Once a peculiar-looking fruit brought to Vietnam from South America, these days dragon fruit is getting everywhere. Even Australia. Words by Matt Cowan

 

In January this year, the Australian Government handed down its final report on its review of biosecurity import requirements for fresh dragon fruit from Vietnam. It recommends that the importation of fresh dragon fruit to Australia from all commercial production areas of Vietnam be allowed, subject to a raft of biosecurity conditions. This follows the decision to allow Vietnamese imports of lychees to Australia in 2015.

 

Dragon fruit production areas in Vietnam have increased significantly over the past decade and the industry reached a yield of 1 million tons per annum a few years ago as a result of increased demand for the fruit in local and overseas markets.

 

An Introduced Species

 

Binh Thuan Province on Vietnam’s southeast coast is the country’s largest producer of the fruit native to South America known as pitaya. It was introduced to Vietnam by Catholic missionaries during the French colonial era, as the climate around Phan Thiet was found to be ideal for growing the fruit.

 

According to Ho Chi Minh City-based fresh produce exporter, The Fruit Republic, Vietnam is the only country in Asia producing dragon fruit on a commercial scale. Traditionally, China is the biggest market for Vietnamese dragon fruit with 400,000 tonnes exported abroad in 2013. That figure has since risen.

 

Local Phan Thiet packing company Binh Loan says that in the low season, it receives on average five to six tons of dragon fruit per day from neighbouring farms, while in the high season from May through to August, it receives between 20 to 30 tons per day depending on the harvest. All of their produce is destined for the fruit bowls of kitchens in China. The company pays farmers between VND20,000 and VND22,000 per kilogram. In some fruit shops in Saigon, dragon fruit retails for around VND33,000 per kilogram.

 

Scandal

 

Once a fruit primarily used as decoration during important times of the year such as Lunar New Year and Tet in Vietnam — prized for its vivid magenta colour over its edible qualities — the dragon fruit is enjoying a rise in popularity in non-traditional export countries like Australia owing to its low sugar content compared to most other tropical fruits.

 

However, the road to procuring the right to export to Australia hasn’t been without controversy. In 2015, the then Northern Territory (NT) Primary Industries Minister was forced to stand down amid allegations of impropriety after links were discovered between his personal finances and a Vietnamese conglomerate that had intended to buy a 2,000 square km cattle station 500km south of Darwin to develop into what can be best described as a mega-dragon fruit farm.

 

While the property in question at the time wasn’t suitable for dragon fruit production due to a lack of water, it had found itself at the centre of a water and soil study conducted by the NT Government. The study found that 22,000 square km of the farm was fit for irrigation projects that would eventually mean the property could support water-intensive crops, including dragon fruit. Eventually the property was sold last year to another Vietnamese investor for AU$18 million.

 

Direct links between the scandal and the trade deal between Australia and Vietnam cannot be drawn, but it demonstrates the complexities involved and how the actions of individuals connected to both sides can potentially derail negotiations.

 

The Juice

 

The scuttling of the deal between the minister and the Vietnamese conglomerate represented a reprieve for fledgling Australian dragon fruit farmers supplying an already flooded Australian market. Now, the passing of legislation to allow Vietnamese dragon fruit imports, which are slated to begin some time this year, presents a new challenge on the horizon.

 

According to one dragon fruit grower from Bundaberg in the northern Australian state of Queensland, who was contacted for this story, he expected minimal impact on his business due to seasonal differences between the two countries, instead citing the potential for biosecurity breaches as the area of major concern.

 

Given the recent detection of white spot disease in native shrimp populations in Queensland waters — most likely from imported shrimp from Asia — which threatens Australia’s AU$360 million shrimp industry, his concern is valid. The discovery is already creating waves in Vietnam, as it’s feared exports of shrimp to Australia will be interrupted. Meanwhile, in Australia, there is a fear that its shrimp industry may never recover.

 

In Vietnam, dragon fruit farmers, as expected, are upbeat about the latest decision to allow their fruit into Australia. At his farm approximately 10km west of Phan Thiet, Mr Huong, whose entire yield goes to China, breaks into a broad grin when asked about the future for him and dragon fruit farming.

 

“Although the quantity will be very small at the beginning because it’s a new market, I’m still very happy about it.”

 

By adding dragon fruit to its expanding agricultural export portfolio, which already includes rice, coffee, shrimp and catfish, Vietnam is demonstrating its agility in finding new markets for its produce, which is a sign of better things to come for the country’s development and future prosperity.

 

The question is, can both countries ensure quality control measures will be stringent enough and monitored carefully to ensure the sustainability of Vietnam’s dragon fruit export industry to Australia, and at the same time protect Australia’s biosecurity and its dragon fruit farmers?

 

In light of what’s been happening in the shrimp farming industries of both countries, it will be an interesting space to watch.

 

Matt Cowan

Managing Editor of Word Vietnam. Destined to be a dairy farmer until he accepted a spur of the moment job offer in Japan in 1998. After making it big in Japan, he now finds himself wrangling stories in Vietnam instead of cows in Australia. Matt has been living in Saigon since 2010.

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