Vietnam: Coffee at the Crossroads
When we think of coffee beans, our first thoughts are often Latin America, or East Africa, or maybe Indonesia. However if you happen to be drinking a cup of instant coffee it will usually be from Vietnamese coffee beans.
Vietnam is the second highest supplier of coffee after Brazil, and the world’s largest supplier of Robusta beans which are used for instant coffee and sometimes blended with Arabica for specialty coffees.
But now the decades of over-production and poor farming practices, aimed at increasing crop sizes regardless of damage to the environment, have brought Vietnamese coffee production to a crossroads. How do they change their coffee industry so that it has a sustainable future?
A Brief History of Coffee in Vietnam
Coffee was first brought to Vietnam by French settlers in 1857. The Central Highlands regions of Dalat and Buon Me Thuot were found to be ideal growing conditions for the Robusta bean, although the elevation was too low for the finer Arabica beans.
Robusta beans are higher in caffeine than Arabica, and easier to grow, and the French began to cultivate areas extensively for export to their home country. A century later, the country was devastated by war, the French were pushed out of the country, and the coffee industry was decimated.
After the long years of war, the Vietnamese government with the help of foreign aid agencies saw that the regeneration of the coffee industry would be a factor in their economic growth, and vast areas were replanted. In just 20 years Vietnam went from devastation to being the biggest exporter of Robusta beans worldwide, an economic miracle.
But the miracle came at great cost. Whole areas of forest were cut down to provide land for plantations, agrochemicals were overused, and there was widespread soil pollution, excess irrigation, and loss of biodiversity, in what was once one of the most pristine areas of rainforest in the world.
A New Challenge
Vietnam’s dominance in coffee production is now being challenged by India and China. Traditionally tea growing nations, they are turning to coffee production with rising demand from changing tastes in their own countries and throughout the world.
China in particular, having learned lessons from Vietnam’s experience, is heavily investing in more sustainable practices to build a long-term coffee industry on a huge scale, while in Vietnam farmers have been struggling to maintain production levels after decades of overuse of the land, and poor farming practices. In the year 2020-2021, coffee production was down almost 5% over the previous year.
A Pragmatic Approach
Although it is technically a one-party Communist state, the Vietnamese government has always been pragmatic in its approach to the rest of the world, embracing Capitalism where necessary for its survival and growth.
The government has reached out to various organisations for help to build a better future for its coffee industry, including the Rainforest Alliance (RFA) and SNV, a Netherlands based agency dedicated to a sustainable environment. It has also adopted what is known as the 4C code of conduct, which is a worldwide certification program, and 4C stands for The Common Code for the Coffee Community, with its three key principles:
- Economic Sustainability
- Social Sustainability
- Environmental Sustainability
What is happening at Ground Level
Government initiatives always sound good in theory, but what is actually being done at the farm level?
The RFA, the SNV, and the 4C, have been working with farmers to change their cultivation methods. Previously, growers only planted and harvested coffee beans. It was their livelihood, and all they knew. Now however they are planting additional crops such as sugar cane and peppers which improve the nutrients in the soil and give farmers an extra income.
Hundreds of trees are being planted to shade the coffee plants, which conserves humidity in the soil and reduces the amount of irrigation needed. The farmers are also learning to reduce their dependence on chemicals for growth, and to pick only ripe coffee cherries, and to protect the wildlife around the plantations.
A Better Future
Already the results have been above expectation. Currently over 50% of coffee is produced sustainably in Vietnam, compared to 10% in 2015. As a relative comparison, in South America the figure is 75%.
Soil scientists from the various agencies are working to assess plant health and soil health to try to rectify many years of chemical mismanagement. Giants in the instant coffee business like Kraft Foods and Nestle have pledged to buy only from sustainable sources within the next few years, giving the Vietnamese government a huge incentive to invest heavily in the new practices.
There are also developments underway to cultivate the Arabica bean in higher altitudes in Central Vietnam, which will take years to come to fruition but may be part of a better future for the industry there.
With a committed government and growers willing to learn and change, and with the help of worldwide agencies such as RFA, a sustainable future for coffee in Vietnam and for the world environment in general, is already looking much brighter.