CHIANGRAI – Many Thais would probably be surprised to learn that the common fruits and vegetables they eat often travel great distances from China before showing up in their local markets. Nor are they aware that their insistence on appearances contributes to the increasing importation of produce from China and the hardships this puts on Thai farmers growing the same produce.
”Our consumers want beautiful broccoli, carrots and many other kinds of vegetables. Our local produce looks different from what is imported from China,” said Nitipon Promsawadi, a produce wholesaler at Chokcharoen central market in Chiang Rai province.
He said that besides having a beautiful appearance, the imports are uniform in size and packaged well. He commented that Thai varieties are sometimes unavailable due to floods or other circumstances.
Mr Nitipon orders his imported produce from other wholesalers at the Thai Market, located on the outskirts of Bangkok in Pathum Thani province. Interestingly, the Chinese produce shipped to him from Pathum Thani has already passed through Chiang Rai, either unloaded from boats at the Mekong River port of Chiang Saen or entering Thailand in ferried tractor-trailers at Chiang Khong. The trucks traverse Route 3 Asian (R3A), a 1,887km route that links Kunming, China with Bangkok, after passing through Laos.
Thailand, including Chiang Rai.
So a carrot may travel 2,800km or more from where it is grown in mainland China to where it is sold in Chiang Rai, a place where carrots grow very well. In fact northern Thailand is well suited to growing many types of produce not usually associated with a tropical climate because of the cool mountain valleys.
Kham-aoey Udomsab, another wholesaler at Chokcharoen market, pointed at her 10-wheel truck, which was being loaded by workers carrying boxes of carrots and other vegetables in front of her wholesale outlet. The truck transports goods back and forth between Bangkok and Chiang Rai. ‘‘This truck has about 100 boxes of carrots and a number of boxes of grapes, as well as sacks of garlic and other produce. I charge 13,000 baht per trip to bring a load of produce from Chiang Rai to Pathum Thani,” she said, adding that on the return trip the truck often contains some of the same produce it came down with.
About 60km from Chokcharoen market at Chiang Saen port, large boats from southern China are unloading garlic, onions, sunflower seeds and other produce which is not especially perishable. The workers, who mostly speak Burmese, are unloading produce from boats and loading it onto trucks, some bound for warehouses in Chiang Rai but most for Pathum Thani. Some groups of workers were loading cooking palm oil onto boats preparing to sail back up the Mekong into China.
Not many months ago Thailand experienced a severe shortage of palm oil. Prices shot up as supermarkets quickly sold out their stocks and large amounts were imported from Malaysia. The government set a price for palm oil and compensated 10 processing companies so that they could sell it at the price stipulated by the government.
At another corner of the port, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official carried small bags of garlic and sunflower seeds to be tested for contamination with hazardous substances. He explained that Chiang Saen port is used mostly for dry goods, while most fresh vegetables come through Chiang Khong.
Chiang Khong, about 50km from Chiang Saen via a local road, serves as the entry point for large tractor-trailers coming from China down Route 3A. Trucks containing produce can only pass between 6am and 6pm when the officials from the Plant Quarantine division of the Agricultural Department are on duty. Basically, the officials collect samples of vegetables, fruits and flowers and take them to a station to inspect for insects. When we were at Chiang Khong was no sign of inspections for hazardous substances by the FDA. The produce from China is very fresh, not yet ripe, and kept cooled in the container trucks. However, the inspection officials wore masks and we detected a strong smell of chemicals.
The tools for insect inspection are simple; a knife for chopping and an electric lamp to allow workers to make a careful search for insects both inside and outside the produce. Even before the inspectors were finished we noticed that trucks that had brought the produce they were inspecting would take off down the road, bound for the market in Pathum Thani or perhaps a warehouse in Bangkok for a supermarket chain. Obviously they are running on a tight schedule.
‘‘Fresh produce cannot wait too long; it needs to arrive at its destination on time,” said a driver for one shipping company who asked not to be named.
‘‘There are about 30 to 40 trailers a day that use this port to transport produce to Bangkok,” said Nivej Srichaiwong, the head of the Plant Quarantine station at Chiang Khong port. He added that this month grapes are the most popular import. ‘‘The fruits and vegetable that come through vary depending on the season and availability,” he said.
