By: ChooLeng Goh

As young girls, I believe we all once used to dream of living in a Disney princess’ fairy-tale-like life; living happily ever after with a prince charming in a castle, standing high on a mountain, with its grounds filled with blooming flowers. Now the dream becomes a reality. We are now living a different part of the tale – the part where we are given poisoned apples to eat, day after day, without realizing the consequences.                                                          

2013 was a milestone year for Athenee Hotel. After consistent and dedicated work, my property was recognized as first in the world to be awarded ISO 20121: Events Sustainability Management System. During the process, I came to wonder what else I might do to improve the way of life of people close to me. What about my own quality of life and the life of those beloved people around me?

Way too many people suffer from the big C and other diseases mainly caused by what we eat. I came to realize that chemical substances contaminate what we eat. Figuratively, much of what we consume is like Snow White’s apple – looking healthy and glossy on the outside, but full of deadly poisons on the inside.

Chemicals are widely used in all stages of every agricultural process, from the scientifically controlled quality of seeds or sprouts, the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, to harvesting and preserving. Waxing and coating of fruit make them look appealing and creates an erroneous perception of quality, one that is driven by the excessive demand of consumers who seek to have good looking, fresh produce in high volume and low price…out of seasonality!

Sampran Riverside in Nakornpatom province, located about 35 miles northwest of Bangkok, is one of the few organic agriculture facilities in Thailand. Visiting it provided me with a wider understanding of the country’s agricultural crisis.

Conventional farmers, 35% of Thailand’s population, are negatively affected by an unbalanced agronomy. The middlemen who dictate the price for their products, as well as the rising costs of agrochemicals, disadvantage them. They face serious debt problems while also fighting for their lives, as their health and living conditions worsen daily by the prolonged contact with those hazardous toxics.

Only a single digit of crops in Thailand is organic. With the collaboration and support of the Sampran Model, founded 6 years ago, organic agriculture in Thailand has become more sustainable and faces prospects of a brighter future. Groups of organic farmers are becoming self-reliant with better quality living conditions and are starting to share their knowledge in production planning, post-harvest activities, processing, logistics, marketing, and are providing aid to those who wish to convert but are uneasy.    

I started looking at rice, which Thai people consume every day. We have visited the rice fields in one of the Sampran Model’s affiliates and now purchase directly from at a fair price. The relationship has turned into a lifelong partnership. We have also raised funds for farmers to acquire a metal detector to use at the barn. Rice served in our hotel is now 100% organic, not only just for our customers but for our associates as well.

To pursue our vision of providing safe food for everyone, not just safe cooking methods as these are assured with the application of HACCP standards, we are now extending our study and efforts to procure organically grown fruits and vegetables, too.

As fruits and vegetables are normally consumed with no or little cooking process,  so sourcing organically grown produce is key. Apart from lowering intake of potentially harmful cadmium and pesticide residues, these organic fruits offer higher nutritional value and actually taste better. This year we have been successful in growing our organic ratio of produce from 2% to 10% – mainly guava, passion fruit, and bananas – all of which are used throughout our hotel. This is only challenged by the limited supply and quantity so we are seeking out additional farmer groups and cooperatives throughout the country that provide organic produce.          

I am confident that, in the near future, Athenee Hotel will be able to provide 100% organic foods to our guests and employees, even if the operational costs may be slightly higher. Running a business focused on environmental sustainability and care for stakeholder’s well-being is something we should never compromise or place a price tag on. Hopefully, someday our food-purchasing model will be adopted as a best practice by other hotels.

This is our moment to decide what kind of future we should build. Consumers play a pivotal role in raising the demand for safe and quality agricultural products while ensuring that no farmers enter into price traps and compete with no profit. As the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter, organic produce will be easily accessible and affordable by everyone. It is a matter of making a commitment, followed by persistence and a clear vision. While land is fertile and species are diverse, why would anyone still want to eat the poisoned apple?

About the Author:

ChooLeng Goh is General Manager for The Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. Under her management, the hotel became the first ISO 20121-accredited venue for sustainable events. ChooLeng studied tourism at the University of Hawaii and holds a degree in hotel management from l’Ecole des Roches in Switzerland. A mother of two, she speaks fluent Thai as well as three Chinese dialects.