As uncertainty grows over imported and locally-grown produce, ‘organic’ labels are becoming more common around the city. But what do they really mean? By Chris Mueller. Photo by Alex McMillan.

With so many local markets and streets packed with produce sellers, the only thing more astonishing than the options are the prices.

But amid so little regulation, many shoppers are hesitant to buy produce on the street, opting instead for supermarkets or smaller shops where green ‘organic’ stickers on prepackaged fruits and vegetables are becoming more commonplace. But are they really organic — and does it make a difference?

The fruit and vegetable industry in Vietnam, while regulated, still struggles to meet international food standards, which most farmers find too costly. So, much like in the US food industry, they pump their crops full of chemicals to increase yields or prolong the shelf life of the produce.

Take the case from about a year ago, when farmers were found injecting their fruit with chemicals to make them ripen quickly and stay fresh longer. While one chemical, ethephon, is the most widely used plant growth chemical in the world, others are more dubious.

According to Thanh Nien newspaper, there was widespread use among fruit growers of a chemical produced by a company in District 12. The company refused to say what the chemical actually was. Others were found using a yellow substance imported in unmarked containers from China that were injected or sprayed onto fruit and vegetables.

Then there are the constant reports of unregulated vegetables and fruits imported from China being confiscated across the country.

So health-conscious consumers increasingly are seeking out the green ‘organic’ stickers.

Nguyen Ba Hung, who has a PhD from the National Institute of Agriculture in France, says Vietnam does not have any organic regulators or issue any certifications.

Hung is a partner and general director of Organik Farms in Dalat, which has a popular shop in District 2 that stocks produce and meat, much of which is labeled as organic.

But both Hung and his partner, John Fast, admit their farm, which has been in operation since 2004, is not certified organic, meaning that the organisation in the Netherlands that issues the certificate has yet to give it to them.

Hung says they expect to receive it next month, adding that he is not aware of any vegetable farms in Vietnam with real organic certifications.

Organic food has been the rage in the west for years, but more recently many have come to view it more as a marketing hoax and another narcissistic way for the upper classes to spend their money, rather than a healthy choice.

In the United States there is a constant battle between supporters of organically grown food and those of conventional growing techniques. The newest major study about organic food, from Stanford University, suggests that organic produce doesn’t have a significant nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods.

But in Vietnam, the slow movement towards organic is more about living a healthy lifestyle and having at least some accountability.

“We get a lot of Vietnamese customers now who don’t want organic food for themselves, but want their children to eat well,” Hung says.

As with most things in Vietnam, change is slow, and other farmers are slow to adopt safer practices.

“The average Vietnamese Dalat farmer is short-sighted,” Fast says. “They produce thousands of tons of polluted waste from their vegetable production.”

This in turn pollutes the soil surrounding the farms, which was a huge obstacle Organik had to overcome in order to get certified.

“Normally on organic farms, if you want certification, you have to wait six or seven years to get all the residues out of that soil,” Fast says.

But luckily their farm was on largely virgin land and they were able to cover up most of the tainted soil. Fast says that even now they have to deal with illegal coffee growers using pesticides encroaching on their land, and once someone tried to sell off part of their farm to other farmers.

Another major challenge with growing organically here is logistics. Refrigerated trucks are unreliable, with drivers often turning off the refrigeration to try to save money on gas. And even when planes are used, problems are common.

“One time a plane full of vegetables for Ho Chi Minh City ended up on Con Dao Island,” Fast says. “It wasn’t worth it for us to pay to get it back, so it just went to waste.”

Hung says he doesn’t expect organic produce for the local market to pick up steam anytime soon because, on average, organic growing techniques only produce half the amount conventional methods do. Yet local demand is growing.

“Vietnamese are becoming more worried about their health,” he says. “More and more sicknesses are coming from the chemicals on vegetables.”