Safe and organic vegetables in Vietnam
Safe and organic vegetables in Vietnam
Food safety scandals are run-of-the-mill in Vietnam: not a week goes by without a new scandal being reported in the newspapers. The chronic overuse of dangerous and low quality pesticides poses a risk for farmers and consumers. The Vietnamese consumer is becoming more and more conscious of this danger, which manifests itself in the rapid increase of the demand for safe, organic vegetables that meet certain standards of safety and hygiene. This growing demand for organically and safely produced vegetables is a perfect opportunity for Vietnamese vegetable farmers. If they respond to this market demand, they are able to not only increase their income, but also to feed local communities in a safe, sustainable way.
Farmers that produce safe and organic vegetables can have their vegetables certified by an external party, but this process is often costly and very complex. This is not a viable route for smallholder farmers.
PGS, the Participatory Guarantee System, is the alternative: it is a quality assurance system that guarantees the quality of safe agricultural products and has the potential to regain consumer trust. PGS differs from third party certifications in a number of ways. First of all, in its cost: it is much less expensive. Secondly, in its complexity: it entails far less administrative burden. Both of these make it more in line with the reality of smallholder farmers. A third big difference is its approach. As the name suggests, direct participation of farmers and even consumers in the guarantee process is required. Principles and rules for safe or organic production are conceived and applied through contributions of all stakeholders: producers, government, private sector and consumers. They are adapted to fit the local context, taking into account individual communities, geographic area, cultural environment and markets. The credibility of production quality and safety is enhanced by the participation of different stakeholders at different stages.
Firm believer in the benefits of PGS, VECO is currently working with five farmer organisations in 3 provinces (Ha Nam, Phu Tho and Hoa Binh) in northern Vietnam to help build up the production and marketing skills of farmers. We use the outcomes of these projects to convince provincial and national governments of PGS’ potential as a certification system, in the hope that it will be officially recognized and endorsed.
One of these farmer organisations is the Trac Van Collaborative Group. In May 2013, twenty-one vegetable farmers from Trac Van decided to organise themselves into the Trac Van Organic Vegetable Collaborative Group: they grouped their small vegetable gardens together and established a one-hectare organic vegetable garden where they work together. They used to grow vegetables in their small back yards, mainly for personal use, and would only sell what remained. Thanks to grouping their efforts together, they succeed in selling much more vegetables and getting a better income. Besides growing vegetables, they also keep cattle, pigs and poultry. In order to feed these animals, they also started growing maize. In doing so, their income is diversified as well.
- Although motivated to organise themselves as a group and to cultivate safe or organic vegetables, the farmers lacked knowledge on how to apply appropriate farming practices. Agronomic support is needed in order for the groups to learn safe and organic production methods and get introduced to the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).
- Most of the groups we work with were only recently established so it is necessary to reinforce control, management, marketing and business capabilities to make the farmer groups and cooperatives function as real businesses.
- Farmers lack experience with post-harvest practices (sorting according to quality, washing and packing of vegetables) and infrastructure to bring the operation to a favourable conclusion.
- Farmers lack experience with the marketing of safe and organic vegetables.
- Entering into sustainable relations and contracts with companies is a challenging task, often because of a lack of commitment by the wholesale buyer and lack of marketing.
- In some places such as in Hoa Binh province, local stakeholders’ awareness on safe food & organic vegetable is low.
- The Vietnamese government is currently supporting VietGAP, a very expensive, labour-intensive and complicated method to guarantee food safety and quality at high certification costs, that is not accessible to small-scale farmers.
- Support with implementing safe and organic production methods and sustainably & efficiently applying the PGS system.
- Training and support as regards post-harvest practices, marketing, business capabilities, management of the farmer organisation.
- Informing Vietnamese consumers of the problems that the overuse of pesticides poses, thus improving their understanding of safe, organic vegetables and increasing the demand for such vegetables.
- Advising and guiding the farmer groups to enter into commercial relations with private actors, wholesalers and supermarkets, to achieve win-win trading relations.
- Documenting and using acquired lessons to influence the policy of district, provincial and national governments to present PGS as an affordable and complementary quality control system, to the advantage of small-scale farmers.
Video on PGS (Participatory Guarantee System)
QR-codes for traceability
Traceability and technology are not only for large-scale farms! Last week, organic vegetables farmers from Trac Van, Ha Nam province, learned how to use QR codes to ensure transparent information for consumers about the origin of their vegetables. By scanning the QR code on their phone, consumers have access to a wide range of information about the vegetables such as the expiry date, the name of the producer, the date of packaging, the type of certificate or quality assurance, and the farmer group's contact details.
Trac Van Collaborative Group, Ha Nam province: 26 vegetable farmers
Tan Lac Safe Vegetables Group, Hoa Binh province: 17 farmers
Tan Duc Safe Vegetables Cooperative, Phu Tho Province: 63 farmers
Tu Xa Safe Vegetables Cooperative, Phu Tho Province: 58 farmers, incl. 26 PGS farmers
Truong Thinh Safe Vegetables Group, Phu Tho Province: 19 members
Total: 183 farmers
Trac Van project, Ha Nam province: 11,390 €
Tan Lac project, Hoa Binh province: 11,000 € (March 2015 to June 2016)
Phu Tho province projects: 24,000 € (August 2015 to October 2016)
In June 2014 the Trac Van Collaborative Group obtained an organic certificate from the PGS Network Vietnam.
Since then contracts have been drawn up between the Trac Van Collaborative Group and a number of private actors, such as the supermarket chain Bac Tom in Hanoi.
A Participatory Guarantee System was successfully set up in Tan Lac district, Hoa Binh. Farmers are now able to produce organic vegetables according to PGS organic regulations.
New safe vegetable farmer groups were set up following the establishment of PGS in Tan Lac.
The Participatory Guarantee System in Tan Duc, Phu Tho, has been made more simple and effective to ensure a clear certification process and farmer involvement.
PGS has successfully been taken up and adopted by the Tu Xa cooperative and the Truong Thinh farmer group for both their production and sales. The management board of both organisations is taking an increasingly leading role in the running of PGS.
What do we expect to achieve by 2017?
Increase of the number of cultivated vegetable varieties and of the total volume of PGS-certified organic vegetables that are marketed (Trac Van).
Improvement of the post-harvest practices and the marketing of vegetables, so that vegetable farmers can better respond to market expectations.
Increase of the number of commercial relations with private actors that buy the vegetables, which are sealed in formal contracts.
Improved business and management capabilities of the farmer organisations, such as formulating and executing business plans.
Increase of vegetable farmers’ income, and an improved negotiation position in the chain.
Strengthening of existing Participatory Guarantee Systems to make them more effective and sustainable, to involve private actors, and to ensure a leading role by farmer organisations' management boards.
PGS is well documented to support communication and advocacy activities.
Increase of local stakeholders and consumers' awareness on the benefits of safe & organic vegetable production and consumption.
What do we expect in the long term?
We will use this case to influence private actors at a higher level to adjust their sourcing policies to the advantage of family farmers.
Influence policy of the local, provincial and national government, so that they will recognise and support PGS as a well-functioning quality control system, with important advantages for small-scale farmers and for the Vietnamese consumer.