Playing chess with a pigeon – food safety, food security and obesity in Vietnam

The recent series of poor decisions made by the leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world in response to the COVID pandemic are vivid illustrations that, more often than not, policy-makers base their decisions on perception, personal beliefs and values, and professional or political agendas. A recent study conducted in Vietnam reveals the policy framing and crisis narratives around food safety in this country.

By: Christophe Béné, Huong Pham, Tuyen Thi Thanh Huynh, Thanh Thi Duong

Credit: Steve Buissinne / Pixabay

Scientists and academics like to believe that policy-makers (those who decide where resources and investments should be allocated in the economy) base their decisions on science and evidence. This is a reassuring assumption that suggests that important decisions are made on the basis of facts and not fake news. It is also convenient because it provides those scientists with a clear justification for their work and makes them feel they are contributing to the decision-making process.

The reality, however, is more nuanced: although we can certainly find examples where decisions and policies have been based on scientific evidence (when, for instance, governments decided to ban smoking in public places), the recent series of poor decisions made by the leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world in response to the COVID pandemic are vivid illustrations that, more often than not, policy-makers base their decisions on perception, personal beliefs and values, and professional or political agendas. Often, also, questions that carry a ‘sense of urgency or crisis’ receive more attention than those that appear at first glance less problematic or less urgent, even if in the long run the implications are not necessarily well reflected by their initial short-term prevalence. Simply put, the urgent trumps the important.

Policy framing and crisis narratives around food safety in Vietnam
The underlying rationale of this research was the recognition that we need to improve our understanding not only of food systems per se but also of policy and policy dynamics around food systems if we want to contribute more effectively to the transformation of those food systems toward the delivery of more sustainable and equitable outcomes for all.

In this regard, understanding what influences decision-makers around policies related to food systems, health and nutrition is critical. The recognition that “our food systems are failing us” and that something needs to change to secure – or to restore – the sustainability of those food systems is now one of the top priorities for the 21st century. Be it in low-, middle- or high-income countries, the situation is rather gloomy: a poor diet is responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined. So, how do policy-makers prioritize when they have to make decisions around food systems? What drives their agenda?

Those questions drove a recent study conducted in Vietnam, where a group of social scientists investigated the dynamics around food system policies. Vietnam is an interesting case study from which much can be learned. It is one of those fast ‘transitioning’ middle-income countries, where people’s income has been rapidly increasing, along with a fast-growing urbanization, significant changes in lifestyle, and subsequent important transitions in diets.

All of those different changes are known to be powerful drivers of food system transformation. Based on face-to-face and online interviews of key stakeholders, the study uncovered a series of interesting findings. First, there was the recognition that the food system policy agenda in Vietnam is only partially informed by evidence and that, instead, lobbying and advocacy have a larger influence on the agenda. From what was mentioned above, this result is not, in itself, totally surprising. What was unexpected, however, was the fact that the different groups of interviewed stakeholders (including government officials, policy-makers, and national and international experts) admitted this reality without blinking an eye.

The analysis also reveals how the issue of food safety in Vietnam has emerged in the last few years as the most visible issue amongst the food system policy agenda. In the past 10 years, Vietnam experienced a series of food scares widely reported in the national news media, and food safety is a constant topic of discontent and resentment in social media. 

The study reveals, however, that this emphasis on food safety – which has literally become the “center of gravity” of the current policy agenda – is not fully warranted. A comparative analysis of Vietnam’s food safety situation with other countries from the same region, as well as countries with a similar level of economic development, reveals that in reality, Vietnam is doing relatively well – in fact, better than the majority of those other countries – in terms of food safety.

So why this overemphasis on an issue that is certainly important, yet not as dramatic as many policy-makers want people to believe? The answer lies in the interest that those policy-makers have in the “modernization” of the Vietnamese food system. In their view, a modern country led by modern leaders needs to come with a modern (possibly westernized) food system, that is, made of supermarkets. But for this ‘modernization’ to take place, one will have to get rid of the traditional wet markets and the informal street vendors. Those, however, are still the main source of food for the majority of the Vietnamese who rely on those types of outlets for more than 70% of their food purchase.   

This is where the food safety issue enters the equation. Because wet markets are perceived as less clean and safe than supermarkets (even if current data suggest otherwise in Vietnam), over-emphasizing this issue of food safety to the point of making it the principal issue is the way for policymakers to ‘justify’ the forced closure of wet markets (or their exclusion from future urban planning) and their replacement by supermarkets. 

This ‘modernization of the food system’ policy discourse, disconnected from the reality on the ground, has several important implications. First, since wet markets and traditional food suppliers are still the preferred (and often the only affordable) source of food for the majority – in particular the poor who can’t afford shopping in supermarkets – forcing the wet markets to close is a serious threat to the food and nutritional security of the Vietnamese population. While this reality is known by the authorities, they choose to ignore it – confirming the point made at the beginning of this essay. The irony here is that while the justification for this type of policy is made in the name of food safety, it may eventually affect negatively another major component of food security: the access to food, for a large number of people.

The second implication is that, with this overemphasis on one particular issue (food safety), the majority of the policy-makers are now affected by a “tunnel vision” and appear unable to identify and engage in longer-term strategic issues around food systems.

The study reveals, for instance, that nutrition was mentioned as a priority by only 2% of the policy-makers who were interviewed, even if at the same time the prevalence of overweight amongst children under 5 years of age in urban areas increased by more than 160% between 2000 and 2014 (and represents now more than 8%) in Vietnam, and the rate of obesity amongst the urban adult population has also increased by 126% in 20 years – passing from 5% in 1993 to 22% in 2015. This situation raises some serious concern about the ability of policy-makers to move away from the current reactive dynamic in which they seem to be looked in, and to re-orientate the discussion toward the longer-term structuring issues of the food systems and their underlying drivers.

The team from the Alliance behind this work:

The other researchers who contributed to the original study are Nozomi Kawarazuka and Stef de Haan, from the International Potato Center (CIP); and Chien Dang, from the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD) in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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