Written by Arve Hansen.
Vietnamese food is gradually gaining popularity around the world as more and more people discover the pleasures of varieties of phở, bánh mì, and other Vietnamese delicacies. About time, many would say. Besides the rich tastes and often affordable prices, the popularity of Vietnamese food is due to a widespread and mostly well-deserved reputation as it being fresh and healthy. Interestingly, however, the spread of Vietnamese food culture abroad coincides with a new kind of food crisis at home, where Vietnamese produce is increasingly seen as harmful to eat.
Chinese food products still have a very bad reputation. But now Vietnamese agricultural goods have acquired a similar status as food quality has become the topic, both on the streets and on social media. A wide range of food scares have attracted significant attention, including spoiled animal products sold as new, antibiotics and other medical residues in meat, and — perhaps the most common — pesticide residue in vegetables.
From scarcity to abundance
Vietnam had many food crises in the past. The famine during double colonial rule in 1945, the immense hardships during several wars and the widespread hunger caused by failed agricultural policies during the days of the planned economy are just some examples.
The crisis this time, however, is quite different from those in the past. In the decades following the doi moi market reforms, the immense success in increasing output through a mostly home-grown green revolution made sure food scarcity is no longer a problem. The story of how Vietnam transformed from being an importer of rice to becoming the second largest rice exporter in the world is well known. But this was just one of many success stories that saw Vietnam become a major exporter of agricultural goods and, crucially, saw Vietnamese get access to more food. According to data of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), between 1986, the year of the official initiation of doi moi, and 2013, daily calorie intake increased by an average of 33 percent.
To be sure, food security remains a concern among marginalised groups in the country. And alongside prevailing undernutrition in some areas, obesity is on the rise in others, as Vietnam seems to be facing the so-called double burden of malnutrition. This may well soon turn into another food-related crisis. For now, however, it is food safety that is the main concern among large parts of Vietnamese society.
‘Produced domestically’ has sometimes had a negative ring in Vietnam in terms of manufactured goods, but this has not been the case for food. Chinese produce used to be deemed unsafe while Vietnamese produce was a signifier of quality. Not any longer!
Chinese food products still have a very bad reputation. But now Vietnamese agricultural goods have acquired a similar status as food quality has become the topic, both on the streets and on social media. A wide range of food scares have attracted significant attention, including spoiled animal products sold as new, antibiotics and other medical residues in meat, and — perhaps the most common — pesticide residue in vegetables. Adding further fuel to the fire in Vietnam are the side-effects of decades of rapid economic development. The most dramatic example is the Formosa incident in 2016, which saw toxic spillage from a Taiwanese steel plant kill an estimated 100 tonnes of fish in central Vietnam. Or, on a slightly smaller scale, more or less all fish living in the famous West Lake in Hanoi suddenly died due to lack of oxygen, again caused by pollution.
Both Vietnamese and English language media in the country are full of food scares. Since 2016, VTV daily broadcasts a show, ‘Nói không với thực phẩm bẩn’ (or ‘say no to dirty food’), where all kinds of agricultural processes and food practices are placed under close scrutiny. A major newspaper, Tui Tre News, recently published an overview of the food crisis, under the title ‘Vietnamese killing themselves with dirty food’.
In the streets and in online forums, unsafe food is generally believed to cause all sorts of health problems, and the spiking rates of cancer cases in the country are often used as proof of the devastating impact of contaminated food. The latter is probably inaccurate, as researchers point to the fact that people live longer and that high levels of tobacco consumption – not food consumption – are the source of increasing cancer rates. But the widespread connection drawn between food and cancer nevertheless raises an important issue: the lack of trust and information.
Coping with crisis
People cope as best as they can, and seemingly everyone has their own approach to the situation. The well-off in many cases avoid traditional markets and shop at organic stores or at trusted foreign supermarkets. Informal food trading networks have also revived. Either urbanites trade directly with trusted sources in the countryside, or they do so through middlemen. In apartment complexes, neighbours in many cases get together to form food cooperatives. Home gardening is also popular for those who have the opportunity to do so.
Urban gardening is also popular among less privileged households. And obviously these segments of the population also make use of a range of food strategies for coping with the uncertain situation. Many will continue to go to a traditional market, but buy from a regular and trusted trader. One thing all income groups seem to have in common is a deep sense of uncertainty concerning the food they eat.
Dietary distrust and visions of modernisation
Distrust of the government is prevalent, with a not insignificant number of conspiracy theories concerning official cover-ups. It does not help that corruption is rampant – or that Vietnamese authorities initially tried to keep the 2016 Formosa incident quiet. It is nevertheless clear that the authorities take food security seriously. Their response seems to be, by now, a well-known one: continuing the ‘modernisation’ of Vietnam towards a more ‘civilised’ society. In terms of food, this vision seems to imply more supermarkets and less traditional markets and street vendors, as well as encouraging a transition from the current dominance of smallholder farming towards large-scale agriculture involving big capital. It is hoped this should make production cleaner and easier to control, both for domestic and foreign markets, while also help meet the challenge of Vietnamese consumers increasingly changing their diets towards more animal-sourced food.
In terms of quantity, the authorities may well be right. But the track record of large-scale agricultural and agribusiness globally is rather problematic, particularly when it comes to environmental impact and animal ethics, issues that interestingly have attracted very little attention so far in Vietnam. Scaling up agriculture furthermore involves dealing with land, the most contentious issue in Vietnam and a frequent cause of protests. Not to mention the fact that half of Vietnam’s population still has agriculture as a central part of their livelihood.
Food consumption and production in Vietnam is likely to change significantly in the coming years. The question still remains how and to what extent it will change. One thing seems certain: Vietnam is facing perhaps its biggest development challenge in a very long time and how the communist party solves it will have important consequences for its largely performance-based legitimacy.