By Cory Whitney
When Sir Albert Howard visited the farmers of India in the 1940s and brought back to the United Kingdom ideas about composting and other agricultural practices, he planted the seeds of a real agricultural revolution in the West. In the post-industrial hangover and in the wake of the Green Revolution, radical farmers, researchers and environmental activists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere followed these ideas and started pushing for safe farming practices. By the 1970s MOFGA and other groups had formed to focus on organic cultivation. Masanobu Fukuoka’s No Work Farming ideas, developed in Japan, strengthened this revolution.
The acreage under organic management has since increased dramatically, and the organic market has been one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in North American and in Europe.
Meanwhile, in parts of Asia where organic has its roots, the movement is struggling. The Vietnamese, still recovering from a long war in an “Asian Tiger” country, myopically focus on economic growth. The government has responded to concerns about synthetic chemicals used to produce food by introducing programs for “green,” “clean” and “safe” agriculture and Integrated Pest Management. In 2006 the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development wrote the National Basic Standards for Organic Products in Vietnam but did not make any regulations, specific policies or programs to further develop the organic sector. Some even debate what organic agriculture means in the Vietnamese context, and some of the public and media are confused about the meaning of organic. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the total agricultural land area in Vietnam is organic, and little is being done to increase that area. Some funding from international organizations has focused on export markets, but few organizations focus locally.
Despite multiple challenges, some organic projects are taking off in North Vietnam. I spent a few months last year with organic farmers in the region and am impressed with the way they are working in this unique and challenging environment.
One example is Green Vietnam (www.greenvietnam.com), a 136-acre organic farm near the Cham Chu nature reserve in the hills of Tuyen Quang Province. The farm is at the base of a hill full of longan orchards (a tropical fruit tree) and endangered hardwoods where semi-wild goats graze for much of the year. The farmer who started Green Vietnam, Vuong Ngoc Quang, grew up on the streets of Hanoi and learned to speak English while shining shoes and selling postcards. He met an American activist, a Harvard dropout, and together they started an organic garden project for victims of Agent Orange. Years later Quang returned to his home province to plant a fruit forest – and Green Vietnam, which now grows around 12,000 fruit trees, 30,000 hardwoods, and organic vegetables to sell at local markets in Hanoi.
The farm’s ecolodge serves all organic food, and the nonprofit Green Vietnam, a kind of rehabilitation center for poor marginalized farmers, trains its local community in organic agroforestry to encourage diversification beyond rubber tree and cassava planting.
Another success story is the Human Ecology Practice Area, a 1,000-acre ecotopia in the Huong Son district of North Central Vietnam where indigenous youth from around the Mekong Region learn eco-farming (a mix of traditional, organic and permaculture techniques). Students and staff live together to share and apply techniques in a community-based, student-centered and democratic environment. The Social Policy Ecology Research Institute runs the farm, focusing on equal rights for ethnic minorities and indigenous people of the Mekong region and promoting a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and nature through eco-farming.
Most of the rest of the farming in Vietnam is very small scale and family based. Almost everyone in rural areas has a small rice paddy with a vegetable garden, and everyone has a garden of some kind, even if it is part of the curbside ditch. In the north, the average size of a farm is about half an acre.
Vietnam, like other countries, should work hard to ensure that its people can access safe and healthy food. It can support organic smallholder farming through training and extension services and encouraging local markets. Encouraging the domestic market will make healthy, organic food more profitable for farmers and more available for Vietnamese people.
The best scenario for organic in Vietnam right now is the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), in which small-scale farmers organize to inspect and certify each other. This can be used in conjunction with the Community Supported Agriculture model, which links the consumer directly with the farmer, so that the relationship is close and everyone knows what happens to food all the way from field to table.
Organic has a significant role to play in creating real food security and healthy localized food systems in Vietnam. It is not just about a higher market premium; it is about the four basic principles of health, ecology, fairness and care called for by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Organic is about creating the best possible system to benefit all the biotic communities involved. In fact, the agricultural ministry in the country of Bhutan has translated “organic agriculture” as “Buddhist agriculture” to reflect this approach. This view supports the idea of local markets for producers and consumers.
Organic is sustainable in that it benefits culture and nature as well as the economy. Studies of organic farmers in the Hanoi area, by Action for the City and by the Danish NGO Agricultural Development Denmark Asia, show that most prefer organic to conventional production. Organic farmers here see increased incomes, and their products are being sold at a premium. They see improvements in their communities, in their health, in local biodiversity, and they have greater personal satisfaction knowing that they are supplying good clean food for themselves and their customers. As a MOFGA member abroad, I am happily working toward an organic future for Vietnam and hope to bring what I have learned back to Maine one of these days.
About the author: MOFGA member Cory Whitney wrote about his visit to South Korea’s organic farms for the fall 2011 issue of The MOF&G.