Why healthy cities depend on vibrant countrysides, by Stefan de Haan

Visions of a sustainable food future

Stefan de Haan, Regional Program Management Officer (Vietnam)

“A new food paradigm is emerging in Vietnam that is focused on quality rather than quantity, diversity rather than uniformity, and the importance of smallholder inclusion”

Why healthy cities depend on vibrant countrysides

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03When I arrived in Vietnam early 2015, my first conversations with the local shop owner, the lady at the bank and the taxi driver were about the country’s food. What did I think of it? Did I like it? What was my favorite dish?

When they found out I worked in agriculture, these exchanges quickly turned to the topic of food safety. How do we know if the food is healthy? How do we know if it’s okay to eat? They had heard about farmers using too many pesticides; could they trust what they were eating to nourish them, rather than make them sick?

As I settled into my new life in Hanoi, I soon realized that other issues relating to the food system were also a concern: food waste, environmental damage and unsustainable farming were national talking points.

What Vietnam is witnessing is happening on a regional and global scale: food systems are transforming quickly, becoming increasingly industrialized and globalized. At the same time, Vietnam’s agriculture has been intensifying, in many cases surpassing the land’s natural carrying capacity. Taken together, these changes have resulted in a range of health and environmental challenges that we now have to respond to.

These food systems are also increasingly ‘anonymous’ – in many countries, the family farm has become invisible, and the consumer influenced by powerful marketing that doesn’t always have their best interests at heart. The displacement of traditional diets with processed, uniform, energy-dense foods has been linked to the rise in obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases around the world. Vietnam and other SE Asian countries are no exception.

It’s both fascinating and troubling just how quickly and how much these new food systems have disrupted food cultures that are sometimes centuries-long.

But I believe the situation can be turned around. A new food paradigm is emerging in Vietnam that is focused on quality rather than quantity, diversity rather than uniformity, and the importance of smallholder inclusion. It’s a paradigm that recognises that healthy cities depend on vibrant countrysides producing a wide range of food in a sustainable way. It’s a paradigm in which the relationship between urban and rural areas is symbiotic, with farmers, city dwellers and the environment all benefitting.

But to get there we’ll need to overcome a series of obstacles. For example, we’ll need to raise awareness with some sectors of society about what constitutes a healthy diet. This includes women in particular, who are normally household decision makers when it comes to what their families eat. And we’ll need to involve the youth too – they’re the ones who will be the driving force that helps transform the country’s food systems, not least because they will be the farmers of the future.

Another is that diverse and healthy food is often more expensive than industrially produced, processed food, meaning only wealthier consumers can afford it.

But I think that it will soon be accessible to consumers from all socioeconomic backgrounds in Vietnam, not only the fortune few. Its production and marketing will be traceable and environmental friendly; the work of research organisations like CIAT will help policymakers promote key innovations, from ecologically-sound farming practices, to low-carbon food retail networks, improved storage to reduce food losses, and improved ‘wet markets’ offering fresh, healthy food in the country’s rapidly-growing cities.

If we can do this, it could mean that Vietnam’s food systems will not only be diverse and increasingly healthy, they will also become a space in which consumers set the agenda. They will revalue all the unique elements of Vietnamese diets, including the use of fresh and sustainably-produced food. It will create an environment that incentivizes producers to grow food that rural and city dwellers alike are happy to consume, and happy to share with their families.

It means the concerns of people like my local shop owner, the lady at the bank and the taxi driver will have a direct, positive influence on the countryside, and the nation’s health.