spicy food?) chilli. The sort of herbs that have given Thailand its culinary good name and its spas an image of indigenous health.

Firstly, a little scene setting: In 1892 the King asked his physicians to produce the definitive medical book. In the land of smiles, it won’t surprise you to know that the book is full of Thai herbal remedies and massage therapies. Little changes. Over the last 6 months (don’t laugh) 17 Thai herbs have now gained ‘official’ medical status as being as good as drugs in the treatment of certain illnesses.

Secondly, Thailand’s farmers are poor and often farm just a couple of acres. In the Tropical climate, bugs are ever present but they have learnt to crush chillis and use a dilution of the oil on leaves to eradicate certain pests. The other 12 herbs were similarly used. It is organic farming at its best. The King is steadfastly behind organic farming and sponsors development farms – I have one of his trained staff helping me implement ‘Rainbow Valley Organic Community’, my own project near his palace in Hua Hin.

Biothai, a non-Government organic farming group has taken the matter to court and won a temporary injunction. Tussanee Verakan, co-ordinator of the Alternative Agriculture Network said the listing would hurt grassroots agriculture. He suspected a ‘hidden agenda’ to favour ‘big business’.


And he may well have a point.



  1. Unusually for a new ‘Agriculture law’, there was absolutely no consultation with the farmers beforehand.


  2. While the Ministry of Agriculture says this is not a ‘ban’ on the herbs, the new law requires farmers (many of whom are illiterate) to follow safety and quality control regulations over the concentrations and mixes they use. The farmers will have to get their dilutions and mixes approved or face up to six months in jail and/or a fine of 50,000 baht (£1,000). The average wage for an Isan farmer might be little more than £20 per month. The threat alone is enough to frighten them away from these thirteen herbs.


  3. The marketing of pesticides and fertilisers has reached such high levels that farmers in the Northern growing regions now use more chemicals per head of the population than any other country in South East Asia according to Government statistics! No one is monitoring the concentrations of chemicals they use, while banned chemicals in the West like DDT are also permitted. Indeed the Editorial in the Bangkok post stated that 70 per cent of the chemicals used in Thailand are banned in the West! Illnesses amongst farmers have reached almost epidemic proportions, having increased 1700 per cent in the 5 years from 1988-93, said the article. 81 per cent of all waterways are now contaminated with DDT, 17 per cent of farmers have pesticides in their blood streams, and almost all fruit has residues above the Government safety limits.


  4. In an attempt to allay the fears of the farmers, the ministry then compounded the problem by stating that these medicinally approved herbs were only ‘Hazardous Substances’ when used as pesticides! 


  5. But perhaps the ‘clincher’ for the conspiracy theorists came with the simultaneous announcement that sulphur and possibly a number of other chemical compounds were to be removed from the ‘Hazardous Substances’ list. If this ruling goes ahead it will save several chemical importers from legal punishment, as they had been importing the compound without proper licences.



If the new law goes ahead it will certainly damage Thailand’s healthy herbal image. ‘Are they crazy?’ asks the Bangkok Post, replying to itself, ‘Most probably not, because this announcement has the fingerprints of agro-chemical multinational companies all over it’. There has been a huge backlash in recent years against the growth of chemical farming over traditional methods. ‘For the agro-chemical giants their challenge is how to stop this green pest control trend’, said Sanitsuda Ekachai, assistant editor of the paper.

Chris Woollams Quack Watch
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