Thai durian farmers feel threatened as Vietnam makes China debut

By Dat Nguyen   November 22, 2022 | 11:10 pm PT
Thai durian farmers feel threatened as Vietnam makes China debut
Durians are sold at a market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chau
Thai farmers who’ve enjoyed a virtual monopoly in exporting fresh durian to China are worried about Vietnam entering the fray because the latter’s proximity to the importer generates several advantages.

When Vietnam’s first batch of fresh durian was exported to China under official quota in September, Thai farmer Busaba Nakpipat said she was concerned about heightened competition in a market that Thailand has dominated for decades.

"Thailand used to be the only country allowed to export fresh durians to China, while Vietnam used to export processed durian," she told the South China Morning Post. "But now Vietnam is our competitor and it worries me."

During a trip to Vietnam in September, Busaba saw an increasing number of durian orchards and found there was large potential in the country to further expand cultivation of the special fruit.

Vietnam has been exporting processed durian to China for years, but now that the export of fresh durian to the world’s largest consumer market has been approved, local farmers see a great opportunity to make bigger profits.

China has approved exports of fresh durian from nearly 3,000 hectares in Vietnam.

It took Vietnam four years to negotiate the approval as China has become a difficult market with high quality standards.

"Our exports need to meet Chinese consumers’ standards and we need to respect their desires and regulations. That is how we can ensure a sustainable export channel to this market," said To Ngoc Son, deputy head of the Asia and Africa division under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Industry insiders in Thailand view this development with some trepidation because its market dominance is threatened now.

Thailand was the first country to export fresh durian to China. In 2021, Thai durian exports to China grew at a record 68% year-on-year to more than 875,000 tons.

However, Vietnamese farmers have an advantage over their Thai counterparts because they can afford to pick durians for export later than in Thailand. Shipments from Vietnam take less time to reach China, said Thai academic and agriculture specialist Sakda Sinives.

"Even without any clear difference in terms of taste ... the riper fruit from Vietnam will slowly attain higher prices from buyers, while the price of durians from Thailand will fall. This quality control issue is why Thai [durian production] will fall as farmers can no longer shoulder the costs," Sakda told the SCMP.

Sakda said that many traders operating in Thailand – more than a few acting on behalf of buyers from mainland China – have moved to Vietnam, lured by higher profit margins though very few Vietnamese farms have received export approval from China, he added.

Long way to go

However, Vietnamese officials say farmers in the country have a long way to go in improving their standards and practices to ensure export of high quality fruit.

The nearly 3,000 hectares of durian orchards approved for exports to China only account for 3.5% of total area dedicated to cultivating the fruit.

In the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, where many durian orchards are located, only 16 out of 25 applications were approved by Chinese officials.

"Some farmers are not aware of the benefits of being approved. Of those who have been approved, some do not keep a careful record of their farming activities," said Vo Thanh Toan, an agriculture expert in Krong Pak District.

Other officials have said that Chinese buyers have warned Vietnamese farmers about the failure to follow their standards by growing durian in the same area with other fruits, which increases the risks of pests and diseases. Some farmers have been warned about low hygiene and weak anti-Covid-19 measures.

Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, deputy head of the Plant Protection Department, expressed concern at a recent forum that some Vietnamese durian farmers who have not been approved by Chinese officials are looking for ways to export to the neighboring country illegally.

Farmers have registered to export 1.3 million tons of durian to China a year, which is double the approved amount by Chinese officials, suggesting that unapproved farmers are trying to add their fruit to the inventory of approved ones, she said.

"If Chinese officials find out, all our negotiations and efforts of the last four years will be thrown away."

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