The organic trend has definitely hit Vietnam, and food safety concerns are currently reinforcing the need for chemical-free, responsibly grown produce. But what does it take to grow true organic food in Vietnam? We talked to Ines Quoico, the owner of The Organik Shop (8, Duong Thao Dien, D2) and Organik Da Lat Farm to get the inside scoop.
What made you interested in growing organic food in Vietnam?
I came here in 2012 and have been a vegetarian since I was 14 years old. If you look at some studies and statistics, people who eat plant-based diets have a higher chance of eating chemicals. In Vietnam, I was a bit concerned with what I was eating. So, I started to read a bit, looking at the agricultural processes, and I was concerned to see how there are a lot of chemicals being used in agriculture and that really surprised me.
Do conventional farmers in the country tend to use a lot of chemicals in their growing process?
Farmers import more than 4,100 different kinds of fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture in Vietnam which use 1,632 different kinds of chemicals, and 90 percent of these come from China. I would go and check on how they grow produce, and most farmers are very candid and very innocent. They were like, “Oh, you know, sometimes I have these difficulties in agriculture. We have these pests that attacked my production.” Or “I have worm issues. So if I don’t have the kilograms [of product], basically I don’t know how to feed my family. So that’s why I’m using these products and these products. And look, it says it’s natural.”
The farmers you talked to believed the chemicals and pesticides were natural?
Yes, and at the end [of the day] they don’t have any real knowledge or background, so they believe what is written on the bottles. A lot of the time, there are hidden chemicals in the pesticides that aren’t even written on the bottles. They don’t understand the components, or about the chemicals. And when you look at the chemical’s components, and what is written on it, of course it’s not organic. Of course it’s not natural. And they actually think they’re doing something good, but they’re not. Because they just don’t know.
It sounds like there’s a distrust among Vietnamese consumers as to whether or not they use chemicals. So if somebody says that something is organic here, how can a consumer know it’s true?
[The customer] has to ask for the organic certification of the products or of the farm. So, if you go to my website, it’s inside, and I put it on my Facebook page. If you go to my farm, I have it in a frame. It’s in the shop as well. So the only way to know, is to ask them for the certification.
How did you come to have your own organic farm?
I went to Da Lat and I saw Dr. [Nguyen Ba] Hung, who is supposed to be the father of organic in Vietnam and basically I was very surprised because he was very traditional. Like, the way he grows organic. And at that time, he wanted to retire. So he asked me if I wanted to invest, and I said, “Yes, why not.” He retired since November 2016.
What organic certifications does your farm have?
When we started together, we only had the EU Organic Certification and the HACCP, the food safety certification, which is very difficult to get. And after one year of work we have the EU, the USDA and the HACCP. And I’m targeting in 2018 to get the Japanese Certification as well.
It sounds like there are a lot of different organic certifications available. Is there an actual definition of what organic food is?
The definition of organic food is you have to have the organic certification.
But there are so many!
There are so many, but it depends on which one fits you. But the thing is, you need to have the certification, otherwise you’re not organic. You really need to have the audits every year. People come to my farm and they fly there from India, from Malaysia, from Thailand. All the auditors are from outside the country because basically, they don’t trust Vietnamese auditors. So yeah, you have a third-party body who flies all the auditors to your farms. Even a translator, because this is important.
It sounds expensive.
You pay for the ticket, you pay for the meals. You pay for the translators and the accommodation, and they come and audit your farm. It’s a real audit. They ask questions, they take samples, they do a tour of your farm. They go wherever they want, they see whatever they want. They get samples of everything. And you have to pay for the lab test as well. And if they’re not happy, if they want to test the water, they will test the water. And the water test is expensive They want to test the soil this time? They will test the soil. It’s expensive too. Now they want to test the plants? It’s another test. So they are king, they do whatever they want.
So the organic process isn’t well set-up for conventional farmers?
[Many organic farmers] barely survive with their crops because organic farmers are almost poorer than conventional farmers. Because when you lose your production and you see your tomatoes dying because of these pests that are coming, you cannot do anything. You cannot kill the pests with sprays to keep your tomatoes. So organic farmers are much poorer than conventional farmers.
One of the major issues with growing organic food in Vietnam is the presence of Agent Orange (dioxin) and other chemicals in the soil. How do you deal with this sort of pollution?
For the EU certification, farmers can apply after three years, but personally, I think five years is safer. All of the chemicals will be released after five years and then you can pass the lab tests. For areas infected with dioxin, some say you have to wait between 8 and 15 years, but I would never try to grow on these lands. It just seems wrong!
In Da Lat as well?
No, in Da Lat, there are no areas that have been affected by dioxin.
Do you know if Vietnam is doing anything to improve the agricultural practices of conventional farmers who might not have the resources to farm things organically?
There’s the Vietnamese certification for Good Agricultural Practice (VietGAP). Basically, they have a list of products that they can use or are not allowed to use. It’s much larger and less strict. And because it’s less strict, you may still have some chemicals inside. They’re asking the farmers to not spray two weeks before the harvest to make sure that it’s not too much. I think for now the VietGAP certification is a good thing, because at least now we have something to control, and a way to regulate how farmers are using the chemicals. It’s a start.
So it’s not truly organic. Do you think Vietnam will ever have its own organic certification?
Of course there have been many, many discussions within the government, and I have been approached many times. They really want to do something, they want to have a Vietnam Organic Certification. Something that will suit the country and the knowledge of the farmers. And I think they will manage to have one in three years at least. But until then, the only way to reassure customers and the people is to rely on external certification.