Rural livelihoods meet public health concerns
The ASEAN community is expected to bring economic opportunity to their member countries. Thai agriculture presents a scenario different from that: With relatively high production costs compared to its neighbouring countries Vietnam, Cambodia or Myanmar, the local rice production will be hardly competitive in the long run. Thai food activists and NGOs for rural development discover flaws about the Southeast Asian association, as a study on Bangkok's organic food movement shows:
Bangkok's organic food scenes are currently experiencing new momentum. Growing consciousness of food origins reflects both, food quality and farmers rights. It grounds in the raising public health concerns and urbanites' considerations of alternative lifestyles on the one hand and the awareness of degraded rural ecosystems and livelihoods rendered vulnerable during the past decades of intensive farming on the other. Study participants repeatedly made reference to a soon arriving agricultural crisis, for yields decline and rural livelihoods can no longer sustain.
Observations from the field
Farmers are particularly vulnerable to the dynamics of the free market as exposed to global price politics while often missing protective policies. So are more and more Thai farmers affected by both ecological degradation of their rural environments and social injustice: Decades of intensive farming have led to notable soil damages (solidification, deprivation of organic matter, poor water drainage), loss of natural biodiversity and increased exposure to environmental risks (pest outbreaks, flooding, draughts), having impact on farm productivity. In addition to their expenses for costly technologies and farm inputs, many small-scale farmers are in debt. It is noteworthy that there are about 80% of Thai farmers who do not own the land they farm; and those have the twofold burden of coming up for rent and farm inputs including labour. And beyond, being sustainably exposed to harmful agrochemicals has caused many of them troubles of physical health, and adds a further burden to their livelihoods.
Analogously, in the urban sphere, critical voices on conventional food supply are raising at present. Information on pesticide, hormone or antibiotic residues in food products becomes largely available via various media channels and triggers health awareness among the urbanites. It coincides with transitioning nutrition patterns of both unhealthy eating, and the reactive alternative eating trends.
The newly raising food awareness in Bangkok conveys a lifestyle component in a way that healthy and mindful living becomes popular among certain groups. This is driven by two key issues: increasingly cases of non-communicable diseases and food allergies, and environmental pollution and psychological stress of the modern urban lifestyles in the consumers' surroundings. Interview participants report their fading trust in the quality of the market food produce. The alternative food movement in Bangkok is finding new agents as a consequence thereof, appealing to a growing number of urbanites at different age.
Bangkok's organic food movement
The interest for health foods comes from consumers and producers alike. The organic farming method is considered ensuring food safety, organic production hence caters to the health food scene. Indeed, interviews showed that consumers likely choose organic produce when they face personal or the family's illness.
Bangkok's organic food movement advocates the accessibility of organic foods for urbanites while supporting rural small-scale producers in cultivating foods by the environmentally sound organic method. By this agenda, the movement links urban with rural realities; and effectively, tracing back the trend of organic agriculture in Thailand reveals its origins in local traditional farming systems, supported to re-emerge since about the 1980s by initial NGOs for rural development. By encouraging small-scale farmers to recall those local integrated farming concepts, NGOs found a way to support the farmer households. After implementation, they helped with the sale of farm over-produce to early consumer groups in the capital.
Nowadays, the access to organic foods in Bangkok has widened – food outlets such as health shops, farmers markets, CSA-based delivery schemes and supermarket segments are multiplying although remaining a niche on the regular market. Remarkably, there are fractions in terms of organic produce that is certified by a third party and mostly found in supermarkets, and so-called self-claimed organic produce sold on direct sale schemes. The latter backs upon the personal relationship between organic consumer and producer or vendor, and curiously, Thai organic consumers seem to prefer this trust-based guarantee over the third-party certification. Indeed, research revealed limited trust in the Thai organic certification for information about the misuse of labels has troubled its reputation.
