Governing pesticide in vegetable production in Vietnam

P. Van Hoi

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract


The economic liberalization in Vietnam, initiated in the middle of the 1980s, contributed to the further intensification and expansion of private actor-engagement in agriculture and food-supply. Vietnamese farmers, who already considered applying pesticides the most effective manner to protect their vegetable crops from pests and disease attacks, started using more pesticides. Pesticide use in agriculture has, therefore, increased astonishingly in recent decades which causes increasing anxiety among Vietnamese consumers. Every year, thousands of Vietnamese consumers are poisoned through contaminated foods while millions of farmers are exposed to chronic poisoning resulting from the use of pesticides. Besides threatening human health, pesticide use endangers water quality and ecosystems in the fertile river deltas of northern and southern Vietnam. In addition, intensive use of pesticides is threatening export opportunities for vegetables and fruits from Vietnam. Although Vietnamese governments have devoted many efforts to control pesticide industry and use as well as food quality, so far they have largely failed in getting the relevant practices in line with these policy goals.

This study applied–and thus assessed the value of–Ecological Modernization Theory perspectives in analyzing the greening of food production in Vietnam with a focus on the roles played by the Vietnamese state and the different societal actors in pesticide-related food production practices: farmers, pesticide retailers/companies, vegetable exporters, and consumers. The study made use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods to assess current pesticide policies and practices and to formulate recommendations for the further ‘greening’ of vegetable production.

Unlike previous studies which reported that market liberalization in Vietnam led to increased application of cheaper, more hazardous pesticides, our study found some improvements in the pesticide use of vegetable farmers. Together with more respect paid to the pesticide pre-harvest interval by safe vegetable farmers, several techniques for reduced pesticide use were developed and applied especially by export farmers, for instance direct pesticide injection, and application of peat-block germination techniques. Similarly, our detailed farming monitoring showed that farmers in Hanoi tend to use more expensive and safer pesticides than farmers in more remote areas. Although improved biochemical effectiveness of these pesticides and related techniques are the main explaining factors, to a small extent these farmers’ concerns about vegetable consumers’ health and safety and about environmental impacts also contribute to this shift. This tendency seems to be positively correlated with the improvement of farmers’ technical knowledge and their experience with pesticides. The changes in pesticide use by farmers can also partly explain the (small) changes that took place on the pesticide market in Vietnam recently, notably the elimination of unnecessary pesticides. However, this improvement is still marginal and especially relevant among safe vegetable and export-oriented farmers and it will probably take considerable time until a substantial percentage of the vegetable farmers will decide to get rid of unnecessary pesticides completely.

At the moment, the situation among vegetable growing farmers is characterized by improper pesticide use and inadequate attention given to the pesticide pre-harvest interval. These dangerous practices are still widely spread in Vietnam and despite the technical training that a large percentage of the farmers have received from state and non-state actors, their practices remain strongly influenced by their traditional routines and experience-based assessments of risks. These conventional practices rely on their experiences with climate conditions, pest and disease populations, market prices of vegetables, etc. During their daily activities, farmers, nevertheless, face numerous constraints in selecting and using pesticides, as, for instance, they are unable to determine the toxicity of pesticides. In reaction they have developed a number of risky routines as they apply pesticides in overdose, use pesticides in cocktails, evaluate the quality of a pesticide on the costs rather than on its technical attributes, while many pay inadequate attention to the pre-harvest interval. These dangerous practices are responsible for the misuse of pesticides that in turn causes the presence of inadmissible residues on vegetable products and leads to environmental pollution.

Farmers on their own cannot change the current situation regarding the use of pesticides in Vietnamese vegetable production. Transformations in different other practices in the vegetable supply chain are also necessary. In particular, the distorted system for the distribution of agricultural inputs needs to change. In the absence of effective enforcement from the relevant governmental policies and of consumer pressure to respect environmental and human health interests, Vietnamese vegetable supply-chain actors are mostly oriented towards quick profit-yielding activities. As the pesticide market is poorly regulated, many pesticides are obtainable on the market with a rather low use-value in vegetable protection but a high load of active ingredients with large environmental impacts.

Although the pesticide market in Vietnam is changing in recent years and particularly the import of new and safer compounds is growing (both in terms of quantity and value), the situation remains dominated by rather toxic pesticides (i.e., WHO toxic category II). The search for short-term profit dominates the business strategy of most pesticide companies and leads to the continuous increase in types of pesticides. This proliferation of pesticide names makes it even more difficult for farmers to make a good selection and is contributing to the misuse of pesticides in vegetable production.

