On the way home from work, Van Pham, 40, stopped at a store of Dalat Hasfarm near her house to buy two bouquets of flowers. The single female office worker was happy to pay 150,000 VND (6 euros) for ten roses. The newly-picked roses here are guaranteed to stay fresh for at least four days, while the same type of flower, being sold at a local wet market at half the price, does not come with such an assurance. Pham belongs to the growing group of middle-income earners in Vietnam, which is expected to reach 36 million people by 2030 and include consumers who are willing to pay for quality and especially domestically-made products.
Horticulture, or growing garden plants, is fairly new in the Southeast Asian country compared to its long history of wet rice planting. Many farmers in the Mekong Delta - the nation's traditional rice hub - switched from rice to fruits, vegetables, or flowers a few decades ago as the crops fetch two to four times higher profit than rice. Tropical climate, fertile soil, abundant water resources, and rich biodiversity have been natural advantages for the local horticultural field. However, these favorable conditions are now vulnerable in the face of new challenges such as climate change, sea level rise, and overpopulation.
Vietnamese horticulture mired in challenges
Horticultural experts in Vietnam have highlighted numerous problems in the sector, including the unbalanced use of fertilizers and pest control agents, which have led to environmental pollution, ecological imbalance, soil acidification, and caused drug resistance in pests while beneficial organisms (natural enemies) are destroyed.
According to the Plant Protection Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, from 2011 to 2020, Vietnam annually imported and consumed from 70,000 to 100,000 tons of plant protection drugs, with pesticides accounting for 20.4%, disease control substances 23.2%, herbicides 44.4 %, and others 12%. The plant protection chemicals were mainly imported from China, India, Germany, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan, with those from China making up 57.2%. Monitoring the use of pesticides and fertilizers is one of the biggest challenges in Vietnam's agriculture industry. Meanwhile, biological control agents remain unpopular. According to a study done at the request of the Dutch government, presented at the 5th International Exhibition and Conference for Horticultural and Floricultural Production and Processing Technology in Vietnam (HortEx), the usage of biological products remains low in the local horticulture sector, and only 15% of the output is certified with VietGap or GlobalGap.
Starting materials are a headache as well. Even in the Mekong Delta, the country's largest horticulture region, farmers are just buying seeds or young plants from uncertified breeders and nurseries without asking for property rights or knowing if the seeds and the plants are disease-free. This practice causes more harm than good.
Some citrus farms in the Mekong Delta saw 30-40 percent of the plants suffer huge losses after 3-4 years of hard cultivating. Furthermore, poor quality seeds have a low germination capacity and result in the inconsistent quality of products, hampering the country's horticulture export potential, which stood at around US$2.5-3.8 billion annually between 2011 and 2020, data from Larive/OpenAsia showed.
Opportunities for Dutch solutions
During Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh's visit to the Netherlands' World Horti Center in December 2022, he suggested that the center can help Vietnam improve seed and bulb nurseries, processing technology, know-how, market standards, and innovation centers to reach global consumers. Vietnamese Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Le Minh Hoan said that Vietnam would cooperate with Dutch partners to mitigate adverse agricultural impacts as the country aims to feed the world with products made for a smart, circular, organic, responsible, and emission-balanced agricultural approach. "From seeds and bulbs to greener and smarter greenhouses, from using biological control agents to post-harvest technology, with all segments along the value chain, the Dutch companies can work with Vietnamese partners to address the challenges of its horticulture sector," said Ingrid Korving, Agricultural Counsellor of the Netherlands Embassy.
Recently, during the HortEX in Ho Chi Minh City, 33 Dutch companies teamed up to showcase their capacity to provide an integrated growing approach for farmers and companies. For example, Dutch companies are among the world-class producers of raw materials such as seeds and young plants. The application of research and technologies gives seeds and other starting materials more germination capacity, so they can be better grown and are better protected against pathogenic organisms and new conditions, climate or otherwise.
Intelligent software and sensors in smart greenhouses help monitor plant growth, the threat of disease outbreaks, and water intake. Outdoor-grown crops and post-production technologies are also very advanced. This wide range of technologies and knowledge will help Vietnam reach its ambitious goals of feeding the world.
Vietnam's export ambitions
Horticulture is one of the most promising sectors of the Vietnamese economy, according to experts. Besides traditional products like coffee, nuts, pepper, and tea Vietnam has exported tropical fruits like pomelos, lemons, and dragon fruits to many countries in recent years. These included high-standard markets like the US, the EU, and Japan. Globally, markets like the EU are expecting products with less environmental impact more and more. At the moment, Vietnam only exports 4% of the horticultural products that Europe needs.
To put Vietnam on the map as a major export country for horticultural products, the post-harvest and processing still require a lot of improvements, while practicing sustainable and circular horticulture is the answer.
Vietnam has a vision to unlock the full potential of the European Union–Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) that the country signed in 2020. So far, according to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, despite many attractive incentives, the EVFTA has not had a strong impact on Vietnam's agricultural exports to the EU yet. The most significant of which is that Vietnam's exports fail to meet the rules of origin. Transforming the country's horticulture field in partnership with Dutch companies will help narrow the gap and benefit both sides. Vietnam will meet the product standards the EU market requires, expanding production and creating more jobs in harmony with nature while ensuring a better quality of life for growers.
Dutch companies can run a healthy business in Vietnam and benefit from a huge domestic market with a population of nearly 100 million, socio-political stability, rapid economic development, a growing middle class, and a strong tradition in the agricultural sector as well as a welcoming environment for foreign investors and favorable regulations of the government.
According to the proposed Strategy for Horticulture Development to 2030 with a vision to 2045, which is being developed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development before submission to the Prime Minister for consideration and approval, horticulture will be the backbone of Vietnamese agriculture. By 2045, most of the horticultural products are expected to come from high-tech agriculture, organic agriculture, and eco-agriculture. In other words, they must meet biosafety standards while the practice is environmentally friendly.