Post-industrial features in the urban society
New Social Movements, as a part of the study's theoretical analysis, are described as being a product of post-industrial societies that happen when stakeholders express their conflicts of personal lifestyle, identity, ideology or cultural values rather than politics. This framework has been found applicable to the case of Bangkok, as size and social diversity of the city hint at post-industrial features within its societal realities – many Bangkokians currently live prototypical post-industrial realities. Research participants mention in this context the consumerist nature of Bangkok's society, of which the organic movement represents the anti-consumerist countermovement in which stakeholders engage to realise philosophies of mindful consumption. The stakeholders thus present what sociologist Willer (2008:6) probably interprets as post-hedonism via the recollection of locality or simplicity.
The organic stakeholders for health and mindful living
The movement is a foremost civil society movement with no uniform social base despite major involvement of urban middle classes. Various sets of stakeholders and networks feature Bangkok's organic food scenes of which certain individuals appear as pioneers via their continuous determining engagement. It thus gathers the like-minded concerned consumers, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, private activists, a network of urban gardeners as well as the rural organic farmers to act to provide access to healthy food, farmers' rights or environmental awareness. Their sustained engagement and motivations hint at an organic movement although consisting of interspersed scenes while embracing common objectives and attitudes.
The organic stakeholders pursue a range of motives but health is the prevalent one: In the context of public health crisis, aggravated by low quality foods on the regular market, more and more urbanites concern about their personal health and the health of their families. They commence to try organic foods as a means to prevent from illness. Some of the organic consumers have faced illness before, and organic food is particularly interesting for elderly persons and families with children. The reality that conscious consumers are often well informed about health risks in context of the exposure to agrochemicals can make that their care extends to the producers' well-being; interest in organic foods thus carries self-related care and solidarity with others, and effectively is a matter of public health.
Environmentally friendly behaviour appears as second priority, though relevant in the eyes of research participants who are conscious about green living. Generally, the ecological benefits of organic method are more tangible for the rural producers than for the urbanites. However, there is growing appreciation of environmental education and ecological behaviour among Bangkokians, too.
Stakeholder engagement strongly associates with lifestyles: The prospect of healthy urban lifestyles, mindfulness, natural and community living, and the quest for happiness are motivation to many. Much of this has its background in simple living philosophies (cf. Kasser 2009) in which self-fulfilment and personal well-being trigger ecologically sensitive behaviours. To the most committed, the movement has been found to generate social identity via representations of lifestyles that they aspire.
The organic farmers or farmer groups are the necessary base of the movement with some of them running rural learning centres and being activists themselves. Most in the scene aspire self-sufficiency, hence small-scale farming with a surplus of produce for sale. Organic farmer groups often link to their consumers directly, or to farmers markets or health shop owners in the city.
A Buddhist community grows according to the organic method in their rural centres since decades for reasons of responsibility towards nature and environment. Their motivation derives directly from the Buddhist precepts of neither killing nor harming any living beings.
With their steadily extending expenses for agricultural inputs, Thai farmers are not capable to sustain their livelihoods. In fact, in most Thai regions, the period of exposure to industrial farming was long enough to loose indigenous knowledge about traditional farming. When making the shift to organic method, many depend on external assistance, and especially on organic or local producer markets.
Most rural development NGOs therefore work at improving policies on the land access for farmers, seed saving programmes or assistance for the conversion to sustainable farming systems. While a number of major organic businesses aim at opening organic produce to the premium markets, some NGOs and social enterprises organise farmers markets and other direct sale opportunities to avoid middle men. Further NGOs have directed their agenda on consumers rights and health awareness.
Bangkok has a growing City farming scene involving with the organic movement: city farmers widely commit to the organic method and share their ideals of mindful living philosophy. They are also particularly involved in organising Bangkok's organic food outlets, direct sale and CSA schemes, food education, farm visits for urbanites as well as social communities as contributions to green urban living.
Their intentions go beyond food security to embrace besides lifestyles also the physical and psychological health of urbanites, and tackle the challenge of how to facilitate healthy food environments against the low quality of conventional foods and pollution in the megacity.
Interestingly, the city farming scene gets highly inspired by a number of popular pioneers who regularly appear on television or in magazines. A TV star or a former pop singer practising urban farming became trend-setters for the newcomers, modelling alternative living and health food trends. Office workers leaving their profession to grow a city garden become a common phenomenon, for example one of Bangkok's urban garden pioneers: He now enjoys the mindful living in company with equally spirited people and the prospect of reaching out to other urbanites. His decision has been a way of designing his own personal lifestyle, generating a new identity.
