Farmers dump GAP standards as export glitter wears off
A vendor sells produce at a market in Hanoi. Many Vietnamese farmers are quitting standards for Good Agricultural Practices, stating their large investments have not paid off, a report says.
After all the hype and hoopla, Mekong Delta farmers have delivered their verdict on adopting GlobalGAP standards - not worth it.
The standards, with GAP standing for good agricultural practices, were introduced with great fanfare, promising international recognition for their fruits and export bonanzas.
But the honeymoon has been very short-lived, and farmers are quitting the standards in large numbers, ruing the investments made in time, effort and money, a recent Tuoi Tre report said.
The farmers said they had to put in a lot of work to meet the standards, but only a part of their GlobalGAP fruits are bought for export and the rest have to be sold at local markets, which means they suffer a cost disadvantage compared to fruits grown with normal methods.
It also costs more than they can afford to update the certificate every year, the farmers added.
GlobalGAP or EurepGAP certificates are given to eco-friendly agricultural products that will be accepted by choosy European and other markets. The local equivalence is VietGAP. These certificates guarantee the products' quality, safety and clarify their origins.
Gone with the wind
All the pride and joy that farmers felt when the famous star apple brand Lo Ren Vinh Kim in Tien Giang Province became the first agricultural product in the delta to meet global standards in 2008 have since evaporated.
The Tuoi Tre report described most of the farmers as being disappointed with how little they have benefited from the coveted recognition.
Vo Tan Hung, a local farmer who owns 4,000 square meters of star apple trees, said exporters only took around 30 percent of his fruits, choosing the best ones from his harvest. The rest he had to take to local markets.
Nguyen Ngoc Dieu, Hung's neighbor, also quit GlobalGAP farming a year after becoming the first to adopt it.
"I heard the GAP thing will help export our products easily at high prices, so I registered immediately even though I knew it would not be an easy task.
"But many GlobalGAP star apples had to be sold at local markets at the same price as others," Dieu said.
WHAT ARE GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES?
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) are "practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products."
These four "pillars" of GAP are included in most private and public sector standards, but the scope which they actually cover varies widely.
Source: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
He said he had to follow "hundreds of strict requirements" when taking care of 3,000 square meters of star apple trees.
When he saw that local dealers were paying him the same prices they did for normally grown fruit, he quit applying GAP and has not regretted that decision.
"For the past three years, I have not had to worry so much and work as I hard as I had to with GlobalGAP," Dieu said.
He said with normal cultivation, he can leave the whole orchards for dealers to pick at harvest time, use fertilizers and spray pesticides.
"When I was with GlobalGAP, I had to do everything and carefully keep a diary of it. It was miserable."
Farmers have to spend one year following around 70 requirements for VietGAP and 234 for GlobalGAP to get the respective labels.
Going back to the "simple old days" was also the choice of 23 farmers of the Nam Roi pomelo in Vinh Long Province, after 26 of them in My Hoa Cooperative celebrated their first GlobalGAP certification in 2009.
The amount of pomelos exported has since dropped remarkably, the farmers said.
Nearly 600 tons of Nam Roi pomelo were exported to the US and several European countries right after the farmers received the certification.
That number dipped in 2010, was just 36 tons last year and only 15 tons so far this year, which were to Holland.
The farmers said although they fulfilled GlobalGAP requirements, the exporters only took the biggest and prettiest fruits, being only between 20-30 percent of the output.
And all that hard work for small rewards was not the only problem for those wanting to continue applying GAP standards.
For several years now, the farmers have not gone "global" anymore as they cannot afford the annual certification updates.
Nguyen Van Ngan, chairman of the Lo Ren Vinh Kim Star Apple Cooperative that works between the farmers and the exporters, said the cooperative received GlobalGAP certification just once in 2008.
The cooperative is still following the method but can only sell at local markets as the fruits do not have the global label, Ngan said.
Nguyen Van Nghia, chairman of My Hoa Pomelo Cooperative, said it costs around US$7,000 to get a new GlobalGAP certificate for more than 23 hectares of local Nam Roi pomelo.
Nghia said he expects some budgetary assistance from the provincial administration to renew it. The old certificate expired in September 2010.
More help needed
At least six units are authorized to provide the GlobalGAP certificates in Vietnam, including the Germany-based TUV SUD PSB Vietnam and the Swiss organization IMO.
The price ranges between $3,100-3,200 for around 20 hectares of orchards, and around VND40 million ($1,900) for the VietGAP certificate, said Nguyen Hong Thuy, a biotech expert at the Tien Giang Department of Science and Technology.
GlobalGAP orchards in the Mekong Delta at present include 300 hectares in Tien Giang and 150 hectares in Ben Tre.
Thuy said most of the farms obtained their first certificates with financial support from businesses or local governments.
"Many farmers did not have money for later certificates, which cost the same as the first one. So they gave up," he said.
Dr Vo Mai, vice chairwoman of Vietnam Gardening Association, told Tuoi Tre the government has to exert better control on the exorbitant prices charged by GlobalGAP certificate providers.
"For example, they charge VND70 million ($3,360) just for inspecting, once or twice, five hectares of pomelos for a VietGAP certificate. That is too expensive for farmers," Mai said.
She said the transformation from traditional to modern farming is necessary, but some state budget assistance will be necessary to encourage the farmers.
Dr Nguyen Van Hoa, deputy head of Vietnam Southern Fruit Research Institute, also suggested more intervention from the central government.
"A successful GAP model needs the production process to be reorganized. The government not only has to give money but has to provide staff enthusiastic about the program," Hoa said.
Nguyen Xuan Huy, director of Long Giang Agriculture Product Processing Company in Tien Giang, paid $23,000 in 2007 to get the GlobalGAP certificate for 50 hectares of his longan orchard.
But that was the only time.
"No farmer can single-handedly manage to achieve certification and find markets on their own. The government has to help with money, branding and expanding the plantation area.
"Doing small scale farming like now will not let foreign buyers know about us and we won't be able to ask for high prices."
Nguyen Thi Hong Thu, director of a fruit export company in Ben Tre, said she has not dared sign a contract with any GlobalGAP farmer as their supplies are mostly small and not diversified.
Thu said the GlobalGAP model needs expanding so that farmers can win long-term contracts from foreign markets.
"The government needs to take care of the planning and investment. It cannot let the farmers do it on their own," she said.
Pham Van Du, deputy head of the Plantation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the government has already set policies to support farmers with money and technology to promote the GAP model and will carry out the plan soon.
Whether it will succeed is a question.
Doan Van My, former vice chairman of the Tien Giang star apple cooperative, said, "Without a reorganization, more members of the cooperative will drop out.