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FOOD SECURITY IN AN AGRICULTURAL COUNTRY

by Nguyen Thi Thuy Binh

One Vietnamese saying highlights the importance of basic sustenance for social stability. "Social unrest will likely emerge when society is beset with food shortage," it has it.

Vietnam is an agricultural country with a population of nearly 80 million but an average per capita cultivated land area of less than 1,000 square metres. But over the past decade the country has achieved considerable success in food production. Once a country chronically short of food, Vietnam is now the second biggest rice exporter in the world. Total food output reached 34.5 million tonnes last year, of which more than four million tonnes went abroad.

Unfortunately, those figures do not signal that Vietnam has reached capacity when it comes to food security. Of the country's 17 million households, over 12 million are farming families; nearly 10 million rural households are considered to be free from famine, but at least 2.5 million live in poverty.

A recent survey found rural households, considered to have attained food security, include families having a sufficient labour force, cultivated land and a means of production. They also had to take the initiative and balance income with spending. Secure households are capable of covering necessary expenses including clothing, medical services and their children's education. If their income is not enough to redress subsistence expenses they fall off the food security list.

This proves that household-scale food security programmes must be defined by the farmers themselves - and that any national programme cannot succeed without the grass-roots participation of rural people. A rural community takes shape from a village or cluster of villages comprising many households. In midland and mountainous regions, a community is usually composed of families of the same tribe. Living in a community, all households have shared natural conditions, long-established customs and practices, and historical and cultural traditions. They have acquired a good understanding of each other and share common views on the needs for existence and development.

Commune-based food security programmes are implemented at household level. However, they can also bring into full play other advantages such as irrigation projects, mechanical workshops, technical services, mutual assistance and cooperation among member households. The community can also help its members develop side-line occupations and find outlets. It will enable villagers to earn more income to ensure food security, given that their cultivated land is slightly prone to natural disasters.

The country's food security programme must start from household and community food security. To ensure that at that grass-roots levels, it needs the Government assistance and support. However, food security is still an outstanding across the country, especially when Teat, the Lunar New Year, is marked. It's a time when hygiene and preparation standards of the food they make or buy, is high.

That's an important issue that has received increasing publicity in the media, as despite VN's standard of living improving year by year, so to has the incidence of food poisoning, with around 270 cases recorded in 1998, and an estimated 300 in 1999. These cases not only led to thousands of people being stricken by illnesses through the unsafe foods they ate, but also led to at least 100 preventable deaths. Last year alone in Hai, there were many food poisoning cases, largely caused by contaimnated processed food sold by street vendors. Dozens of students and teachers from Ngo Si Lien School were poisoned by phthe traditional and popular noodle sold by a local stall-woener.

But the problem is more widespread than most people realise, or care to think about. During an investigation conducted two months ago in the capital and a few other large cities, 70 percent of utensils used in eateries were found to be unclean. But the food itself was also of considerable concern, With 60 percent of glutinous pork pieces analysed testing positive for micro-organisms, while between 40 and 70 per cent of fermented pork rolls testing positive. Noodles fared little better, with 50 percent registering bacterial contamination, and 90 percent of pig tripe products similarly suspect. But its not only bacterial contamination, 90 percent of Vietnamese sausage, Chinese sausage and chilli products, failed to meet the Ministry of Health's food dye requirements.

Aninspection campaign of food producers in 56 provinces and cities, failed almost a quarter for poor hygiene standards, while nearly 40 percent of the 15,000 products sampled failed food hygiene requirements. Most were expired products.

Health authorities are also increasingly worried over the spreading use of fertilisers and stimulants, such as hormones, to either preserve or artificially enhance the look of fruit and vegetables.

There is real concern that long-term health effects of these chemicals may especially harmful. This is even more of an issue when poor quality products are consumed in remote areas, where local residents lack information on product quality.

To solve the issue government officials have carried out programmes including a Month of Action to ensure food quality, hygiene and safety. And, this year the Vietnamese government is to invest U$710,000 to improve information and management capacity in the sector to help ensure these goals. Last year, the Government invested only VN billion (about US$71,000) in food hygiene management. The main purpose of the campaign is to raise public awareness of food hygiene and safety and to ensure hygienic standards in the production and processing of food and drinks. It also aims to strengthen State management of food safety and hygiene to prevent food poisoning incidents.

Provincial health services will coordinate with food and health agencies to promote information on food safety and hygiene to consumers and food producers and sellers, and intensify inspection. In 1999, a reported 7,580 people suffered food poisoning in 327 cases which claimed 71 lives. The Ministry of Health, and other ministries, intensified food hygiene management in 1999. However, inspection s were mainly carried out in medium and large-scale food processing establishments. As a result, a large number of small-scale and family-based establishments, which were responsible for most food poisoning cases, escaped inspection.

Experts say it is vital to improve staff qualifications and provide more modern equipment and facilities to the health sector to increase the efficiency of food hygiene management.

Nguyen Thi Thuy Binh is a Sub-editor at Viet Nam News in Hanoi, Vietnam.