Vietnam suffers organic failure

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Vietnamese authorities ignoring health benefits and huge market potential for naturally produced food

Shoppers look at the vegetable corner of the Big C supermarket in Hanoi. Experts say Vietnam needs to increase supply of good healthy organic food for its consumers. Photo: Reuters

An obsession with industrialization has prevented Vietnam from reaping the wholesome benefits of organic farming, experts say.

While it has emerged as a viable alternative in many developed countries with supermarkets devoting considerable space to organic farming products including poultry and meat, the Vietnamese government has failed to promote it effectively.

The obvious benefits of organic agriculture are that food is produced naturally and the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and genetically modified organisms to influence the growth of crops is avoided.

Furthermore, instead of contaminating and polluting the soil and water resources as industrialized agriculture does, organic farming is environmentally friendly, protects a nation's natural resources, and provides healthy food for the population. While industrial agriculture robs the soil of its fertility, organic agriculture increases it.

Nguyen Tri Ngoc, head of the Cultivation Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: "Organic farming development is an indispensable step for stable agriculture that can produce clean food for consumers. However, organic agriculture in Vietnam has not received due attention, and has grown in an unplanned manner."

Vietnam now has some 21,000 hectares of land dedicated to organic farming, which is about only 0.2 percent of the total arable land in the country, according to the Vietnam Farmers Union.

"The area for organic agriculture of Vietnam is too small compared to that of other countries, even Cambodia and Thailand," said Nguyen Phuc Mich, vice chairman of the union.

Organic farming is now practiced in 160 countries, with farmland totaling 37 million hectares, representing approximately 0.9 percent of total world farmland.

The market for organic products has grown from nothing, reaching US$55 billion now, according to Organic Monitor, a specialist research, consulting and training company that focuses on the global organic and related product industries. This demand has driven a similar increase in organically managed farmland, which has grown over the past decade at a compounding rate of 8.9 percent per annum.

Many organic farming projects in Vietnam are implemented on a trial basis, while others supply small quantities to local markets, or produce small orders for foreign buyers, said Mich.

An organic farming project in Luong Son District of the northern province of Hoa Binh supported by the Agriculture Development Denmark Asia and the Vietnam Farmers Union has been implemented on nine hectares since 2008. But, its products are sold in small volumes in some small local markets only.

Meanwhile, a project producing organic tea in Thai Nguyen, which was started in 2005, has been narrowed, as it has only a few customers due to high production costs.

"The production method requires a careful selection of high-standard land, water sources and saplings, making its production cost higher," Mich said. "To ensure profits for farmers, selling prices of the products must be at least 1.2-1.5 times higher than normal ones."

However, experts do not think the reason is low market demand, but thin supply.

Nguyen Khanh Vinh, manager of supermarket Le's Mart, said consumers are interested in the products, but his supermarket cannot meet the demand. "One year ago, there was a firm offering us the products. However, they asked us to wait, because they need to complete related documents to sell the products. To date, they have not done it. "

Cory W. Whitney, an expert in sustainable international agriculture, said: "I hesitate to accept the claim that there is no market demand. Consumers here in Hanoi cannot find enough organic produce, and I know of a few shops here who cannot keep enough organic products on the shelves."

No government support

Mich said awareness of the benefits and viability of organic agriculture is limited in Vietnam and the legal framework for it is not yet developed.

"The agriculture ministry has coordinated with the Vietnam Farmers Union to implement some organic agricultural projects over the past few years, and the government has issued some policies to develop organic farming. However, this falls far short of the legal basis needed for the sector to develop."

He said products of organic farmers cannot be certified, so consumers find it hard to access the clean food. There is also no system in place to monitor production and punish violations in organic farming.

"In other countries, independent quality control agencies conduct close management and surveillance over the production, and they certify the products, making consumers feel secure in using them. This has not yet been implemented in Vietnam," he said.

Whitney said that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, in 2006, drafted the National Basic Standards for Organic Products in Vietnam but they seem to have done little to move ahead with it since then. It has not issued regulations, specific policies or programs to further develop the organic farming sector, he said.

"In other countries with more developed organic sectors we have seen that incentives and aid from the government do help quite a lot," he said. "These can come in the form of economic incentives or in the form of government extension, i.e. helping cover training and making organic experts available in the field."

Many European governments help farmers recoup costs that are lost in the conversion period and create organic offices within the agriculture department to aid organic farmers. Also any extra costs that the organic farmer might have can be covered through payments for the multiple benefits of a healthy and diverse production system.

Marketing and awareness-raising could also use a big push. In countries with developed organic sectors consumers are happy to bear the extra cost for organic products because they know that these reflect the real costs of production, Whitney said.

Pham Tien Dung, an expert from the Hanoi Agriculture University, said: "Organic production in Vietnam faces many difficulties, especially in pestilent insect prevention."

After many years of using pesticides, the insect ecosystem has become imbalanced, so insects from common fields may overflow to organic ones, he said.

Huge potential

Mich of the Vietnam Farmers Union said Vietnam, with a population of nearly 90 million, is a market with big potential for organic products. "It would be very good if just one-third of our population buys organic products."

He said the world trend is to use organic food, so Vietnam could also develop the products for export.

"My impression is that the Vietnamese market for organic products has huge potential," Whitney said. "The people I talk to on the street here in Hanoi tell me that they would love to find more organic products on the shelves and in the markets but they cannot."

Market surveys show that the average Vietnamese shopper does not completely understand what organic means, but they are aware of the dangers of industrial food production and they do want safe and healthy food, he said.

He said Vietnam already does have some exporters of organic products and these seem to be going well, but the domestic market will do a better job in making good healthy organic food more profitable for farmers and available for Vietnamese people.

"It may make sense to approach export markets for some Vietnamese specialties like very high-end tea, but I think for the most part Vietnam should focus on becoming organic before seeking outside markets," he said.

To have organic farming develop widely in a stable manner, Vietnam should increase training for farmers and promote marketing of the products, he said.

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