Methyl bromide, formalin, growth hormones, preservatives, insecticides, ammonia, or pink slime. What else is included but unidentified in our meals?
Few know the reason why pork or steak sitting on a supermarket shelf has an appetising pinkish hue, or how seafood can look so fresh even though the nearest sea is hundreds of kilometres away. But thanks to recent media coverage, many more of us know why the rice we buy in large plastic bags from the hypermarket is never infested with weevils.
"We've had enough bad news [about questionable food-production techniques]. People can't put up with it any more." This spirited call-to-arms came from Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayutdhaya, assistant director of the BioThai Foundation which campaigns for chemical-free agriculture.
All the negative headlines about tainted food has had at least one positive effect: the recent growth of so-called "farmers' markets" in Bangkok and other urban areas.
In March, the Bangkok Farmers' Market was launched at Four Points by Sheraton on Sukhumvit Soi 15, before moving to its current location, K Village on Soi 26. There is also a regular farmers' market at Riva Surya Hotel in Bang Lamphu and another that calls itself the Spring Epicurean Market hosted by Spring/Summer restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 39. A few more are held occasionally at various hotels around town as a marketing gimmick to draw the crowds.
While it's definitely become a lot more trendy of late, the idea of seeking out chemical-free food is certainly not new to Thailand. Suan Ngern Meema held its sixth Green Fair in May this year. BioThai held its second Kin Plian Lok (Food for Change) event last month. Consumers who prefer organic food for health reasons have long been a niche market here, but the launch of Bangkok Farmers' Market has made this demographic a lot more visible and served to attract an increasing number of well-heeled city dwellers.
"Organic food is the solution," said Kingkorn, who's been watching this trend grow over the past few years.
But what has caused this mushrooming of farmers' markets? Surprisingly, it isn't just the products themselves _ organic vegetables and formalin-free fish have been available in Bangkok for years _ it is something that could never happen in a supermarket: the special relationships that develop between consumers and vendors who, in many cases, are the people who actually grow the food.
"This is not a market, but a community. Because we don't [just] sell stuff," said a co-organiser of the popular Bangkok Farmers' Market who asked to be identified only as Ryo. His concept was to create a space where people with different perspectives on food could meet.
Before being allowed to set up a stall at the Bangkok Farmers' Market, each applicant is informed that this is not a profit-driven venture and is asked to discuss his/her views on food production with the organisers. The latter provide a platform for the sale of chemical-free products and, in return, receive small donations from the vendors, some of whom also help out by giving free classes on subjects including meditation and cooking.
In terms of the interaction that occurs between vendor and customer, an urban farmers' market isn't all that different from the chit-chat that goes on at fresh-produce markets in rural areas. But for many Bangkokians nowadays that interaction has been reduced to a supermarket cashier asking if the shopper has a membership/loyalty card.
"Getting to know your food producers or growers is a way of getting to know your food," reasoned Supaporn Anuchiracheeva from Earth Net. Farmers' markets allow consumers easier and faster access to organic products, as well as to the people who grow or catch the food for them, she said.
Much of Supaporn's energy currently goes into supervising a project whereby fresh, formalin-free seafood is bought directly from fisherfolk in the South and hurried to Bangkok for sale; no middlemen are involved. Most seafood sold in Bangkok is contaminated with formalin, a preservative which is either introduced by middlemen during the packaging process or was added earlier to the ice used to refrigerate the catch during fishing trips that can often last for several days. Formalin is what makes squid, fish and prawn look so fresh even though they have been sitting in melting ice for hours in the heat of an open-air market. Supaporn avoids delays and the need for preservatives by only buying from small-scale fishermen who return to port daily and then expediting the catch to the end-user.
City people are so focused on making money and seeking shortcuts to ''success'', Ryo said, that ''mass production is the only answer for them''.
But mass production cuts the connection between people and what they eat and the individuals who process that food for them.
Having been brought up to wait for something until the time is right, Ryo thinks that modern urbanites have it much too easy.
''Now. Now. Now. I can go to Villa Market,'' he said, referring to the fact that every conceivable kind of food is now available year round and at any hour of the day. Children are no longer taught to wait for the right moment, he added. ''If they want a newly released film, they simply download it from the internet.''
Chemical-free produce is currently enjoyed by well-off city residents and those with the space to grow their own, mostly villagers in the provinces plus the few urbanites who have vegetable plots. But the higher price of organic food puts it out of the reach of many middle-class families and poorly paid manual workers in the city.
Ryo has been seeking solutions that would give lower-income groups access to chemical-free fare. One idea he is considering at the moment is the issuing of food stamps for use at Bangkok Farmers' Market. But what still needs to be worked out is a system for classifying which people are in most need of subsidised organic food.
Kingkorn suggests that a government agency like the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration should step in. If an effective ''one district, one farmers' market'' programme could be launched, she said, chemical-free products could be accessible for everyone in this big city of ours.
But Kingkorn warns consumers to proceed cautiously _ just because a vendor claims that a certain food is organic, she said, doesn't mean that it actually is free of chemical additives. Ryo can't guarantee that every single item sold at the Bangkok Farmers' Market is organic or chemical-free. ''Don't ask me,'' he said. ''Ask your vendors.''
To find out if a product really is chemical-free, Kingkorn suggests that customers look deep into the eyes of vendors while asking searching questions that dig into the details of a growing or production process. ''The vendors will be trapped if they didn't do it an organic or a chemical-free way.''
But once you get to know a particular vendor, Kingkorn continued, you can be more confident of the quality of whatever you purchase from them.
''You don't want to sell bad stuff to your friends.''
WHERE TO BUY CHEMICAL-FREE PRODUCTS
Bangkok Farmers' Market: held at K Village, Sukhumvit Soi 26 (behind Big C Rama IV) on the last weekend of every month and at other community malls on a regular basis. To keep updated on events, visit www.facebook.com/bkkfm
Spring Epicurean Market: held at Spring/Summer restaurant, 199 Sukhumvit Soi 39 on the morning of the last Saturday of every month. For updates, visit Spring Epicurean Market on Facebook.
Riva Surya Farmers' Market: held at Riva Surya, 23 Phra Athit Road on a regular basis. The next one is tomorrow. For updates on future markets, visit Riva Surya Farmers' Market on Facebook.
Green Fair Market: organised once a year by the Thai Green Market network in conjunction with a seminar on chemical-free food. For updates, visit www.thaigreenmarket.com. The website also features a list of "green" markets held weekly in the Bangkok area.
Green Market: hosted every Thursday by Regent House, 183 Ratchadamri Road.
Kin Plian Lok (Food for Change): held once a year. There are plans under way to expand it to twice a year, starting in 2014. For updates, visit www.facebook.com/food4change
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai