For its own good, Vietnam should stick to agriculture

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   March 11, 2019 | 04:56 pm PT
Vietnam has always been an agricultural country; and after all the brouhaha about industrialization, agriculture is still our saving grace.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

There’s a funny story that does the rounds about Vietnam’s agriculture industry.

For more than 30 years, Vietnam has been a major rice exporter and yet every year, it is stuck in a loop in which the government, banks and local companies have to lend a hand to stock rice and make sure prices do not fall uncontrollably.

And it is a fact that Vietnam is an agricultural country. Everyone knows it, but every season, we hear stories of having to save farmers from one plight or the other; campaigns are launched calling on people to buy fruits or vegetables from farmers because supply has overwhelmed demand; and of market prices dropping so sharply that some farmers decide to throw all their produce away or use them to feed cattle.

To deal with these paradoxical developments and ensure a sustainable livelihood for those who depend on agriculture, we need to change the way we think; change our mindset, as people often say these days.

Mai, an overseas Vietnamese who now lives in Canada like me, recently called and asked me to buy rice that had just arrived at Vancouver.

She told me it was the first batch of the harvesting season, and according to experience she'd gained from growing up in a farming family, rice harvested during this period was the best.

Yet, in the end, we were not satisfied.

The rice did not originate in Vietnam, but Thailand. And despite much effort in order to support our farmers, we could not find any Vietnamese rice in the Canadian market.

Thai rice, on the other hand, has kept building up its reputation in Canada, a place where more and more Asians are choosing to settle. The lowest price of Thai rice in Canada this week was $2,000 per ton, while the price of rice in Vietnam continues to fall and currently stays at under $400 per ton. In the past week, reading news from Vietnam, I repeatedly saw the phrase "saving rice price."

We, the overseas Vietnamese, would love to have Vietnamese rice in our daily meals. Meanwhile in our homeland, thousands of farmers are waiting with little hope that traders would come to their fields so that they can sell their paddy, even at lower than market prices.

One day last October, I saw photos of farmers in Binh Thuan, a province along Vietnam’s south central coast, throwing their dragonfruit away as prices had dropped to just VND1,000 ($4.3 cents) per kilo. That very day, I discovered some dragonfruit lying unnoticed at a Vietnamese products supermarket in Vancouver, costing VND100,000 or so per kilo.

After looking into this for a while, I learnt that dragonfruit was the only Vietnamese fruit available in Vancouver.

Exporters have to overcome a lot of difficulties to get agricultural produce like rice or dragonfruit to meet Canada’s export requirements, which is why these are priced high in the Canadian market.

And if such produce comes from a clean, organic agricultural system that is certified, the price would be much higher.

For example, one type of Thai organic jasmine rice costs up to $10,000 a ton, five times that of normal rice. In the Canadian market alone, the demand for organic agricultural products is worth about $4.2 billion. Meanwhile, the market for organic agricultural products in the U.S. is valued at $49.4 billion.

Indian market research firm Zion has predicted that by 2024, the global market for organic agricultural products will be worth $323 billion, with an annual growth of 15 percent.

Late last year, with minimal attention from the public, Vietnamese organic agriculture took a big step with the government issuing a decree on preferential conditions and assistance for small companies, cooperatives, and farming families engaged in organic agriculture. The decree said the government would fund all organic product certification costs and the cost of verifying areas eligible for organic production.

Also, not many people know that Vietnam was the first nation in the world to have organic prawn, 20 years ago, bred at a project in the southern province of Ca Mau in collaboration with Switzerland.

As they say, better late than never.

More than 30 years since Doi Moi, the economic renovation policy adopted in 1986, Vietnam has ceaselessly chased the dream of becoming an industrialized country, but that is still far away. Vietnam has relied on cheap labor, which helps reduce production costs that use such human resources, to attract foreign investment, rather than industrializing its production process.

Farmers harvest paddy in northern Vietnam. Photo by Luu Trong Thang/VnExpress Photo Contest

Farmers harvest paddy in northern Vietnam. Photo by Luu Trong Thang/VnExpress Photo Contest

Developing our agriculture sector instead of becoming a backstage for industrial processes for other industrial countries, basically, their workshop, will help Vietnam solve three major problems: food security, energy security and environment security. Within ten years of Vietnam issuing a resolution on agriculture, with preferential policies for farmers as well as for businesses investing in agriculture and rural areas, including  providing farmers with more vocational training courses to enhance their skills, Vietnam’s export value of agricultural, forestry and fishery products had jumped four times to $40.5 billion last year.

For a nation of nearly 100 million people, food security should be a top concern. Giving priority to developing agriculture instead of industry will curb and reduce the need for energy supply, and thus improve energy security and minimize the risks for environment, especially from coal-fired power projects.

At a higher level, organic agriculture is environmentally friendly, and could create a fair relationship for all components of the ecosystem. Clean and organic agriculture can contribute to preventing environmental pollution, something that the chemical-based agriculture has been creating for decades.

With 65 percent of its population living in rural areas, Vietnam could look at agricultural development as a way to deal with the rising trend of people leaving their homes in rural areas to stay and look for jobs in big cities.

For once, I wish that the government and each Vietnamese person could develop a love for paddy fields, turn back to agriculture, and continue the path of our ancestors with a new way of thinking.

As long as the government is determined to develop clean and organic agriculture, we can be more optimistic about a bright future for Vietnamese agricultural products and farmers, that Vietnam could be the place where economy, society and environment gets along.

This is the right path for Vietnam. It makes sense to build on our traditional strength, ensure real security (food security) and preserve our land and other natural resources for future generations instead of polluting it and spoiling it forever in the name of modernization.

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an energy and environment specialist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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