UBON RATCHATHANI, Thailand – Thailand is facing a problem of diabetes among children due to excessive consumption of sugar, according to medical professionals, while sugar cane burning chokes the country, which is the world’s second largest exporter of sugar.
“It is a usual practice. Burning of the cane facilitates the harvest and helps us save money,” Chalern, a farmer in the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, told EFE.
Although in the long run it is harmful for the soil, the practice of burning off the remains of crops in agriculture – widespread in the fertile lands of Thailand – also causes a sharp increase in air pollution during the dry season between December and February.
Sugar cane is burned twice: the first time to remove outer leaves and allow access for sugarcane cutters; the second to clean the fields of the remains after the harvest.
A study led by Thailand’s Kasetsart University and published around the end of 2014 said that this practice was prevalent in the rural regions in the central, north and northeastern parts of the country, where the pollution was a consequence of agriculture-related burning and dry climatic conditions.
In larger cities and industrial areas, other factors such as traffic congestion and construction activity are also major contributing factors.
Now, as Bangkok – plagued by heavy traffic and a large number of construction projects – enjoys relatively breathable air, the northern city of Chiang Mai or the northeastern city of Khon Kaen continue to suffer from unhealthy air quality, according to the Air Quality Index (AQI).
On Thursday, the air quality in Chiang Mai, the country’s second-largest city, was ranked third among the world’s cities with the worst air quality, only behind New Delhi (India) and Lahore (Pakistan), according to the AQI website.
Last year, Thailand exported 7.8 million metric tons of sugar, according to data from the Ministry of Industry, and for years has been the second largest exporter of the product in the world, after Brazil.
It is also the world’s fourth-largest producer of sugarcane, mainly used for the production of biofuels.
Such is the prominence of the sugar sector in the country that two of the top division’s soccer teams are owned by a couple of the largest sugar producing firms, and when they face each other it is known as the sugar derby.
Towards the end of 2017, the government approved a tax of up to 30 percent on sugary drinks, but a moratorium has prevented it from coming into effect until October this year.
“The cases of diabetes among children have increased in recent years, together with the increase in those affected by obesity,” Diabetes Association of Thailand President Dr. Wannee Nitiyanant told EFE.
According to her, the problem is widespread among minors and the elderly, affecting more than 4.8 million Thai people or nearly 7 percent of the country’s population.
“Each year we have 200,000 new cases of diabetes,” said the medical professional, describing sugar as “sweet poison.”
According to a 2015 study by the Health Ministry, a Thai person on an average consumed 26 tablespoons or 104 grams of sugar every day compared to a maximum of six tablespoons or 26 grams a day recommended by the World Health Organization.
Thai cooking normally requires utilizing refined sugar in most dishes, besides other sauces that also contain this additive. This, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle and a significant consumption of fast-food, has been largely responsible for worsening health among people in the country.
In addition, many schools have installed vending machines selling carbonated drinks and products low on nutrition, which have contributed to the risk of diabetes and other related ailments, according to the doctor.
“A few years ago we launched a strong campaign to combat sugar consumption in schools and promote a healthier lifestyle. It was a great success then, but over time we have observed that they have returned to bad habits,” Wannee said.
She expressed optimism about the tax on sugary drinks, but said that further measures were necessary to tackle the health problems that come as a result of excessive sugar consumption.