Comparable to the situation on the pesticides market, the vegetable market is also poorly organized, although with the exception of the safe vegetable production and export sectors which are structured somewhat better. Even though private food producers, operators and consumers are partly legitimized by recent government policies as key agents in protecting food safety and environmental impacts, they are poorly cooperating towards improving vegetable production. A modern vegetable retailing chain (supermarkets) with higher concerns for food safety and environmental health is emerging, but still accounts for only a very small share of the market. The traditional channels of retailing vegetables, such as wet markets and hawkers, are dominating vegetable supply to consumers even in urban areas. This poorly regulated chain has not been able to provide vegetables of good quality and safety to consumers, not even to those who are willing to pay extra for safe produce. Thus, while in OECD countries non-state actors have been able to develop farming and retailing mechanisms such as GlobalGAP and CSA, which shift the farm management practices towards improved environmental performance, in Vietnam non-state actors have not yet been able to do so.

The current governmental system in Vietnam largely explains the disorder in the pesticide and vegetable markets in combination with the particular behavior of the actors involved. The centralized Vietnamese governmental system, characterized by bureaucracy, information closure and corruption, has contributed to the ineffective responses to the problems on the emerging markets because laws are not sufficiently enforced. Pesticides regulations are repeatedly violated by private actors in Vietnam as nearly all actors seem more oriented towards (short-term) economic profits than to adequate consideration of their responsibilities towards the law, other people’s welfare and the environment. A state governed by laws to which all public and civil actors adhere to is therefore a necessary pre-condition for a more positive future in Vietnam’s pesticide use in vegetable production. This will definitely require a transformation of the existing governmental structure, i.e. from top-down, command-and-control and hierarchical policy-oriented towards more consensual, participative, network and market-oriented, as proposed by Ecological Modernisation Theorists.


The economic liberalization in Vietnam, initiated in the middle of the 1980s, contributed to the further intensification and expansion of private actor-engagement in agriculture and food-supply. Vietnamese farmers, who already considered applying pesticides the most effective manner to protect their vegetable crops from pests and disease attacks, started using more pesticides. Pesticide use in agriculture has, therefore, increased astonishingly in recent decades which causes increasing anxiety among Vietnamese consumers. Every year, thousands of Vietnamese consumers are poisoned through contaminated foods while millions of farmers are exposed to chronic poisoning resulting from the use of pesticides. Besides threatening human health, pesticide use endangers water quality and ecosystems in the fertile river deltas of northern and southern Vietnam. In addition, intensive use of pesticides is threatening export opportunities for vegetables and fruits from Vietnam. Although Vietnamese governments have devoted many efforts to control pesticide industry and use as well as food quality, so far they have largely failed in getting the relevant practices in line with these policy goals.

This study applied–and thus assessed the value of–Ecological Modernization Theory perspectives in analyzing the greening of food production in Vietnam with a focus on the roles played by the Vietnamese state and the different societal actors in pesticide-related food production practices: farmers, pesticide retailers/companies, vegetable exporters, and consumers. The study made use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods to assess current pesticide policies and practices and to formulate recommendations for the further ‘greening’ of vegetable production.

Unlike previous studies which reported that market liberalization in Vietnam led to increased application of cheaper, more hazardous pesticides, our study found some improvements in the pesticide use of vegetable farmers. Together with more respect paid to the pesticide pre-harvest interval by safe vegetable farmers, several techniques for reduced pesticide use were developed and applied especially by export farmers, for instance direct pesticide injection, and application of peat-block germination techniques. Similarly, our detailed farming monitoring showed that farmers in Hanoi tend to use more expensive and safer pesticides than farmers in more remote areas. Although improved biochemical effectiveness of these pesticides and related techniques are the main explaining factors, to a small extent these farmers’ concerns about vegetable consumers’ health and safety and about environmental impacts also contribute to this shift. This tendency seems to be positively correlated with the improvement of farmers’ technical knowledge and their experience with pesticides. The changes in pesticide use by farmers can also partly explain the (small) changes that took place on the pesticide market in Vietnam recently, notably the elimination of unnecessary pesticides. However, this improvement is still marginal and especially relevant among safe vegetable and export-oriented farmers and it will probably take considerable time until a substantial percentage of the vegetable farmers will decide to get rid of unnecessary pesticides completely.

