Two years ago, Diep Bui was climbing the career ladder in the Vietnamese banking sector. Life was about keeping up appearances, indulging in fancy restaurants and buying expensive clothes. But her mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer prompted a rapid reassessment of priorities.

“Our family started thinking carefully about what we eat,” explains the 29 year old Diep. Concerned about the chemical contaminants in food and household products, and their link with cancer, they began sourcing local organic produce. Restaurants became a thing of the past. She now uses plant extracts instead of soap and shampoo and washes dishes with lime and hot water.

Diep’s radical lifestyle change did not stop there. She abandoned her job to set up the social enterprise Bo Cong Anh (Dandelion), which provides online delivery of organic fruit and vegetables from three small farms near Hanoi.

Diep at the organic market

Diep at the organic market

At an organic market organised by Naturally Vietnam, a company founded in 2007 aiming to provide consumers with safe and traceable food, I meet Diep along with the company’s manager, Phuong Nguyen. Phuong used to work as a veterinary consultant. Disturbed by what she observed Phuong, like Diep, opted for a career change. “One of the hormones that farmers give to pigs is so strong that if slaughtering is delayed by even one day, the pigs can’t walk any more and their skin starts cracking,” she explains, adding that unauthorised antibiotics are also commonly used.

The dangers do not stop at the farm gate. Amongst the examples that Phuong cites is the pumping of untreated water into meat by market vendors, making it heavier in weight and thus increasing its selling price – and the chances of contamination.

“Food safety is a major issue in Vietnam,” confirms Leandro Rossi of VECO Vietnam, an NGO focused on sustainable agriculture. “Whilst steps have been taken to improve safety in recent years, the focus of the Vietnamese agricultural sector is still more on quantity than quality.”

Most agricultural production in Vietnam takes place on small-scale farms. Food shortages in the 1970s led to government subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides, which became widely available. As the country moved to a market economy, farmers started growing crops for profit, instead of subsistence, and their dependence on chemicals subsequently increased.

An organic farm signed up to the PGS scheme

An organic farm signed up to the PGS scheme

The Vietnamese authorities have an extensive list of permitted, restricted and prohibited pesticides, but the regulations are still inadequately enforced. A major cause for concern are the banned – and very toxic – chemicals making their way across the border from China. In the absence of proper labels and instructions, most farmers have no idea of the correct dosages of the products.

“Many farmers do not know which pesticides they are buying and are given no guidance on how to apply them,” says Leandro Rossi.

Until recently, farmers and consumers were unaware of the health hazards of these chemicals. But increasing access to the Internet and regular front-page food scares are changing that.

“There is a new food scandal in the news every week,” says Mayu Ino, Country Representative of the NGO Seed to Table, which promotes eco-friendly agriculture.

In 2000, Hanoians were stunned to learn that formaldehyde – a chemical used to preserve corpses – was widely used to prolong the shelf life of fresh noodles. In 2009, the Ministry of Health ordered a nationwide recall of 17 brands of Vietnamese-produced soy sauce after health inspectors in Ho Chi Minh City discovered that they contained dangerously high levels of the cancer-causing agent 3-MCPD.

Today this kind of revelation has become commonplace, although some of the discoveries seem beyond belief. “Last year, a food vendor in Hanoi was caught selling what he claimed was high quality rice from Thailand,” continues Mayu. “But when people cooked it, they realised it was made of plastic. Consumers feel they can’t trust food any more.”

Bo Cong Anh and Naturally Vietnam are just two of a growing number of businesses and organisations driven by a deepening concern for food safety in the Vietnamese capital. Sales are gradually rising, but both companies still struggle. Lack of resources for marketing means that they rely solely on word of mouth to increase their customer base.

“We know of 60 organic retailers in Hanoi,” says Leandro Rossi. “But people often ask us where they can buy organic food. They don’t know where to go.”

Naturally Vietnam's free-range chicken farm

Naturally Vietnam’s free-range chicken farm

Even those who do know cannot always afford to pay the extra 20-50% premium on organic products. “Many of our customers only buy organic food for their children,” says Phuong. “They do not earn enough to buy it for their whole family.”

Another barrier is consumers’ endemic lack of trust, which extends to retailers purporting to sell organic products.

“In Vietnam we can never be 100% sure that a product is organic,” says Ha, a regular customer at Naturally Vietnam. She tells me about the case of a supermarket chain falsely claiming that products were organic – and selling them at a higher price.

“Our customers often ask to visit our farm,” says Diep. “It’s the only way we can prove that our products are really organic.”

There is currently no national organic certification system in Vietnam and the cost of international certification is prohibitive for small-scale farmers. Nhung Tu, a technical advisor, was working for the Danish NGO ADDA when it introduced the first major organic project in Vietnam in 1999. “Farmers needed a way of guaranteeing that their produce was organic,” she explains. “But when we approached the Ministry of Agriculture with the idea of developing a label, they weren’t interested.”

Determined to find a solution, Nhung and her team persuaded a group of consumers, retailers, farmers and scientists to pioneer a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) in the Hanoi region. In this community-based system, farmers comply with standards set by the international organic body IFOAM. The different participants share the responsibility of training producers in organic methods of farming and conducting inspections to verify that crops are being produced according to organic standards. It has been fairly successful so far, with 45 shops throughout the city selling PGS certified produce and 350 tonnes of vegetables sold last year, compared with 96 tonnes five years ago.

Yet the organic movement faces a considerable obstacle: convincing farmers to convert to a more laborious form of agriculture.

An organic farm signed up to the PGS scheme

An organic farm signed up to the PGS scheme

Decreasing fertility of the soil, babies born with disabilities and rural communities identified as “cancer villages” are all contributing to a growing interest in organic farming amongst many farmers. Others are attracted by the economic prospects. “The purchasing price for organic vegetables can be double that of conventional vegetables,” says Mayu. “The fixed price offered for PGS certified produce also enables farmers to have a stable income rather than depending on fluctuating market prices.”

But the reality of organic agriculture is often tougher than anticipated. “Farmers often give up after one or two years,” continues Mayu. “They aren’t prepared for how time-consuming it can be.”

“The number of farmers signed up to PGS constantly changes,” says Nhung. The system has yet to reach its target number of participants, but Nhung hopes that with time, more farmers will be inspired by the success of those who have persisted with organic agriculture.

Leandro Rossi believes that more producers will go organic as consumer demand rises. Key to this is making it easier for people to find organic products, and VECO Vietnam is developing a website showing the location of shops selling organic products in Hanoi.

The pioneers of the organic movement, still in its infancy in Vietnam, are optimistic. Diep has no regrets since her career change and is confident that more of her compatriots will come to share her convictions. “Without real food,” she concludes, “our country has no future.”

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