|Switzerland State Secretary Christian Hofer, Director General for Federal Office of Agriculture visits Sơn Hà Spice and Flavourings factory in Bắc Ninh Province. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà|
Twenty years after backpacking around Việt Nam, State Secretary, Director General for the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture Christian Hofer is back in Hà Nội to confirm Switzerland's continuous economic development support for Việt Nam on its quest to achieve market-based, sustainable growth and environment eco-friendly practices.
Ahead of the 4th Global Conference of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme wrapping up in Hà Nội on April 27, he speaks with Việt Nam News after visiting Sơn Hà Spice and Flavourings, a factory producing cinnamon products, in Bắc Ninh Province.
What messages will you touch upon and deliver at the Conference on the Sustainable Food System? Where do you see the role Việt Nam is taking and its impact on the world’s food chain supply?
I would like to express how pleased I am that the opening day of this conference has finally come and that I can be here in Hà Nội.
The transformation of food systems towards sustainability is fundamental to ensuring food security for future generations. Switzerland supports a holistic view of food systems. One of the main tools is clearly dialogue. It is essential to create a dialogue with all stakeholders in the sector, both at national and international levels, to build mutual understanding, share experiences and learn from each other.
As one of the world's largest exporters of coffee, rice and cashew nuts, to mention a few examples, Việt Nam has an important card to play. The preservation of resources such as soil is a central issue in the fight against food poverty. By co-organising this conference on sustainable food systems, Việt Nam is giving a strong signal and providing cultural leadership.
The United Nations' 50th Plenary Session of the Committee on World Food Security took place in October 2022. Could you please shed some light on the state of World Food Security and Nutrition this year? Have there been any improvements or indications for improvements or concerns?
The impacts of disasters and crises, which we all know too well, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts including the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis, have not only reversed the progress that we have collectively made but continue to devastate agrifood systems — meaning, how we produce, how we process, how we distribute and how we consume our food.
People who rely on agrifood systems are directly impacted and are among the most vulnerable. But frankly speaking, these crises spare no one.
Already in 2021, before the outbreak of the war, over 800 million people were experiencing hunger. Although figures for 2022 are not yet available, there is evidence that food security levels worldwide continue to worsen. Our data also reflects exacerbated inequalities across and within countries due to an unequal pattern of economic recovery among countries and unrecovered income losses among those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poorest and most vulnerable are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. The issue at stake is not whether adversities will continue to occur or not but how we must take bolder action to build resilience against future shocks and transform our agrifood systems.
But there is also cause for optimism: the CFS (Conference on Food Security) approved policy recommendations on promoting youth engagement and employment in agriculture and food systems. This is a recognition of the important role of youth in our food systems and a practical guide to governments and stakeholders on how to promote youth. We are proud and honoured that the CFS has entrusted Switzerland to chair this important process.
As one of the major supporters of the CFS, how do you see the role Việt Nam playing in providing a certain degree of food security as it’s lifted itself from one of the food importers to the world’s third rice exporter?
Indeed, as a major exporter of rice and coffee, Việt Nam's contribution to sustainable food systems is important, not only internationally. Establishing sustainable food systems is also important to ensure the supply in its own country.
On this trip, you shall be visiting Swiss-funded project in Việt Nam. The Biotrade project, how do you see it fit in the bigger picture of food security and nutrition?
The Biotrade project aims at conserving biodiversity by promoting sustainable production and trade of indigenous plants, especially natural ingredients with high value and export potential. It assists exporters of such products in sourcing, processing and exporting to international markets. By conserving biodiversity, promoting socially and environmentally sustainable production, and supporting the marketing of these products to international markets.
The project contributes directly to the goals of the Conference on a Sustainable Food System, which aims to ensure long-term and sustainable access to sufficient and healthy food worldwide.
Swiss consumers value organic and sustainably produced foods and are ready to pay a premium. The Biotrade project is opening in this important and growing niche and without sustainability, there will be no long-term food security; hence the Biotrade project is an important contribution and fits very well into what will be needed to make the food system transformation successful.
You have just visited a company benefitting from the Biotrade project. What improvements and challenges did this coordination bring to the company and its European clients?
With the support of the Biotrade project, Sơn Hà is the first spice company to obtain the Union for Ethical Biotrade/ Rainforest Alliance certification for their cinnamon value chains. It has been able to export certified products to the United States, European Union and Australian markets. The company has also received technical support for developing a biodiversity action plan to conserve the ecosystem in the Nà Hẩu National Reserve and the benefits of improved business support services to continue to ensure quality and sustainable production practices.
Challenges remain in further expanding sustainable production and sourcing, as well as building capacities for better marketing these products in export markets.
Just last week, European Parliament approved a landmark deforestation law to ban imports into the EU of coffee, beef, soy and other commodities if they are linked to the destruction of the world's forests. What's your take on this issue?
I've seen that you take the right decision that has produced sustainably and that you have taken into account that in European Union, and also in Switzerland, consumers are very sensible. If you do trade agreements, sustainable production becomes more and more important.
I see that in Việt Nam, the Swiss Economic Cooperation Organisation (SECO) has been working with with value chains to attain high standards. Hence, your products meet the requirements of consumers in Europe. As I've seen here, you're on the right way; we try to support it. You may have the synergy that you will succeed. I see the role of SECO and the Biotrade project in this process.
Until ten years ago, we helped develop the country. Now, you are a developed country; you have the infrastructure, you have the know-how, and now we try to support you, not in developing anymore, but in succeeding in a higher level of the value chains. And I think this support is really vital to what the consumers want in Europe.
You are here for the Conference on Food Security, but you visit a spice factory. Where does this trip fit in the big picture?
Food is not only calories. Food is much more. Yes, food nourishes people, but food also means income for generations, which means producing food. You will also need to protect the environment to produce food sustainably. Food is also a tradition. It has a culture behind it, and food is also a symbol of a country like Switzerland. Combined with culture, food is taste. So you need the spices for the taste. If you do not have the taste behind it, you won't have the tradition of your country anymore.
Next Friday, I am going to a conference in Switzerland, "The Taste of Food in Towns."
Having been in the cassia production line for the morning, is it too early to feel like Christmas is coming?
Indeed, when I saw these cinnamon rolls here, it made me feel a little bit like Christmas. In Switzerland, we use them in cold times to warm us up. If you see something you have so many emotions with, you'd feel like it's winter or Christmas time at home. We have many traditions that involve the use of cinnamon, like the glühwein (mulled wine), the lebkuchen (gingerbread house), the basler leckerli (Swiss spiced cookie bars) and last but not least, the zimtsterne (cinnamon-starred cookies).
We also have a tradition to have a sweet porridge with apple and cinnamon, that's very delicious and a great source of comfort food for everyone. VNS