Peri-urban farming in the city fringes is an alternative to city farming in Bangkok where extensive areas for planting are scarce. An organic community farming project in Bangkok's adjacent province involves local farmers in cultivating their formerly conventional orchards and gardens by organic method. A Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) which bases on mutual controls among the farmers and the participation of consumers, is being established in collaboration with organic farming experts, a NGO and a nearby university. The project manager found this a reliable way for the organic producers to strengthen their identity and concern for their local community. Their farm produce is mainly sold at a local weekend farmers' market.
A Bangkok-based social enterprise is the pioneer for alternative thinking and an umbrella network to a programme for the promotion of organic farming in Asia, a green consumer programme running farmers markets, a CSA-scheme, fairs and seminars. Their aim is “to empower the emerging consumers' movement in Asia in support of its small-scale farmers” (Willenswaard 2015: 7), hence to build up the mindful consumer society to challenge the consumerist society, in which stakeholders support the production of ecologically and fair produced foods.
Organic foods are still niche products in Bangkok and relatively difficult to find in its complete range. However, two major organic farmers markets and a few smaller occasional ones provide fresh foods and besides processed products and crafts. They host both, certified and non-certified organic farmers who the market organisers and consumers know and trust. Producers benefit from attending the markets firstly because they can meet and exchange with their customers, and secondly from getting full profit by selling directly.
The organic consumers play a major role in the movement for their growing demand: First, their demand inspires an increasing number of consumers to change to organic produce. Second, it triggers farmers' shift to organic method via the provision of markets. That way, consumer demand actively promotes organic production.
Contributions to societal well-being
The last decade has certainly widened the organic scenes for new stakeholders and activities, and has enhanced consumers' alertness. Mindful consumption and green lifestyles are emerging in response to trends or shifts in the people's personal attitudes. Not only has the rural situation become unviable for many farmers, also the urban living has for some reached limits that encourage the alternative paths.
Stakeholders in Bangkok's organic food movement contribute to the improvement of rural farmers' livelihoods and their natural environments by either practising organic farming method, facilitating fair marketing structures, engaging for farmers' rights, or simply contribute by their organic consumption. In this sense, the movement is a facilitator of social justice. Stakeholders likewise contribute to the generation of alternative lifestyles that act in the interest of urban sustainability, identity and consumer democracy, which underlines the movement's societal relevance. As a consequence, the scene not only advocates their own priorities but has demonstrated endeavouring general public health and the socio-economic stability of Thai society.
The study has shown that single stakeholder engagement takes place on twofold level, namely on self-level (realising personal health and individual lifestyles) and on solidarity level, underpinning the movement's social outreach. It may hence be argued that the movement is a growing civil society movement that acts on behalf of ecology and social justice, and finally societal well-being.
And indeed, the grass-roots nature of the organic movement makes that civil rights are represented more effectively than the state politics is able to ensure. Although the movement consists of rather interspersed scenes, the diversity of stakeholder groups helps bringing the issue to the conscious of a broader public. As for a future perspective, there is opportunity for further enquiry into whether the commitment of stakeholders to the movement is able to sustain its energy in order to fully challenge the currently unsustainable and monopolised Thai agro-industry.
Bopp, J., 2016. New momentum to Bangkok's organic food movement: interspersed scenes led by mindful pioneers. Dissertation, University of Cologne.
Kasser, T., 2009. Psychological need satisfaction, personal well-being, and ecological sustainability. Ecopsychology 1, 175-180.
Willenswaard, W. van (Ed.), 2015. Mindful Markets: Producer-Consumer Partnerships towards a new Economy. Garden of Fruition, Bangkok.
Willer, R., 2008. Nichts wird so gerne konsumiert wie – Konsumkritik. Lifestyle und Konsum in Südostasien. Südostasien, 4-8.
*This article is an extract from the author's PhD thesis New momentum to Bangkok's organic food movement: interspersed scenes led by mindful pioneers, submitted at the Institute of Geography, University of Cologne, Germany, in June 2016 (supervisor: Prof. Dr. Frauke Kraas)