Trust building in the food chain: how to level the playing field for small-scale farmers?

Trust building in the food chain: how to level the playing field for small-scale farmers?

Charlotte Flechet
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food For Cities programme director

How to scale up initiatives that build trust between actors in the food chain, while at the same time ensure the full participation of smallholder farmers? This blog post shares some key reflections from the workshop “Scaling up the trust networks for food safety with small farmers” where VECO Vietnam and its partners shared their experience on Participatory Guarantee Systems.

On 4 July 2017, the Embassy of Belgium in Vietnam, the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Hanoi University of Public Health (HUPH), co-organised a workshop on the theme “Scaling up the trust networks for food safety with small farmers”.

This topic is very dear to the heart of VECO Vietnam as one of our flagship initiatives is the promotion of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) for safe vegetables, a tool that can help build trust between actors in the food chain and provide smallholder farmers better access to safe food markets.

Central to the discussions of this multi-stakeholder workshop were the issues of traceability, information exchange, risk communication and the role of every actor, from producer to consumer, in developing trusting relationships. Beyond the aim of fostering closer ties and synergies between the actors working towards safer food, the main objective of this workshop was to explore the existing support initiatives for trusted food networks and, based on those, to make recommendations for scaling up. But before we move on to present some of the key solutions suggested during the meeting, a quick recap of some key facts and figures is in order.

Safe food production, marketing, and consumption: where are we at?

In Vietnam, about 70% of producers are smallholders and over 90% of the food is produced by small households. Smallholder farmers in Vietnam face a lot of challenges such as lack of land, poor infrastructure, lack of access to science & technology, poor input & output market linkages, lack of market information, poor access to support services, and relatively high transaction costs (IPSARD). Supermarkets are often reluctant to work with smallholder farmers because of their inconsistent supply, the high costs of their produce, and their usual low ability to ensure compliance with food safety standards.

Currently, traditional markets represent 94% of sales in Vietnam , against 6% for modern retailers. This figure – which is much higher for cities – is expected to grow to 20% by 2025, mostly driven by a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation and a young population highly concerned about hygiene and food safety (IPSARD). In 2014, the market share of safe vegetables compared to the total vegetables consumption in Hanoi was around 3.2% (Wertheim-Heck, et al.) and, in many provinces, vegetables sold as safe are still a struggle to find. While Vietnam is moving towards a distribution system where modern retailers are increasingly gaining weight, hundreds of thousands of consumers have organised themselves through Facebook groups enabling them to buy safe vegetables and other safe products (UNIDO).

In a small study carried out in Hanoi in July 2016, VECO Vietnam found out that 97.5% of respondents were either worried (30%) or extremely worried (67.5%) about food safety. It appeared that one third of respondents never or rarely buy safe vegetables and that 28% grow safe or organic vegetables at home. Lack of trust and high prices were reported among the main obstacles preventing consumers to purchase more safe vegetables. While 50% of respondents claimed not to trust food safety certifications, only 2% had high trust in them.

The food scare, sometimes started by competitors in the market, could lead to measures that affect the culture, identity and livelihood of millions, without even improving safety much

Ms. Jehanne Roccas Ambassador of Belgium in Vietnam

Setting the contextual frame for this workshop, the World Bank’s report “Vietnam Food Safety Risks Management: Challenges and Opportunities” published earlier this year, sheds some light on the most critical food safety challenges facing Vietnam and provides some clear policy recommendations. It stresses that, although the risk of foodborne illness is real, it is not at crisis level, despite the overall public perception and media representation. Consumers tend to be more concerned with chemical contamination rather than with microbial contamination which is, according to the report, a more serious threat. As Ms. Jehanne Roccas, ambassador of Belgium indicated in her welcome address “The food scare, sometimes started by competitors in the market, could lead to measures that affect the culture, identity and livelihood of millions, without even improving safety much.

The report recommends that the adoption of improved food safety measures “should have minimal or no impact to the traditional food culture of Vietnam.” It recommends to work with consumers to drive better practices by producers and to develop a “farm to fork” – or in this case chopsticks – approach to food safety, building capacities of all food safety actors. The report acknowledges that conventional certifications and standards are too expensive for micro and small producers and strongly insists on recognising the role of small-scale production and traceability in future policies and actions.

