For two decades, Thanh was the only fruit vendor on Phan Huy Chu Street, in the heart of Hanoi’s downtown. But last year, a store opened across the street advertising “rau an toan” (safe produce). It was an assurance conspicuously missing from Thanh’s baskets of lychees and mangoes, displayed millimeters from the sidewalk.
Until recently, no one in Vietnam was talking about food safety. In the past year, however, it has become front-page news. Rumors about pesticide-contaminated grapes and rotten pork smuggled across the border from China made consumers aware that they no longer knew how and where their food was produced.
“People are used to buying from the market and not questioning it. But there’s increasing concern, mostly in urban populations, about where food comes from,” says Dan Dockery, who runs Highway 4, a restaurant chain with locations in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An.
At Mr Sach, a grocery store that opened in 2010, customers fill shopping baskets with greens from nearby Ba Vi and avocados from Moc Chau. Everything is wrapped in transparent plastic, with a label marking its province of origin.
“I’m really worried about the quality of the food in Vietnam, so I try to buy safe food,” says Nguyen Thu Huong, 30, as the cashier rings up tofu, eggs and knobs of celery. “In the media, they say using chemicals on plants and animals is very dangerous for our health.”
Restaurants are also responding to the demand for cleaner food. Nguyen Ngoc Lan and Nguyen Trung Chung opened Nam 76 last year, where the couple makes traditional dishes using mushrooms grown on a friend’s organic farm just outside the city. During lunch hour, Vietnamese office workers crowd the three branches to eat mushroom hotpot and sticky rice topped with dried shiitakes.
“More people in Hanoi have Facebook and Internet. They read a lot of articles about food imported from other countries with no origin certification. We’re getting really scared about it,” Lan says.
Last year, she figures, about 10 percent of Hanoians stopped buying at traditional wet markets — switching instead to the organic and “safe food” stores that are cropping up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. A booklet issued by the Vietnam Standard and Consumer Association lists 122 clean vegetable stores in Hanoi; dozens more, like Mr Sach, have opened since it was printed.
“When I moved here six years ago, I didn’t see any organic shops. Now, there are more and more, ” says Stephanie Ralu, who runs 100%, a Ho Chi Minh City retailer offering traceable food products made in Vietnam.
The primary customers at these new stores are young, educated Vietnamese women. After speaking to Huong, I meet Tran Hung Van, 31, who works in an office all week but drives four kilometers every weekend to buy fruit at Mr Sach. “I have young children. I want to make sure that the food they eat is safe,” she tells me.
Vietnam’s demand for organic produce comes as a UN report makes the case that the world should be moving away from industrialized agriculture. Titled “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late,” the report urges countries to return to the small-scale, organic model that Vietnam practiced for centuries.
Nearly all farming is still done on a small scale, with most individual farmers owning less than an acre. But organic hasn’t been the rule since the 1970s, when the country faced a critical food shortage and productivity-boosting chemicals offered the chance to fill empty plates.
“Vietnam was in a state of hunger, so they needed to address the issue of food security as well as exports,” explains Eduardo Sabio, regional representative at VECO Vietnam, an NGO working on sustainable agriculture. “Rice and vegetables got a lot of subsidies from the government in terms of fertilizers and pesticides.”
The transition to a market economy in the late 1980s increased dependence on these chemicals. For the first time, farmers were growing vegetables for profit. Unaware of the consumer backlash that was taking place in many Western countries, they saw artificial fertilizers as an easy way to boost output.
“People wanted to make money fast, so they got lots of chemicals to make crops grow faster,” says Tran Trung Chinh, who started Mr Sach in 2010. “Everyone used them. But people got a lot of diseases as a result. Now, after 20 years, everybody knows the chemicals are dangerous.”
Governments in Southeast Asia are eagerly ditching traditional agriculture for large-scale and increasingly globalized production. But integration into global trade networks comes at a price. Thailand aggressively industrialized its agriculture system in the 1960s and in the late 1990s was one of the most enthusiastic developing Asian countries to plunge into international free trade agreements. Yet few producers reaped the benefits. Today, many Thai farmers suffer crippling debt — and consumers in Bangkok are flocking to farmers’ markets in search of organic produce.
As the Trans-Pacific Partnership stirs international controversy for its intellectual property regulations, it’s worth asking whether such free trade agreements will also destroy efforts to reform local food systems by making countries even more dependent on products from overseas.
“There will definitely be big implications for agriculture,” Sabio says. “If Vietnam opens up their doors to imported products, they will be swamped with certain commodities that are much cheaper to acquire than produced locally. Most likely, companies will corner most of the benefits. Farmers will be pressured more and more because the prices of their commodities will be subjected much more to external pressures.”
However, less trade with Trans-Pacific partners would likely mean more trade with China, which remains Vietnam’s largest trade partner even as concerns about the safety of Chinese imports grow. Given the many food safety scandals that have roiled Chinese exports to Vietnam in the last few years – anesthesia-tainted fish, carcinogenic sunflower seeds – Vietnam has reason to be wary of China. Yet many feel the country cannot afford to antagonize its big neighbor.
Can Vietnam forge a successful return to small-scale organic agriculture? “Mr Sach” thinks so. Owner Chinh doesn’t just sell products; he also runs educational programs for consumers and training programs for farmers to convince them of the benefits of organic practices.
“It’s my mission to make people understand about organic food,” Chinh says. “It’s very important if we want to keep Vietnam safe.”
Elisabeth Rosen is based in Hanoi, where she is an editor at Word Vietnam, a national culture and lifestyle magazine. She has previously written for The Atlantic and DestinAsian, among other publications.