Nguyễn Ngọc Kính
Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Kính, former director of the Department of Science and Technology and Product Quality under the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development (MARD), speaks to Khoa học & Đời sống (Science and Life) on why organic farming should not be applied to mass agricultural production in Việt Nam.
Lately we have been talking about organic farming as the salvation for Việt Nam’s agricultural sector. As a scientist, what do you think about that?
I support the development of organic farming in Việt Nam, but there are many misunderstandings and misapprehensions about it. People consider it to be an agricultural system and start using words like “high-tech agriculture”, “organic agriculture”. But in fact “high-tech” and “organic” are only the methods of production and do not represent our entire agricultural sector.
So what kind of agriculture are we having, exactly?
Previously, we had extensive agriculture, which used manual production methods, native varieties, and little-to-no fertilisers (green manure). It was followed by intensive agriculture which used new and higher-yielding varieties and more-advanced production methods that involved mechanisation and chemicals.
But over-use of chemicals reduced product quality, so now we need an intensive, sustainable agricultural system that ensures high yields, quality and safety of crops and does not cause harm to the environment and ecosystem.
Why shouldn’t we develop organic agriculture, as organic products are safe to humans and the environment?
Organic farming should only be considered a production method for sustainable intensive agriculture, since production experiences of Việt Nam and foreign countries show that organic farming reduces yields by 30 per cent.
There are two main reasons for this. First, since organic fertilisers contains little nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK), it requires a large amount to raise crops. Second, organic fertilisers can’t meet the nutrient requirements of crops in different growing periods, both in terms of quantity and quality, because they decompose slowly.
Are those the reasons why organic farming cannot be applied to mass production?
Organic farming can’t be applied in the Mekong Delta because the delta’s soil and water conditions are incapable of meeting strict requirements of organic farming. Losing 30 per cent of yields would severely affect food security.
It can’t be applied to tea farming, either, because tea needs a large amount of protein, phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). It can only be applied to a certain rice varieties that are often grown in the midlands and mountains, and some medicinal plants.
And organic products can only target certain groups of consumers?
The areas that apply organic farming in the world account for only 0.96 per cent of total farming areas. In developed countries with high per capita income, organic products are only consumed by upscale people who choose what they eat very carefully, who want and are able to afford foreign-produced organic foods. Their domestic productions follow common standards like GlobalGAP, EUROGAP, not organic standards.
But the majority of consumers insist that products need to be organically-cultivated to be safe, otherwise they are stuffed with chemicals?
Not only consumers, but producers and market managers also think that organic farming is simply avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which is an incomprehensive view. They should not think that only organic products are clean and safe, because in clean agricultural production procedures we still use fertilisers and pesticides, but within permissible limits so that they will not harm crops and the environment.
Is this misunderstanding a result of the food safety crisis that has been present in the country in recent years?
Food safety is the Number 1 priority for citizens because it has direct effects on their health. So their high demand for safe food is understandable. However, the income of an average labourer can only afford clean products (qualifying the VietGAP standards) at the moment, not organic products.
Does it mean we should focus on clean agricultural production, not organic production?
Organic farming should only be applied to produce a certain amount of products to serve the demands of some domestic enterprises, supermarkets, and foreign importers. Avoid applying it to mass production because we currently have little market for organic products. — VNS