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Organic Vietnam: A Step in the Right Direction

Organic produce has gained massive popularity in the West over the last few decades. Given the importance of agriculture in Vietnam – both from economic and health standpoints – there are those who are working to improve the country’s diet and overall health by focusing on cultivating organic fruits and vegetables.

Agriculture has been the backbone of the Vietnamese economy since the end of the American War (and was before, but data for that period is unavailable). Even though the importance of the agricultural sector has diminished the past few years due to increased economic diversity, as of 2005, 60% of the Vietnamese population still made their living from agriculture, forestry and fishing. Today, this trend continues as Vietnam reigns as a top exporter of cash crops such as rice, coffee, cotton, peanuts, rubber, sugarcane and tea. The monetary benefits of these crops are undeniable and are vital to Vietnam’s economic health. And, as it goes with most developing economies, economic health often overshadows that of the population.

Early Reforms

With the Doi Moi reforms of 1986, the government shifted its focus away from collectivization to a socialist-oriented market economy. Whereas farmers used to grow just enough for their community, they were now free to sell their produce on the global market (bling!). And what’s the best way to grow plants big and strong? Chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, of course!

To be fair, prior to the Doi Moi reforms, food security was a major issue in Vietnam. After the American War, the government pushed rigid collectivization which led to food shortages and decreased production. According to the Library of Congress’s Vietnam country profile, “One official Vietnamese source estimated in 1986 that farm families devoted up to 80 percent of their income to their own food needs.” Production-increasing chemicals and fertilizers were either unavailable or too expensive for the majority of Vietnamese farmers – even if they were, there would be no market for the excess produce.

The Market Opens

When these chemicals became readily available (and completely unregulated), crop yields increased and, in turn, so did profits. But this all came at a price – according to Future Challenges, by the mid 90s, Vietnam found itself in the midst of a health crisis:

Farmers suffered negative health effects due to their exposure to agro-chemicals and in the mid-1990s, a series of food scares resulted from excessive levels of residual chemicals detected in a range of produce.

To address these problems, the government issued regulations for safe vegetable production in 1998. The initiative included courses in integrated pest management (IPM) and safe vegetable growing practices. While farmers were receptive, there were are numerous factors that have impeded the growth of organic production. To grow organic crops, land must be cleared of chemical residue, a process that can take up to 7 years. Even if a farmer is game to grow organically, their modest income makes it impossible to wait out the chemicals.

Downer, right? Well, there may be light at the end of the green tunnel.

A Step in the Green Direction

It may have taken a while, but organic produce is on the rise in Vietnam. According to Business Times, from 2006-2011, organic agriculture grew 20% annually. In 2011, the government announced the Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices (VietGap) organic certification pilot program which checks for 20 different factors, including climate, terrain, water resources, seeds and pesticides. Additionally, food safety is now under the complete auspices of the Department of Health’s Food Hygiene and Safety Division whereas standards were previously dictated and enforced by numerous agencies. If successful, the program will be implemented nation-wide. Vietnam Bridge ran a piece earlier this year which focused on the growing popularity of organic produce in Hanoi and stated (albeit with no evidence) that:

Eating organic vegetables has become the choice of Hanoians. Many people buy in large quantities for the whole family’s use. Meanwhile, others, who want to save money, reserve organic vegetables for old members in the families and children.

What’s clear is that Hanoi seems to be ahead of the organic curve with projects such as Action for the City, a CSA-style non-profit which services more than 300 regular customers and distributes over 1,000 kilograms of produce every week in downtown Hanoi. According to Dang Huong Giang, an Action for the City customer, it’s about getting back to her roots:

"For society at this point, there's a thirst for modernity and clean supermarkets with everything in plastic bags,” she says. “But we are doing something that's always been tradition — people are getting to know who produces their food.”

The trend is even catching up with cash crops – earlier this year, a rice producer was the first in the country to be certified organic under the U.S. Organic Food Production Act. Even though the rice will be slightly more expensive, it will be more attractive to US and EU buyers who often prefer organic goods and are willing to pay a higher price.

All in all, things are looking up for organic agriculture in Vietnam. But to make real strides, there must be a paradigm shift in the population views organic produce. We’ll take a look at this in a future article.

Do you buy organic produce? Do you know a good place to buy it in Saigon? Leave it in the comments section below!

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