The Titan stumbles, the Dwarf thrives

By Trinh Nguyen   May 4, 2020 | 10:00 pm PT
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the media is full of pictures depicting block-long queues for groceries and food aid across the U.S., whereas newspapers in Vietnam show well-stocked supermarkets with stable prices.
Trinh Nguyen

Trinh Nguyen

I called my family in Ho Chi Minh City who reassured me local supermarkets are well stocked and that some even offer discounts. An expat working in Vietnam commented via LinkedIn on the plentiful produce and absence of panic buying; he praised the Vietnamese government for its robust crisis management. I agree with him on the excellent work of the Vietnamese government, but two additional factors contribute to the calm normalcy at Vietnam’s grocery stores.

First, the economic structure and farming practice between the U.S. and Vietnam are fundamentally different. These differences provide the Vietnamese with stability in times of crisis. American farming has long been industrialized. In 2015, large-scale farms accounted for 42 percent of total agricultural production,whereas small family farms only accounted for 25 percent of the national total, a sharp drop from 46 percent in 1991. Only 1.3 percent of workers in the U.S. are employed in farming; yet the country is the global food exporter thanks to high level automation.The economies of scale and efficiency-based supply chain model of the U.S. food industry, however, has a major drawback during crises.

Because an efficient supply chain model maximizes utilization and minimizes costs, any disruption to a node in this network disrupts the whole chain. For example, the indefinite closure of one of the U.S.’s largest pork processing facilities raises concerns over shortages of pork. Ironically, despite the shortage of food at food banks and groceries, U.S. farms have destroyed vast amounts of food as it can no longer be sold to restaurants, hotels, and schools. Donation of this food is largely impeded by deficits in storage capacity, packaging, processing, and transport appropriate to alternative markets. Consequently, the gigantic, efficient, and economical agriculture model of the U.S. has failed to timely adapt to the changing needs of the U.S. consumer.

Compared to the U.S. agricultural industry, Vietnamese agriculture is a dwarf. A total 43 percent of the Vietnamese population works in agriculture, predominantly on small scale family farms averaging 0.4 hectares and with limited mechanization. This farming model, small and agile, has proven effective at distributing risks and adapting to sudden change.

This is exemplified by the burgeoning of mini businesses during current social distancing. For example, "groceries in apartment buildings" is a new trend. Residents in many apartment developments have quickly sourced homegrown produce to sell to neighbors. The quality of fresh produce and the convenience of the new service found a ready market among the apartment community. Among Facebook friends, many view the "stay at home" period as an opportunity to market the fish caught in their hometown, shrimp raised by an uncle in the neighboring province, pork and beef butchered by their mother, and vegetables and fruits from their relatives’ farms.

The dense network of motorbike delivery actualizes these new businesses. None of these vendors hold a lion share of the food market; yet each effectively supplies a handful of customers. Reciprocally, operations of these small farms remain relatively stable; they do not have thousands of tons of products inflexibly targeted at specific consumers. As a result, the small and flexible nature of Vietnamese agriculture has been resoundingly effective in responding to the new coronavirus crisis.

People wait to pay by carts full of eggs, instant noodles and other packed foods at a supermarket in Ho Chi Minh Citys District 1, March 31, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

People wait to pay by carts full of eggs, instant noodles and other packed foods at a supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, March 31, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The second reason contributing to the calm in Vietnam is its social structure, which is disparate from the U.S.

According to a World Bank 2018 report, 36 percent of the Vietnamese population lives in an urban area, opposed to 82 percent in the U.S. Additionally, the U.S.population is typically individualistic: 35.7 million Americans live alone composing 28 percent of households compared to 13 percent in 1960. In contrast, family life remains pivotal in Vietnamese culture and is inclusive of extended families including uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other relatives. Consequently, nearly all urban Vietnamese have immediate or extended family members living in rural areas, and if a Vietnamese person, by chance, is not as connected, many friends are. This enables a "micro" food supply network. For example, our family's cleaning lady has a son farming in a Mekong Delta province, who has for years supplied us with vegetables, fish, ducks, chickens, and honey. Similarly, my uncle in Quang Ngai Province often sends over fruit and local produce. This social structure empowers people; they are not tortured by concerns of being alone or supermarket food shortages.

The connection between urban and rural environments and among family members has other advantages. It not only provides a safety net during crises but also reduces reliance on national welfare. A friend,who is a Grab driver in Ho Chi Minh City, had to put her business on indefinite hold because of the lockdown. Despite the economic loss, her well-being is assured as she temporarily moved back to her family in a rural town and enjoys home cooked meals and the camaraderie of her nieces and nephews. Of course, not all Vietnamese have her privilege, but she is the norm, not the exception.

Every country has its own approach to economics and social structuring with unique pros and cons. In an international health and economic crisis, Vietnam illustrates the power of small and agile agriculture in conjunction with a cohesive social fabric. It has outperformed economies of scale and individualism. The current pandemic has illustrated the weaknesses of economies focused on consumerism and efficiency and should stimulate policy makers to consider the strengths of the small family agriculture model for sustainability and social well being. For many countries, this long unfavored model deserves serious consideration as a national strategy.

Specifically, the current coronavirus pandemic has awakened the new perspective calling on Vietnam to invest in its own model of sustainable small-scale farming and support the web of connections between urban and rural areas rather than aspire to the poorly adaptable industrialized farming and urbanized consumerism of the U.S.

* Trinh Nguyen is Vietnamese woman studying in Canada. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Hawaii and Master of Education from the University of British Columbia. The opinions expressed are her own.

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