A Vietnamese recipe for a food system that works
Since 1990, Viet Nam has reduced hunger by more than 80 percent. Some of that progress comes from a revival of traditional family farming.
16 October 2013, Rome – Picture Viet Nam: lush green rice paddies, a picture of plenty. Right?
While that idyllic image is fitting today, less than a generation ago one in three Vietnamese didn’t have enough to eat. Especially in the decade following the war in Viet Nam – from 1975 to 1984 – the country had to import rice every year to feed a population that regularly went hungry between harvests.
Nguyen Thi Bang, who farms a small plot with her family in Ha Nam province outside Hanoi, said all Vietnamese who lived through it will never forget that hunger.
“There were no other crops,” she said. “So we either ate rice or we ate nothing. Sometimes we had to skip one or even two meals in a day. We had no other food.”
A neighbouring farmer, Dung Nguyen Ngoc, remembered the same: “At that time, there were cooperative markets, and we suffered from hunger. We always had to borrow for our meals,” he said.
The tipping point
After years of food shortages, low agricultural productivity and simmering unrest, in the early 1980s Viet Nam began to experiment with limited economic policy reforms. These culminated in 1986 with the official introduction of ‘Doi Moi,’ or ‘Renovation’: wide-scale reforms that would drastically alter the economic landscape, by introducing elements of a market economy.
“Until that point, most Vietnamese worked on collective farms in the rice fields,” said Ta Huu Nghia, head of the Poverty Reduction and Rural Social Security Division within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s unit that deals with cooperatives. “Workers were paid in rice, depending on how good the harvest was.”
Most importantly for the average Vietnamese citizen, the state began to move away from strict central planning by leasing land to farmers on 20- and even 50-year contracts. People could farm the leased plots, decide what to produce, and sell any excess output at the market. Viet Nam’s family farmers quickly became entrepreneurs.
Traditional farming with a modern twist
The Vietnamese government, at various levels down to each commune, shifted policy to encourage the poorest farmers to embrace what was essentially a return to their roots. In rural Viet Nam, especially in the country’s ‘rice basket’ in the Mekong and Red River deltas, families traditionally wove together three farming systems to make an integrated whole: fish farming, growing fruit and vegetables, and raising livestock.
In this system, known as V-A-C (which stands for vuon-ao-chuong, or garden-pond-livestock pen), families first dig a pond from the low-lying delta plain. With plentiful rainfall, the pond soon fills up to eventually both produce fish and protect against flooding.
With the earth dug out from the pond, families create land foundations on which to build their homes and continuously expand their gardens for planting.
“I have been here for eight years, and my main activity is fish farming,” said Dung, the farmer from Ha Nam province. “I combine that with other activities. For example, sometimes I also keep chickens and ducks. I do anything I think is suitable and profitable.”
Dung’s main livestock are pigs. Waste products are regularly washed out through a drainage system that separates solids from liquids in underground receptacles. But the waste doesn’t go to waste. Manure can be composted to fertilize the garden, and used to feed the fish. In turn, fish offal and food scraps that the family doesn’t eat are recycled into the pig feed.
Fish waste eventually forms part of the nutrient-rich silt lining the pond bed. Once a year, the silt is dredged up, again to fertilize the fruit trees and vegetables.
The added benefit of biogas
Dung said he has kept fewer pigs this year because of the economic crisis. Consumers are buying cheaper poultry meat. But, he explained, the pigs provide an indispensable modern benefit of V-A-C farming: biogas is channeled from the underground waste receptacles through metal piping and into the kitchen.
Now the family is cooking with gas. In the most remote areas of Viet Nam, where the electric power grid hasn’t yet reached, biogas can even power the lights.
Kudzu – the cash crop
Dung also grows kudzu, or Japanese arrowroot. Kudzu is a tuber that can be ground into a powder used in traditional medicine, and it fetches a good price. Dung makes the powder on the farm, and traders travel to his farm to buy it. He says he ensures a good profit from the kudzu by maintaining high quality and paying close attention to finer details such as packaging.
Again, nothing is wasted: Dung uses the kudzu leaves – normally not eaten by humans – to feed the fish. The leaves, in the same way as the roots, are ground into a high-protein powder. and fish feed companies travel to the farm gate to purchase it.
100 percent self-sufficient
As testament to all that has been achieved, Viet Nam is now the world’s second biggest rice exporter, just behind Thailand.
As part of the reforms, the government and foreign development partners supported agricultural development through subsidies for certified high-yielding seed and fertilizers, rehabilitation of irrigation and drainage systems, training in techniques and technology, better access to credit for farmers, and building out a reliable transport network to move food quickly from farm to market.
Now, in Viet Nam’s tropical climate, Dung and his family can farm all year round, focusing on different crops for different seasons. They can make up to US$ 7,000 in a good year, and with that income, send the children to university and continuously reinvest in the farm.
Unlike some other smallholder V-A-C farmers, Dung has continued to set aside some of his fields for farming rice. Maybe that’s the memory of days when there wasn’t any rice. While older Vietnamese still use the traditional greeting “have you had rice?,” which roughly translates into ‘how are you?’, the younger people have begun to just say ‘hello’ as hunger fades into the Vietnamese collective consciousness.