Warm Heart Foundation’s simple solution

Businesses, activists, leaders and the concerned are coming together to find solutions to the pollution

By | Tue 2 Mar 2021

Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai generously hosted Warm Heart Foundation’s launch of the 2021 Stop the Smoke campaign last week during a discussion with Warm Heart Foundation’s director Dr. Michael Shafer and Pacific Basin Economic Council’s Director of Sustainability Jeff Tucker.

Attended by Vice Governor Rathapol Naradisorn, US Consul General Sean O’Neill, members of the Consular Corps, members of the Hotel Association, business leaders, activists, the media and interested parties, the event highlighted the dangers of the annual air pollution, and offered a pragmatic solution with hopes of widespread support.

“This is a global problem,” said Shafer, who went on to say that every city in the world which is surrounded by agriculture faces similar problems. He then said that while agricultural waste burning is only part of the problem, it is a very significant one, going on to say that the north of Thailand produces 10 million tonnes of corn waste each year.

“Thailand’s tallest building is the Mahanakorn Tower which weighs 360,000 tonnes. We produce an annual corn waste which is 36 times that weight! And then we burn 50% of it. These are the poorest people who can’t do anything else but burn. So what we do is we change people’s incentives. This is not rocket science. Pay farmers not to burn and we can do that by encouraging them to turn their waste into biochar which they can then sell for money. Biochar briquettes produces zero smoke or greenhouse gases and it also acts as excellent fertiliser, helping to regenerate soil, another big cost to farmers who have to buy more and more chemical fertilisers as their land degrades each year.”

This is where Stop the Smoke can contribute. It isn’t about stopping all of the smoke, but taking on the smoke from the crop waste.

“If only 10% of waste is turned into biochar then it is just like not smoking 357 billion cigarettes, or driving 5 billion kilometres, or not generating 5,000 tonnes of PM 2.5. It is like every person and child in northern Thailand not smoking 3.5 cigarettes per hour, 24 hours per day, every single day. It is significant.”

“There are also concerns that Chiang Mai may be left behind and suffer from lack of investments,” added Jeff Tucker who has been studying micro and macroeconomics perspectives of the fallout of the uncertainty caused by disruptions, especially the pandemic’s. “As the whole world comes out of Covid, investors are looking for reliability, consistency. What they are not looking for is problems. They are not looking for unscheduled disruption and there is a concern that Chiang Mai may be left behind and may suffer from lack of investments as the whole world comes out of Covid. So anything that we can do to reduce the amount of smoke is only a good thing. Large companies are looking for sustainability projects to invest in.” Tucker went on to say that Bangkok will be hosting next year’s APEC summit where world leaders and major investors will be open to hearing about showcase projects in Thailand.

“This could benefit us. There wasn’t an APEC last year because of Covid, the year before it didn’t happen in Santiago because of unrest, so this will be the first time in four years and a huge opportunity. It is [to be held in] November 2022, it is important that everyone wakes up and sees what the opportunity is and tries to do something about it.”

“There are solutions,” said Shafer, who went on to say that while pollution is caused by many factors, agriculture waste being only one part of the picture, this is the area he has been working on and which he has found a solution for. “But you need a supportive policy and infrastructure to support these solutions. I am very loath to step on Charon Pokphand’s (CP) toes. It is very common for people to point fingers at CP and the animal feed industry. I work very closely with small farmers who depend entirely on the sale of a single corn crop used for animal feed each year, with direct contracts to CP or Betagro’s brokers. Prices are set by big buyers in the market. But the fact of the matter is that millions of people in the Thai economy depend on the continued health of that industry…Thailand is a huge grower and exporter of chickens – pork, milk, ice-cream, all of which requires a huge amount of animal feed. What that means is that you have millions of very poor farmers who are being paid minimum amounts of money to use what is otherwise considered, by the market at least, to be worthless land. Hundreds of thousands of people who process that corn, grow the animals, breed them…there is a very long supply chain that runs from North Thailand to the port of Bangkok. If you tell CP to just leave, the problem is that they already own cornfields in Myanmar’s Shan State and with ASEAN trade rules, they have no impediments at all to popping across the border…and were they to do so millions of Thais would lose jobs and the consequences will be tremendous. If they move fields, then they may as well move the entire industry and whole supply chain over. I am very careful about saying, ‘Man, you guys are the problem’.”

Rather than attack CP, Shafer would rather work with them.

“What ought to happen, I think CP ought to be involved, as I think the government ought to be involved in managing this. The best way to approach it is to in some way engage CP actively in the effort to work with biochar.”

Shafer explained that biochar can be turned into animal feed additive, into manure-based organic fertiliser as well as being used to reduce smells from animals, saving money for CP who won’t have to purchase so much chemical fertilisers and can use their current infrastructure to purchase biochar briquettes from the same farmers it purchases its corn from. Then can then mix it with their feed and manure and send it back to the farmers to be used as fertiliser, helping farmers reduce money from buying synthetics, regenerating degrading soil and turning the entire chain into a circular economy.

“Why should they listen to me,” he shrugged, “but all things considered that would be a very useful and practical solution.”

Some of Chiang Mai’s leading hotels, such as Shangri-La Hotel, Four Seasons Resort and 137 Pillars House have already turned to biochar, using it for fuel as well as fertiliser. The restaurant association has also expressed interest in biochar. With 65% of cooking in northern Thailand using charcoal or wood, a switch to biochar will not only create a market for the farmers’ corn waste, but also greatly reduce the pollution in our region.

There are many fronts to this war, but it appears that this particular battle we are waging can be won.

Listen to the entire discussion here.