In a nutshell, consumers’ low trust in the food system and smallholder farmers’ struggle to comply with safe food markets’ requirements are major challenges to be addressed in order to mainstream trustable safe food.

Adoption of improved Food safety interventions by producers, processors and retailers should have minimal or no impact to the traditional food culture of Vietnam.

World Bank Report Vietnam Food Safety Risks Management: Challenges and Opportunities

Empowering consumers and farmers via stronger trust networks

In light of the above, what can be done to restore consumers’ trust in the food system and enable small-scale farmers to participate in the transition towards reliable safe food? Three main ideas came out of the discussion.

First, empowering smallholder farmers. This can be done through strengthening and creating new farmer organisations and cooperatives or by increasing farm scale to address some of the challenges listed above. Setting up Participatory Guarantee Systems for safe food is another solution. PGS, a participatory quality assurance certification system that requires the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, is a low-cost and relatively simple way for farmer groups to have the quality and safety of their food recognised. It includes a combination of internal control procedures within farmer groups, cross-inspections across farmer groups, and random inspections carried out by the local PGS coordination board. For almost 10 years, VECO has supported farmer organisations to set up PGS systems with very positive results in terms of market access and improved livelihoods. Tu Xa Cooperative, for example, is now selling safe vegetables to VinEco, VinMart’s vegetables home brand, and Trac Van Collaborative Group is selling its organic vegetables to the Hanoi-based chain Bac Tom. PGS has strict labelling and traceability requirements, and, through consumers’ involvement in the quality assurance process, it helps foster trust among consumers, buyers and producers. Importantly, by participating in PGS, consumers develop empathy for farmers and a better understanding of their conditions.

PGS helps build trust among producers, consumers and local authorities

Ms. Nhu Thi Ngoc Anh Director of Phu Tho’s Agro-Forestry and Fisheries Quality Assurance Department

Second, improving communication around food safety. All actors, including the government, should avoid strengthening negative perceptions on food safety and should base all communication on reliable evidence. Consumers should be educated on good safety practices at home and be informed of the main safety risks, which can be different from the ones often conveyed by the media. As mentioned in the World Bank report, consumers are critical to strengthen markets for food safety and, as such, communication should guide their buying decisions in positive ways in order to rebuild their trust. As Ms. Nguyen Thi Quynh Chi, head of the Hanoi Female Consumer Club mentioned “Consumers need to change their behaviour, we cannot blame everything on the producers.”

Third, harnessing the potential of ICT to increase transparency, traceability and information sharing. Some initiatives such as TraceVerified’s electronic traceability system or VECO’s Safe & Organic Food Finder platform are going in that direction but, at this stage, are still limited in scope. An independent online platform that would link producers and buyers has the potential to level the playing field for smallholder farmers by lowering transaction costs and facilitating traceability, thus improving their position on safe food markets. By hosting regularly updated information about the farm, the results of chemical tests, certifications, photos, and the types of food produced, such a platform could help build consumers’ trust and create new market opportunities for farmers. This is not yet a reality in Vietnam, but what if it was?

Preserving Vietnam’s food culture while ensuring safety

Concern for food safety shouldn’t be considered as just another trend, it is a fundamental right of every consumer. As Mr. Geert Vansintjan from the Belgian Embassy put it in his closing remarks “Trusting food on your plate is a right, not a luxury.” On the other hand, every farmer whose produce complies with the quality standards should have the right to participate in – and fairly benefit from – safe food value chains. At VECO, we believe that any solution aimed at improving trust and food safety should be firmly anchored in Vietnam’s complex & diverse food culture, which forms an integral part of the Vietnamese identity. Therefore, we must find ways to bring safe food to traditional markets and also ensure that smallholder farmers are given a chance to be part of the solution. This is why we believe than scaling up Participatory Guarantee Systems is a logical step forward to build a chain of trust across all actors and to level the playing field for smallholder farmers.