Healthy or unhealthy, that’s the question in Vietnam

Healthy or unhealthy, that’s the question in Vietnam


I am strolling through an Intimex supermarket in Hanoi, Vietnam. If I don’t take a quick glance on the bill boards screaming out promotions in Vietnamese language, I could have imagined myself strolling to a Belgian supermarket. As the racks with fruits, vegetables, meat, cookies, soft drinks, diapers, etc. are looking very familiar. The same well known A-brands on the shelves as in my weekly visited supermarket in Belgium. The same green shining apples wrapped per four with plastic in a little isomo scale. Only the dragon fruits in the fruit department are new to me, and the racks with rice and noodles are a bit longer here than I am used to.

Supermarkets become more and more popular in Vietnam and other Asian countries. Depending to the source you consult, 20 to 40 à 50% of today’s Vietnamese food distribution is going through supermarkets. In Belgium, circa 75% of the food we consume is bought in a supermarket. So the power concentration of supermarkets in the food chain is not yet as big in Asia as in Europe, but more and more chain stores are popping up, especially in and around the fast growing cities.

Nevertheless, the informal market is still very strong in Vietnam. Small shops or sellers in the streets with fruits and vegetables, or meat or milk or candy, are always close by in Hanoi. Close by and moreover, always fresh. Next to the smell of the Vietnamese crazy traffic, you can always joy the smell of fresh foods. Fresh and good looking, but also healthy? Healthy or not healthy, that’s the question in Vietnam. Because a lot of farmers are seduced to use cheap, Chinese, but especially unhealthy, pesticides to increase their yield and profits. However, a bunch of studies demonstrated already the negative health effects from a range of these pesticides. But as you don’t see on a tomato or lettuce which pesticide is used, you don’t really know if it’s healthy or not what you eat. You just hope that it is ‘healthy’ and ‘safe’.

So ‘safe vegetables’ are really an issue now in Vietnam. VietGAP certification is developed to certify ‘safe’ vegetables, but a lot of smallholder farmers don’t have the capacity to fulfill all VietGAP criteria and to pay the certification costs. So VietGAP is not very common yet in shops, even not in supermarkets. As an answer on the difficulties to obtain VietGAP certification, a parallel PGS system (Participatory Garantuee System) was developed, which is a more ‘doable’ system for smallholder farmers, with less forms to fill in, and with only 30 instead of 60 standards to comply with. VECO is supporting fruit and vegetable farmer groups in different Vietnamese provinces producing safe vegetables under the PGS system, and VECO helps them to find markets and fair prices. Some local shops in the provinces and in Hanoi are selling and promoting already the PGS certified safe fruits and vegetables from VECO partners.

Are also the supermarkets in Hanoi possible buyers of these fair and healthy fruits and vegetables? We spoke with procurement managers from FIVIMart and Hapro, two of the largest supermarket chains in Vietnam. It was remarkable that their answers on these questions were not different from the answers we got of Belgian supermarkets when we asked them this questions. (cfr. Interviews with Belgian supermarkets for the publication #SavetheFoodture, (

Of course they do care about safe and healthy vegetables, so they require VietGAP certification, quality processing, good transport and legal recognition of the farmer groups. But the problem of smallholders is exactly that they have difficulties to get the VietGAP certificate, to deliver high volumes, to guarantee good transport, and often they also lack a legal status. So supermarkets prefer to buy from large distributors, ‘because good relationships with farmers are challenging’, they said.

Yes, it is true, relationships between smallholder farmers and large supermarket chains are today more challenging than ever before. But let’s create win-wins. If we want to feed the 9 billion people on this planet in 2050, who will live mainly in fast-growing cities like Hanoi, we need the professionalism of companies like supermarkets, but also the potential of smallholders to grow high volumes of healthy and quality food products. Let’s create new business models together where supply and demand of safe vegetables are better united, a win for the farmer a win for the supermarket, and also a win for the consumer, so even a triple win. Vietnam can be the ideal laboratory for this.

Saartje Boutsen