For the Vietnamese, vegetables are an important part of their diet. Every meal is served with at least two or three kinds of vegetable. In 2002 alone, consumption of vegetables in Vietnam was 80 kg per capita. To meet this high demand, farmers use a wide range of techniques, like fertilizer and pesticide, to produce vegetables. On top of that, a large amount of vegetables is imported from China. That is why safe vegetables are still rare in Vietnam. Consumer awareness, however, is growing. Organic outlets are springing up everywhere as the new middle class chooses to live a healthy lifestyle.
The VECO Vietnam Program: numbers and facts
According to VECO Vietnam data, in 2009, only 4.8% of farmland was used to grow safe vegetables. Since 2008, farmers in Tan Duc have been part of that 4.8%. Together with local partners VECO Vietnam is training farmers in verifying safe vegetables, safe use of fertilizer and pesticide, composting, and certification of products that meet PGS standards. In Tan Duc the program started with just 43 households in one area. Currently, already 300 households are producing safe vegetables.
“Before, whenever we got pests, we just sprayed the crops. We had no idea how to apply them properly,” said Nguyen Yan Thanh, a local farmer. When Thanh became aware of the risks of excessive use of chemicals, he started using organic fertilizers, such as compost. His production system has also changed: by rotating crops he is able to grow more varieties of vegetables. The farmers in Tan Duc sell their vegetables in Viet Tri, a town about 10 km from their village. Le Thi Minh is one of the members of the Tan Duc Cooperative who sells vegetables at the town’s market. The market is packed with vegetable and fruit sellers every morning. Minh and his colleagues, however, are different from most of the vegetable sellers there. While other vegetable stalls offer their goods from plastic sheets spread on the floor, Minh and his friends sell theirs from a special stall. Above it people can read a banner which says “safe vegetables from Tan Duc”. “I think that it’s cleaner and nicer to buy from here,” said Le Thuy Hanh, a restaurant owner and customer at the kiosk. The fact that the prices are higher than elsewhere is not an issue. “Because I know where the money I spend is going to,” he said. Consumers can indeed see how the vegetables they buy and consume are produced thanks to the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). PGS restricts the use of chemical inputs and therefore is a guarantee for consumers that the vegetables from these farmers have been produced in a healthy way. Periodically, staff from the Department of Plant Protection tests products in the fields to check whether or not they meet the standards. “We want to build trust between the buyers and the farmers by conducting inspections,” said Nguyen Thi Nhe from the Phu Tho Province Department of Plant Protection. VECO Vietnam also has a safe vegetable development program in Lang Son province on the border with China.
Spread the word
Rather than importing vegetables from abroad, support from the government for healthy vegetable farming is necessary. The government can help small farmers to spread information to consumers about the importance of eating healthy food, for example. To this end, VECO Vietnam already supports national consumer organization VINASTAS. The key activities in their program include consumer surveys, consumer awareness campaigns, mapping safe vegetable outlets in Hanoi, and strengthening PGS as a guarantee for farmers and consumers. According to Nguyen Manh Hung, deputy chair of VINASTAS, it is difficult for consumers to get information about where they can buy safe vegetables. Thus, VINASTAS is working with the Centre of Agrarian Systems Research and Development (CASRAD) to provide maps of safe vegetable outlets in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Armed with this map, consumers can easily find out where healthy food outlets are located. Another important aspect in convincing consumers to eat healthy vegetables is facilitating them to trust vegetable producers in their own country, rather than thinking of locally grown vegetables as substandard. This will enable farmers to increase their production and sales, making sure consumers no longer have to rely on other countries that sell unhealthy vegetables.
[after an article by Anton Muhajir in Lontar magazine]