Delving into Political Parties’ Policies ahead of the 2023 Election: Agriculture Policy, but No Policy on Food Security?

Over the past decade, the agriculture policies prioritized by various government sectors have involved using massive amounts of money in agricultural subsidies. This trend began with the rice pledging program in the days of the Pheu Thai government, and continued with the Democrat Party (Prachatibat) government’s income insurance plan. This pattern of subsidies has been sustained in recent times, through various forms of support provided under the multi-party government with General Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister. It seems Thailand has fallen into the trap of fixing its problems in the agricultural sector by using huge amounts of subsidy money – a trap that won’t be easy to escape.

For example, a study carried out by 101 PublicPolicy found that in three production years (2019-2022), the previous government spent an average annual budget of 152[AS1] .2 billion baht on the income insurance plan and agricultural product subsidies. This budget amounted to 131[AS2] .1 billion baht in 2019/2020; reached 144.7 billion baht in 2020/2021; and jumped to 180.7 billion baht in 2021/2022! Moreover, farmers in the lowest 20% – small producers with less land and lower production outputs – received only 1.8-2.5% of this subsidy money[AS3] .

These policies don’t even touch upon various structural problems – issues like land rights, irrigation, and the amount of production per unit of land have not improved at all. Not to mention the drastic environmental impacts caused by the monocrop production of agricultural products at a cheap price point – with support from subsidies in various forms. One example is corn that is used for animal feed; another is sugarcane. Sugarcane factories are moreover a significant cause of air pollution, which is causing a population health crisis in various places.

But in this article, we want to call attention to another aspect of this issue, one that lies beneath these expensive attempts to fix the fall in prices of agricultural products in the short term. This aspect involves another piece of the food and agriculture system: in this country, the very people who work to produce our food are nevertheless experiencing food insecurity – in terms of both nutrition and food safety.

You may not be aware that in this country known as the “world’s kitchen”, statistics from the Bureau of Nutrition in the Ministry of Public Health (2021) indicate child stunting rates of 11.7% among Thai children aged 0-5 years and 9.7% among Thai children aged 6-14 years. A main driver of this type of undernutrition is that these children are consuming food that is insufficient, both in its amount and in its nutritional value.

Food safety is a major concern as well. Thai-PAN carried out research monitoring chemical residuals in fruits and vegetables in 2022. From January to April 2022, they collected 268 samples from 5 supermarkets and 11 provincial markets, and analyzed the chemical residuals using a multi-residue analysis that includes 567 potential contaminants. This inquiry found that 67% of the fruits and vegetables had chemical residuals that exceeded the standard limits. In comparison, in countries with robust food safety standards – for instance, Japan, the US, and European countries –only 3-5% of fruits and vegetables would exceed these standards for the same chemical residues.

So it’s not so strange at all that Thailand’s food security index is plummeting, according to the results of the annual survey of food security carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), the agency tasked with global economic analysis. In its most recent global food security index report, which was published in 2022, and which ranked 113 countries worldwide, Thailand received a total of 60.1 points, which put the country in the rank of 64th. This placement constitutes a drop in ranking since 2021, when Thailand was ranked 51st. This drop by 13 placements puts Thailand’s food security ranking at 5th among ASEAN countries. Singapore is ranked 28th, Malaysia is ranked 41st, Vietnam is ranked 46th, and Indonesia is ranked 63rd. Further, according to the food security index, Thailand received the lowest points in the area of “food quality and food safety” – only 45.3 points.

If the ultimate goal of a good food and agriculture system is to ensure the full health of the population – especially the health of our children – and to provide a strong foundation for human development via wise and well-reasoned processes… then it means that our policies on food and agriculture, despite involving massive financial allocations each year, are wildly ineffective. They are ineffective on the production side, failing to build resilience among farmers and producers. They are ineffective regarding consumption, failing to ensure food quality and safety. And they are ineffective in attaining the end goals, as measured in the strength and good health that would result from good food.

It is now time for the various political parties to suggest new approaches with regard to agriculture, as we approach the 2023 election. Maybe these changes will reallocate those massive budgets to address structural issues – like land and water access for marginalized groups. Maybe they will involve moving away from monocropping, which generates cheap products for industry while farmers are left with next to nothing, and turning instead to sustainable agriculture that supports a diverse crop – with benefits to nutrition and food safety. Or possibly agricultural subsidy money could be used to build a “food social support” program for all children in the country – to address this issue of malnutrition affecting 10-12% of children.

There are models – for instance from Scandinavian countries – that use a moderate budget to ensure that the meals provided to each child in school involve food produced using environmentally friendly practices, motivating farmers to implement sustainable methods. This is an approach that solves systemic problems in production, consumption, and long-term outcomes.

We believe that most people in Thailand would gladly vote for and support a political party that would lead us to develop an agricultural system that is more sustainable and a food system that offers greater food security and food safety.