Organic Seafood Production in Vietnam: an Interview with Antoine Bui
Today’s consumers are increasingly socially and environmentally conscious. No longer are they eating simply to survive. A growing number want to be sure of the quality of what they are consuming, know where it has come from, how it’s been produced and any subsequent impact on the natural environment. Local producers are taking note of this trend thanks to people like Antoine Bui, a man with a passion for developing local organic production here in Vietnam. Bui is Representative Office Manager of Binca, a German company that distributes seafood products in Europe and Vietnam.
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Bui’s interest in organic food production started early in his career during a stint as a consultant conducting market studies related to Vietnam. Already someone at the forefront of new trends having opened a pasta restaurant in Poitiers, a student city in the West of France, at a time when pasta was just beginning to hit the food scene Bui moved back to Vietnam to work as Sales and Marketing Director at Aquaservice, specialists in tilapia production. It is here that he learnt about organic seafood production and certification from Mr Philippe Serene, General Director of Proconco and Aquaservice and a consultant for a German company distributing seafood products in Europe.
Since foreign companies could not purchase land Bui’s first mission was to secure partnerships with local fish farmers willing to go organic. Not an easy sell, 15 years ago, when the focus was on quantity, minimising costs and making a modest living. As it happened all that was needed was one person Ms Nguyen Thi Dung, an aquaculture engineer by training, who had her concerns about farming processes at the time. She was shocked to see that whole ponds were being treated with antibiotics without any distinction between sick and healthy fish and that epidemics were prevalent in the high density farms. Her misgivings made her immediately receptive to Bui’s approaches. A collaboration was formed and Ms Dung set up her first organic farm at Long Xuyen.
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Challenges and Opportunities for Organic Producers in Vietnam
At the heart of organic seafood is the quality of the environment, adherence to recognised stringent criteria; profits, with perseverance, come later. Organic is not for those seeking to make a quick buck or wanting to cut corners. You need to be a true believer working with a partner as devoted as you are. Converting a conventional fish farm into an organic one can take up to three years. Radical changes must be made throughout the entire business including seemingly basic hygiene matters such as not throwing used cigarette butts anywhere. In order to get certification, the whole farm must be organic - a mix of conventional and organic is not allowed - something that not everyone appreciates. Regulations must be met. The European Union, for example, forbids the use of reproductive hormones. Creation of optimal atmospheric conditions for the natural reproduction of pangasius presents a huge challenge for organic farmers in Vietnam. Nevertheless, certification labels are important as they give producers credibility in the overseas market.
For those that are unable to get organic certification, the Global GAP Aquaculture and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards, which allow the use of antibiotics under certain conditions and with strict tracking, offer an intermediary option. Producers in the Mekong Delta, seeing the growing concern over food safety among the middle class, are taking an interest in these intermediary labels. Bui hopes that once they understand them he will be able recruit more suppliers.
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Seafood is not the only organic food item today’s consumers are looking for. Demand for vegetables, fruits and poultry is also on the rise. Producers, recognising this and having heard of Bui’s work, are approaching him for advice on how to switch to organic farming. The organically certified, EU and Naturland, fruits and vegetables of this first collaboration will be available on the domestic market in early 2019.
According to Bui this organic movement offers a lot of opportunities. Shortages at stores are common particularly in Hanoi where consumers are perhaps more affluent. He also suspects Hanoians are wary of the many Chinese products flooding the market and have a greater trust in local produce. He has yet to witness such shortages in Ho Chi Minh City however he estimates that of the 10 million inhabitants of the metropolis 1.4 percent of them consume organic products on a regular basis spending around VND1,000,000 per month. He is convinced that a similar study in Hanoi would show even greater numbers.
The Future of Organic in Vietnam; Will the Trend Last?
One might wonder if this trend is sustainable in Vietnam. In Bui’s opinion, yes. Over the past two to three years the Vietnamese consumer has grown increasingly sophisticated and organic is seen as a guarantee of quality compared to products traditionally available to them. The numbers of farms declaring themselves organic producers are increasing particularly in the Hanoi area so much so that the Vietnamese government recognises that clarity around what is truly organic is going to be needed. In fact, Bui would go as far as to say that, were he a younger man, he’d start a chain of organic stores selling an extensive range of organic products including cosmetics highlighting the international appeal of such items.
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As to how the trend first started. Bui puts it down to the Vietnamese diaspora, especially those emanating from California where, of course, organic production has been popular for many years. He goes on to cite the example of an organic pepper producer who converted following the advice of his brother living in California.
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