Every day, Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Nhị goes to her field in Dang Xa to take care of her vegetables. Her family owns a 1,000m2 piece of land which they cultivate attentively following Good Agricultural Practices.
“Dang Xa is a traditional vegetable cultivation area long established in the capital. It is certified as a qualified area for safe vegetable production in Hanoi” tells Mr. Nguyen Tuan Khanh, Director of Dang Xa Agricultural Service Cooperative.
To certify that Mrs. Nhi and other members of the cooperative do indeed follow Good Agricultural Practices, Dang Xa cooperative recently introduced PGS with the support of Hanoi’s Department of Plant Protection and Rikolto. Three groups were initially set up, involving fifty farmers. Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), is a low-cost participatory quality assurance mechanism that guarantees the quality of agricultural products and has the potential to regain consumers’ trust. It has been implemented in Vietnam for over 10 years with results in the fields of improved food safety, environmental sustainability, community building and income for farmers.
"Our daily activities are recorded in a logbook, from planting the seeds to the application of pesticides and fertilizers. Every two weeks, all the PGS group members meet to discuss the production plan and how farming households divide production. Our main client is An Sinh high-tech company. We supply the company with safe vegetables under a one-year contract. Thanks to PGS, our products comply with their quality standards" Mrs. Nhi says.
Mr. Nguyen Tuan Khanh is enthusiastic about PGS: “for the first time, farmers can rely on specific guidelines for every stage of the production, monitoring and internal inspection processes” he says. Based on general PGS principles, these guidelines have been co-designed with farmers and other stakeholders in order to adapt them to the local context, considering their specific needs and characteristics.
PGS is an affordable alternative to traditional third-party certifications for safe vegetables that prove to be expensive, paperwork-intensive, and complex for smallholder farmers.
"All the farmers are equally accountable for the results of their PGS group. The PGS is based on mutual trust: if only one member breaks the rules, the consequences affect the entire group."
Vegetables from Dang Xa have a good reputation on markets: “Thanks to their guaranteed quality, Dang Xa vegetables are always sold at higher prices compared to similar products on the market” says Nguyen Tuan Khanh. The average revenue per hectare revolves around 450-500 million VND / ha / year (17,000-19,000 EUR).
The system goes beyond mere certification, it also supports PGS groups to better plan their production and to meet buyers’ requirements in terms of volume and varieties of vegetables. Mrs. Chung Nguyen, a member of one of Dang Xa’s PGS groups confirms: “The biggest benefit of PGS is that we don’t have to worry about marketing. Thanks to the cooperative’s sales network and centralised production planning, we avoid producing too many vegetables that will not be sold.”
Each PGS production group makes a detailed production plan, based on the market demand, the season and the crop cycle of each variety. This avoids an oversupply of the same vegetable varieties on the market, keeping the business profitable. Integrating production planning and management into the PGS process leads to better marketing conditions and prices for farmers.
The adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) by farmers also contributes to protecting the local ecosystem and providing healthier, safer food for consumers.
As part of the BasicGAP standard, famers are required to follow specific procedures such as avoiding the use of sewage water to irrigate the fields or the use of pesticides that are not approved by the cooperative. According to Mr. Nguyen Tuan Khanh, most pesticides used in Dang Xa are of low toxic and farmers respect an interval period between spraying and harvesting. Furthermore, soil and water test results show that there are not pesticide residues.
In the past, farmers used to apply large quantities of agrochemicals, especially fertilizers and pesticides. At the first sign of plant diseases, pesticides were applied even when unnecessary. The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) classes delivered by authorities and international partners have illustrated the importance of reducing pesticides use to prevent soil deterioration and avoid health risks. As a consequence, farmers are increasingly aware of the consequences of dangerous pesticide abuse.
“Traditionally, we used to spray pesticides whenever we saw caterpillars. We even used to spray periodically without seeing any pest. Now, when I find worms, I catch them by hand and if I must use pesticides, then I use the biological ones”. Mrs. Nhi says.
Supplying a stable amount of fresh and reliable safe vegetables to the capital is far from straightforward. Ms. Le Thi Kim Oanh - Deputy Head of General Administration at the Department of Crop Production and Plant Protection of Hanoi City – reports that vegetable production in Hanoi relies on a large number of smallholder farmers. “Ensuring a safe and secure food supply is not an easy task”, she says.
"The biggest advantage of PGS is that it is built on a very specific and easy-to-apply document system that is understandable for most farmers. The implementation is quite simple: small households establish their own groups and coordinate to monitor each other’s production and support each other in marketing."
Since the introduction of PGS in Hanoi, significant results have been achieved:
In the future, Ms. Oanh and Hanoi’s Plant Protection Department plan to expand PGS models and to develop partnerships with companies that can be leaders in safe agricultural value chains. In 2019, they will report to Hanoi’s People’s Committee on the benefits of PGS and propose pathways to further expand the model.
Despite steps in the right direction, stronger linkages are needed among value chain actors to bring safe vegetables to markets and to maintain incentives for farmers to produce them. In Dang Xa, only 10 - 15% of vegetables are sold to companies or collective kitchens; the rest is either directly consumed by famers or sold to wholesale markets. Long-terms contracts with companies and institutional kitchens could reduce production costs and help stabilize prices. This is why the facilitation of inclusive business models where producers and buyers are directly connected, offering all actors fair trading conditions, is a critical part of Rikolto’s PGS programme.
In the next 3 years, Rikolto will work together with local stakeholder to multiply the number of PGS pilots, to strengthen their connections to markets, and to advocate for the official recognition of PGS at provincial and national level. Because we believe that feeding safe and sustainable food to Hanoi is only possible if smallholder farmers are part of the equation.
Acknowledgments: Rikolto’s PGS project in Hanoi is kindly supported by the Conservation, Food and Health Foundation and the Belgian Development Cooperation.