Virajit Lianchamroon, a plant pathologist, is working to develop commercial botanical pesticide and fertilizer products which can compete successfully with and provide alternatives to existing products. In the 30 years since the use of chemical agents became a widespread agricultural practice in Thailand, the country's environment and ecology have suffered devastating effects. In addition, many chemicals pose critical health hazards to farmers handling them, and harm to people consuming chemically-tainted food and water.
The New Idea
While Lianchamroon was working with the Appropriate Technology Association she conducted a surveying project called "Investigation for Chemical Replacement," part of which involved producing a manual detailing alternate pest control methods used in Thailand and other countries in the past and present. Striking her most was the fact that the basic knowledge already exists to control pests with natural substances, which, unlike chemical products, do not upset the ecology by indiscriminately killing beneficial insects and polluting soil and water.She organized several friends working in NGOs in agriculture and community development to establish Natural Plants Co., Ltd, a company dedicated to developing botanical alternatives to chemical agricultural products. As a company with the spirit of an NGO (most of the profits are reinvested back into product development and social programs), the goal of Natural Plants is to provide a business-like environment independent of outside funding, which should be self-sufficient within a few years.Working with a group of farmers using an extract of the neem leaf to control pests, Lianchamroon learned that an extract from the seed is more effective; she developed her first product, Neemix, based on a formula using neem and galanga rhizome in the form of powder. It has proven effective in small gardens, but is not concentrated enough to be practical for large-scale, intensive use. Natural Plants Co. is currently developing its next product, one suitable for use by farmers, pending the purchase and adaption of necessary production equipment made possible through a grant from a German Foundation. She has received special training at the Justus Liebig University in Germany in the Neem Project and will have cooperation in improving and expanding Natural Plant's line of neem products.
Currently, 70 percent of the Thai population engages in agriculture for its livelihood. Most of these are poor farmers and many suffer ill effects from the use of poisonous products, but feel they have no alternative but to continue their use in greater concentrations as the chemicals steadily become less effective against pests. All of these chemical agents are expensive and imported from first world countries, where many are considered so toxic that their sale is illegal. The third world has become a dumping ground for these products.
Thai public policy has promoted rapid development and big profits over considerations for health and the environment. Years of this mistaken approach have earned the country the reputation as a place where corrupt business practices abound. In this atmosphere a major obstacle to introducing safe agents will be the entrenched power's facile dismissal of such products as "a nice idea that will never work."
Producing alternative safe products that can compete with the chemical giants is a tall order for a small, under-capitalized company. Especially since Lianchamroon's goal is to accomplish this without importing a lot of expensive machinery from the first world but, on the contrary, to serve as a model of how a developing country can intelligently use the resources at hand to solve its problems. Additionally, low-cost, home-produced products will have to contend with the "big boys" marketing and sales juggernauts if they are to achieve widespread distribution. At present, Thai academic agricultural institutions still promote the "Green Revolution" approach, and indeed many are financially beholden to large chemical companies for support.
On the Board of Natural Plants Co. sit many influential members of the NGO movement in Thailand. Most are intimately involved in rural development work and have extensive contacts at the grassroots level. As soon as commercially viable, affordable products are under production by Natural Plants Co., many of these contacts will be encouraged to test them on a portion of their crops. On their own merits, Lianchamroon plans to market and network their products.
At present she will continue to work in the field and lab to develop her neem-based pest-control agent, and to design or adapt inexpensive technology for this purpose. She has received a grant that will support her in these efforts. Her plan for the future is to develop a line of botanical products that will show the third world that it is possible to develop safe agricultural agents independently from the first world, and to stimulate a demand, not just from a select group of educated people, but from all sectors of society, for farm products that are not harmful to human health or the environment.
Lianchamroon, 29, has always been interested in social problems. She was a leader at school and a member of student actions groups at Kasetsart University, where she earned her degree in plant pathology. While many of her friends joined government agencies, worked for established agriculture firms, or left Thailand to live and work abroad, she decided to stay and make her career in rural development. Her volunteer and NGO experiences influenced her to start the public-service company Natural Plants, of which she is the managing director. She enjoys the advantages of streamlined management and independence from outside funding.