Statistics kept by Chiang Khong port-of-entry officials reveal that in 2009 some 33.4 million kilogrammes of fruit, vegetables and flowers from China, worth 568.8 million baht, entered the country at Chiang Khong. In the same period only 8.4 million kilogrammes of fruits, vegetable and flowers, worth 124.7 million baht, passed through Chiang Khong on the way to China.
According to Global Trade Atlas, an online trade data system, Thailand imported US$244.9 million (7.33 billion baht) worth of fruit and vegetables in 2008, $301.2 million in 2009 and $349.4 million in 2010. In the same three years Thailand imported $151.4 million, $202.8 million and $206.1 million, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Centre for International Trade Studies, University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, reported that Thailand had a $2.99 billion trade deficit with China in 2010.
Mr Nivej said the number of trucks coming through Chiang Khong had been higher since a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Thai and Chinese governments on the administration of quality supervision, inspection and quarantine (AQSIQ) went into effect on June 1.
However, several exporters and importers who asked not to be named said that the MoU does not benefit them. ‘‘It has increased our cost of exporting and importing four to five times ” said one Chinese merchant.
With the advent of free trade agreements the prices of imported foods have dropped dramatically, but their are many hidden costs in the long-distance transport of fresh produce. Aside from logistics, economic and social factors are also involved. The import of produce which has traditionally been supplied by Thai farmers leaves them feeling vulnerable and scrambling to adjust.
‘‘We have had to change from growing garlic, cabbages and tomatoes to new crops,” said Rangsan Biacheku from Romyen village in Chiang Rai province. Mr Rangsan said that last year his neighbours weren’t able to sell their tomato crops. The price fell below two baht a kilogramme, which didn’t justify the effort of harvesting them.
‘‘We had to leave them rotting in the fields,” he said. He used to grow cabbages on his land beside a cool mountain village, but no more. ‘‘The price is not attractive and the investment cost is very high,” he said, adding that he has now switched to growing coffee instead.
Pan Torsuay in Phukamyao district of Phayao province said that now the only garlic he grows is for his own family. ‘‘We used to grow garlic for additional income after harvesting rice but now it’s just not worth it,” said Mr Pan. Many of his neighbours have become hired labourers.
Transporting foods long distances also contributes to global warming because it uses much more fuel. Locals also use more fuel. ‘‘We used to buy garlic and other vegetables which are locally grown in Phayao, but now we have to buy Chinese imports from the market in Chiang Rai and bring them back 93km to Phayao,” said a wholesaler in Phayao.
Moreover, the long-distance transport also takes a toll on the highway system. The cost of transporting from mainland China to Bangkok is normally about 75,000 baht a shipment. This certainly prompted some shippers to use longer trailers which can carry more produce, but the heavier loads take a greater toll on highways and cause the need for more frequent repairs. A 12-13.7m trailer fully loaded with vegetables normally weighs about 11.3 tonnes, while a trailer-load of fruit is about 14.8 tonnes.
Onions can weigh up to 24 tonnes a load. The allowable weight for Thai highways is 21 tonnes.
According to the Department of Highways, from 2009 to the first six months of this year, the cost of maintaining and repairing highways 1, 31 and 32, which are used to transport goods from Chiang Saen and Chiang Kong ports to Bangkok, has risen drastically, from 491.5 million baht in 2009 to 846.7 million baht in 2010. In the first six months of this year the department had already spent about 987.4 million baht.
On the consumer side, there is increasing anxiety about the safety of Chinese imports. The FDA office in Chiang Saen says it has detected only trace amounts of chemicals in Chinese produce which are not beyond the acceptable level. However, vegetables and fruits that travel a long distance require the use of preservatives to keep them from spoiling, and there is also the possibility of contamination during the cultivating and harvesting processes.
Thai officials ensure Thai consumers that Chinese exporters have received phytosanitary certificates from the Chinese government, and the fact that there is only irregular testing by the FDA at the Chiang Khong station indicates that Thai officials are satisfied that there is no cause for concern. On the other hand, especially after news reports last week that the Chinese government had closed down nearly 5,000 food producers because of food safety concerns, it may be time for Thai consumers to reconsider the wisdom of putting high-mileage food on their tables.
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