It is high time that we realized that as long as Vietnam stagnates in innovation and technological development, our agricultural exports will remain at the mercy of our neighbor to the north.
Huynh Xuan Thai, a driver from Binh Dinh province, has been stuck at a border post in Lang Son province for half a month with 40 tons of jackfruit in his truck.
It has been 10 days since he took a shower. He cannot go very far because there is no one to watch his truck for him.
On December 16, the truck owner told him to break the seal to check the quality of the jackfruits inside. Most of them had matured, meaning they could no longer be exported to China, where buyers demanded they were not ripe.
Thai and the truck owner were not alone in this situation. Many Thai colleagues had used jackfruit instead of rice. Some had to return to downtown Lang Son and sell the jackfruit for 40,000 VND ($ 1.74) per fruit, or around 4,000 VND per kilo.
In Hanoi, jackfruit sells for between 20,000 and 25,000 VND per kilo. If its thorny skin and seeds are removed, the price of a kilo of jackfruit can cost 100,000 VND per kilo.
We can safely assume that the magnitude of the potential losses with around 5,000 container trucks stranded at the border right now will not be small.
According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, in the past 11 months, the turnover of exports of agricultural and aquaculture products to China has reached 8.4 billion dollars. For vegetables and fruits, China remains the largest export market with a total turnover of $ 1.8 billion, or 55% of the market for vegetables exported by Vietnam.
The potential fallout from such addiction should have been seen and prepared. As the Covid-19 pandemic and the next Head The holidays are factors in the current crisis at the border, it is far from the first time that Vietnamese agricultural exports have been impacted by decisions taken on the other side of the border.
I have been saying for years that it is too risky to transport our agricultural products to the northern border.
The Chinese market with at least 400 million people living in its southern coastal regions is more than enough to consume all of our tropical agricultural products. Our main rival, Thailand, mainly targets the southwestern plateau, and is aided by the presence of the Con Minh-Vientiane railway.
Even though its market is clearly divided into neat geographic areas, China has always assumed a mental leadership position when it comes to Vietnamese agricultural products, smugly believing that it is the only market available for such products. This mentality has been detrimental to us, and we must recognize it.
If this was a fair game, issues such as lack of drivers or Covid-19 restrictions can be anticipated and addressed to help all parties. But thousands of containers stuck at the border would mean hundreds of thousands of tons of wasted goods and a crisis for millions of Vietnamese farmers. How would traders react to this? How will farms, orchards and vegetable gardens plan their harvest for the next season? There are a lot of unanswered questions, but maybe answers like the ones we are not currently looking for.
It is quite obvious that the key questions now are: How can we make our products independent from outside forces? How can we ensure that we are on an equal footing in our main markets?
If we don’t promote and encourage technological innovation; if we cannot extend the shelf life of our products; and if we did not develop advanced processing technology, we would be left with the only option of transporting all of our goods to the border and running the risk of rotting them for one reason or another.
As long as farmers are willing to sell their crop at a low price, as long as traders still make profits by putting pressure on farmers, and as long as investors neglect agriculture for more profitable projects like real estate, a sector modern agriculture will remain a pipe dream.
I hope that the current crisis in Lang Son will wake people up to the real medium and long term situation we find ourselves in. Policy makers must make the necessary changes. We need to show a lot more commitment to modernizing the sector than we have done so far.
We can no longer continue as our neighbor’s backyard.
* Pham Trung Tuyen is a journalist and deputy director of VOV Giao Thong. The opinions expressed are his own.