Vietnam's farmers, traders shouldn't be at one buyer's mercy

December 23, 2021 | 05:07 pm PT
Pham Trung Tuyen Journalist
The current crisis of thousands of trucks stuck at China's border with fresh, perishable agricultural produce from Vietnam is not without precedent. We've been caught napping too often.

It is high time we realize that as long as Vietnam remains stagnant in innovation and technological development, our agricultural exports will remain at our northern neighbor's mercy.

Huynh Xuan Thai, a driver from Binh Dinh Province, has been stuck at a border gate in Lang Son Province for half a month with 40 tons of jackfruit in his truck.

It has been 10 days since he's taken a shower. He can't go very far since there is no one to watch his truck for him.

On December 16, the truck's owner told him to break the seal to check the quality of the jackfruits inside. Most of them had ripened, meaning they could no longer be exported to China, where buyers required them unripe.

Thai and the truck owner were not alone in their predicament. Many of Thai's colleagues had resorted to consuming the jackfruits in place of rice. Some had to return to downtown Lang Son and sell the jackfruit for VND40,000 ($1.74) a fruit, roughly VND4,000 a kilo.

In Hanoi, jackfruit sells at VND20,000-25,000 a kilo. If its thorny skin and seeds are removed, the price of a kilo of jackfruit can cost VND100,000 a kilo.

We can safely surmise that the magnitude of potential loss with around 5,000 container trucks stuck at the border right now will not be small.

According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, in the past 11 months, the export turnover of agriculture and aquaculture products to China reached $8.4 billion. For vegetables and fruits, China remains the biggest export market with a total trade turnover at $1.8 billion, or 55 percent of Vietnam's exported vegetable market.

The potential fallout of such dependence should have been seen and prepared for. While the Covid-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tet holiday are factors in the current crisis at the border, it's far from the first time Vietnamese agricultural exports have been impacted by decisions taken on the other side of the border.

I've been saying for years that it's too risky to carry our agricultural goods all the way to the northern border.

The Chinese market with at least 400 million people living in its southern coastal regions is more than enough to consume all our tropical agricultural products. Our main rival, Thailand, mainly targets the southwestern plateau, and is aided by the presence of the Con Minh-Vientiane Railway.

Even though its market is clearly divided into neat geographical boxes, China has always assumed a mental high ground when it comes to Vietnamese agricultural goods, smugly thinking that it is the only available market for those products. This mentality has been detrimental to us, and we need to recognize it.

If it was a fair game, issues like a lack of drivers or Covid-19 restrictions can be anticipated and resolved to help all parties. But thousands of containers stuck at the border would mean hundreds of thousands of tons of goods wasted and a crisis for millions of Vietnamese farmers. How would merchants react to this? How will farms, orchards and vegetable gardens plan their harvest for the next season? There are many questions with no answers, but perhaps the answers like where we are not looking at present.

It is fairly obvious that the key questions now are: How can we make our products independent from outside forces? How can we ensure that we are on equal footing when it comes to our main markets?

If we do not promote and foster technological innovation; if we cannot extend the shelf life of our produce; and if we do not develop advanced processed technology, we would be left with the single option of transporting all our goods to the border and take the risk of having them rot for one reason or the other.

As long as farmers are willing to sell their harvest cheap, as long as merchants still earn profits by putting pressure on farmers, and as long as investors neglect agriculture for more profitable schemes like real estate, a modern agriculture sector will remain a pipe dream.

I hope the ongoing crisis in Lang Son wakes people up to the real medium and long term predicament we are in. Policymakers have to usher in needed changes. We have to show far more commitment to modernizing the sector than we have done so far.

We can't continue as our neighbor's backyard any longer.

*Pham Trung Tuyen is a journalist and Deputy Director of VOV Giao Thong. The opinions expressed are his own.

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