Where the Pepper Grows, There’s a Demand for Agricultural Change


The winds of change are blowing through Vietnam’s pepper farms.

Despite ranking among the top exporters of chilli pepper in the world, Vietnam, as in many other areas of agricultural production, still struggles with the quality of harvest. In early October, the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry (MOA) has halted import of Vietnamese chilli peppers. The stated reason? They detected pesticide residues surpassing the allowed limit.

Although Vietnamese farmers have protested the decision as unfair to farms who do not violate the limits, it’s long past the time for the country to grapple with its unsustainable agricultural practices. After opening the doors to the world market, agriculture business at large has switched heavily to intensive farming in order to make cheap produce in the largest quantities possible for export. According to experts, this approach is no longer possible, as it degrades land and water with an unprecedented amount of pesticides, yields low-quality produce, which is then not accepted in the European or American markets, and, in the markets that do import these products, have to compete on price points with the Chinese. As a result, farmers have to make do with very low profit margins as their environmental resources decrease.

Pepper farm

Vietnam’s status as a pepper exporter is at risk.

The water degradation has also led to the abuse of ground water, which has since caused issues with land subsidence – the uneven sinking of the ground. As remarked by experts in the Mekong Delta, the region is sinking rapidly for this very reason. This year, Resolution 120 NQ-CP was issued for more sustainable agricultural business practices, but moves towards practical changes in reality have been minimal. Without guidance, destructive practices continue unabated. A few farmers, however, have decided to adjust on their own terms.

Pepper farm

One of Nguyen’s farmers shows that there are those who want to bring about change.

Nguyen Thi Kim Xuan, owner of a chilli pepper farm in Cu Chi, has become such a farmer and business owner. Trained in fine art and having worked as a fashion designer, it was something of a u-turn when Nguyen decided to start the farm, but she was urged on by her sister in Australia. “I was obsessed with the harmful chemicals in agricultural produces in Vietnam. My sister was running a farm in the Israeli model in Australia, so after a few conversations with her, I decided to do the same in my hometown here in Cu Chi.”

Pepper farm

In a more in-depth explanation, this model entails that, instead of planting chilli peppers straight into the ground, the peppers at her farm grow from separate vessels, which include materials like coconut fibre and manures to act as fertilisers. “This way, the pepper plants do not get encroached with fungi and other diseases like when they grow straight from the ground.” In turn, these vessels eliminate the need for pesticides. “No pesticide or nitrate residue can be found in our peppers.”

Indeed, Nguyen’s peppers meet all the goals for quality exported produces. Another plus side; the land doesn’t have to stew in the mixture of harmful chemicals or lose its nutritious quality and become unable to support farming. In short, it’s a sustainable agricultural practice.

Pepper farm

So far, although chilli peppers are a popular produce in Cu Chi, Nguyen’s farm remains unique in the region. “After chilli peppers, I would hope to do the same for other produces as well, like gourds, bitter melons, and cabbages.” Looking to the future, this approach seems right for agricultural business at large, but the question remains whether Vietnamese industry will adapt in time to compete in international market, which, as the Malaysian halt indicates, is becoming tougher to please, especially with outdated farming practices.

Pepper farm

Pepper farm

Can Vietnam’s peppers be saved? © HOT TABLE. Photography by Thuy Ca.

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