With the rise of headline news in Vietnam about unsafe food being found in markets and shops, one could get worried. In these times of uncertainty, many people have begun to turn to organic food in search of safe, quality products. The demand for food safety in Vietnam is huge, and the development of this market is rapid.
Pham Thi Tuyet Mai, director of Naturally Vietnam, a safe and organic shop on To Ngoc Van says that we should actually not use the term ‘organic’ for any products made in Vietnam, because by European standards, Vietnam cannot produce organic food. There is too much pollution in the soil, water and air. It’s more accurate to use words like ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ food for products that have been produced using minimal to no chemicals at all.
The System of Guarantees
Hanoi is surrounded by farmland. Just across the Red River, you can see wide fields of rice and vegetable farms. I have always been attracted to them, and always wanted to photograph the landscape and the people working it.
One of these farms is Thanh Xuan cooperative, 6,200 square metres of safe, clean produce, situated near Noi Bai Airport. You can see and hear the airplanes landing regularly, but it doesn’t bother the farmers anymore. It’s just a normal part of their day now.
In 2009, a group of families got together to create an organic farm under the patronage of the ADDA-VNF Organic Agriculture Project. The group split in 2013, and six of its families created Thanh Xuan Cooperative.
The ADDA-VNF Organic Agriculture project developed a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) of organic standards for Vietnam, accredited by IFOAM (International Federation of Agriculture Movements Organic Farming — ifoam.org). The PGS is a method of certification that uses peer review to hold everyone in the production chain accountable, and is applied to all stages of the production process.
Naturally Vietnam sources all of its vegetables from Thanh Xuan Cooperative. However, even these cannot be labelled 100% organic according to European standards, Mai tells me, but they’re as close as it gets here. Naturally Vietnam has a permanent dialogue open with the farmers to help them maintain quality, hold their procedures to the highest standards, and work to keep the environment clean.
Clean and Safe
When I visited the farm, the cooperative’s leader, Dung, told me it took almost a year to prepare the farm to produce clean, safe vegetables. First, they had to clean the soil of the chemical pollution left by previous farming methods, and then prepare all the bio-fertilizer and new seeds.
Respecting these high standards of production makes the farm work much more demanding and time consuming, as farmers have to weed the vegetable plots by hand. However, they are happier, and the income they receive is higher and more consistent, as their prices aren’t affected by fluctuations in the normal market. Dung has noticed a big difference in her health since she stopped using chemicals on her farm, and the environment has also benefitted from it; the air is fresher and free of chemical smells.
Dung was very concerned about me taking photos at the farm, mainly because she thought I would not like it. Everyone who works on organic farms or regularly buys organic knows that these fruits and vegetables are not as big or aesthetically-pleasing as non-organic produce. The plants at the farm are also a bit unattractive, because they can’t use chemical pesticide or fertilizer, so very hungry caterpillars tend to eat holes in the leaves.
The Vietnamese are always surprised by what I enjoy photographing. They did not think I would be so happy on the farm taking photos, and eating fresh cucumbers and tomatoes right off the plant, but I had a blast.