At the moment, the situation among vegetable growing farmers is characterized by improper pesticide use and inadequate attention given to the pesticide pre-harvest interval. These dangerous practices are still widely spread in Vietnam and despite the technical training that a large percentage of the farmers have received from state and non-state actors, their practices remain strongly influenced by their traditional routines and experience-based assessments of risks. These conventional practices rely on their experiences with climate conditions, pest and disease populations, market prices of vegetables, etc. During their daily activities, farmers, nevertheless, face numerous constraints in selecting and using pesticides, as, for instance, they are unable to determine the toxicity of pesticides. In reaction they have developed a number of risky routines as they apply pesticides in overdose, use pesticides in cocktails, evaluate the quality of a pesticide on the costs rather than on its technical attributes, while many pay inadequate attention to the pre-harvest interval. These dangerous practices are responsible for the misuse of pesticides that in turn causes the presence of inadmissible residues on vegetable products and leads to environmental pollution.

Farmers on their own cannot change the current situation regarding the use of pesticides in Vietnamese vegetable production. Transformations in different other practices in the vegetable supply chain are also necessary. In particular, the distorted system for the distribution of agricultural inputs needs to change. In the absence of effective enforcement from the relevant governmental policies and of consumer pressure to respect environmental and human health interests, Vietnamese vegetable supply-chain actors are mostly oriented towards quick profit-yielding activities. As the pesticide market is poorly regulated, many pesticides are obtainable on the market with a rather low use-value in vegetable protection but a high load of active ingredients with large environmental impacts.

Although the pesticide market in Vietnam is changing in recent years and particularly the import of new and safer compounds is growing (both in terms of quantity and value), the situation remains dominated by rather toxic pesticides (i.e., WHO toxic category II). The search for short-term profit dominates the business strategy of most pesticide companies and leads to the continuous increase in types of pesticides. This proliferation of pesticide names makes it even more difficult for farmers to make a good selection and is contributing to the misuse of pesticides in vegetable production.

Comparable to the situation on the pesticides market, the vegetable market is also poorly organized, although with the exception of the safe vegetable production and export sectors which are structured somewhat better. Even though private food producers, operators and consumers are partly legitimized by recent government policies as key agents in protecting food safety and environmental impacts, they are poorly cooperating towards improving vegetable production. A modern vegetable retailing chain (supermarkets) with higher concerns for food safety and environmental health is emerging, but still accounts for only a very small share of the market. The traditional channels of retailing vegetables, such as wet markets and hawkers, are dominating vegetable supply to consumers even in urban areas. This poorly regulated chain has not been able to provide vegetables of good quality and safety to consumers, not even to those who are willing to pay extra for safe produce. Thus, while in OECD countries non-state actors have been able to develop farming and retailing mechanisms such as GlobalGAP and CSA, which shift the farm management practices towards improved environmental performance, in Vietnam non-state actors have not yet been able to do so.

The current governmental system in Vietnam largely explains the disorder in the pesticide and vegetable markets in combination with the particular behavior of the actors involved. The centralized Vietnamese governmental system, characterized by bureaucracy, information closure and corruption, has contributed to the ineffective responses to the problems on the emerging markets because laws are not sufficiently enforced. Pesticides regulations are repeatedly violated by private actors in Vietnam as nearly all actors seem more oriented towards (short-term) economic profits than to adequate consideration of their responsibilities towards the law, other people’s welfare and the environment. A state governed by laws to which all public and civil actors adhere to is therefore a necessary pre-condition for a more positive future in Vietnam’s pesticide use in vegetable production. This will definitely require a transformation of the existing governmental structure, i.e. from top-down, command-and-control and hierarchical policy-oriented towards more consensual, participative, network and market-oriented, as proposed by Ecological Modernisation Theorists.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Oosterveer, Peter, Co-promotor
Award date3 Feb 2010
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085855408
Publication statusPublished - 3 Feb 2010

Keywords

  • vegetable growing
  • plant protection
  • pesticides
  • agricultural policy
  • vietnam
  • environmental policy
  • developing countries
  • south east asia
  • exports
  • ecology
  • governance
  • agro-industrial chains
  • authorisation of pesticides

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