"Less than four decades ago, Vietnam was ravaged by war."
In a recent meeting of the Food and Fertilizer Technology Center where I represent the Philippines in the board, Dr. Kuo Ching Lin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Region, informed us that Vietnam is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of dragon fruit, known as pitaya in most Asian countries.
Some 50,000 hectares in Vietnam have been successfully cultivated to the fruit in less than two decades. The fruit which is known to have anti-oxidant and other medicinal properties, is exported to 42 countries in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific regions.
Taiwan has some 7,000 hectares devoted to dragon fruit, and almost all of that is locally consumed. Much as farmers would want to plant more and export the cash crop, there is a scarcity of land.
I didn’t realize until then that the demand for the fruit has become that big.
It was only at the turn of the century that I first tasted the fruit, bland as it was then, in the breakfast buffet of a Hong Kong hotel. Today’s dragon fruit peddled in Taipei markets are sweeter, juicier and reddish, rather than white, the result of constant technology upgrading.
In our North, in Cagayan and La Union, some farmers have started planting dragon fruit and I am told, with very good results.
I wonder: With tobacco a sunset industry as more and more are convinced of the deleterious effects of smoking on health, and taxes making the weed more and more expensive, how about a shift to dragon fruit? Or even bitter gourd (ampalaya)
which also has medicinal properties and can be exported after processing? Malunggay as well. And so many more non-traditional but high-value crops.
Likewise, Vietnam is now the world’s second-largest coffee producer. And yet, less than four decades ago, the country was ravaged by war, which consumed the entire people’s energies. In 1975, just before the war ended, the country’s total production of coffee was just about 6,000 metric tons, consumed locally.
Now Vietnam produces 1,650,000 metric tons of coffee, second to Brazil, which has been planting coffee since 1870. The South American giant harvests 2.6 million tons of coffee per year.
That is a quantum leap of 275 times!
Our neighbor to the south, Indonesia, produces some 660,000 metric tons, making it the world’s fourth largest producer, after Colombia and above that of Ethiopia where the coffee bean was first cultivated, and from where the habit was exported to the Arab countries, then Europe and eventually the whole world.
While Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and some African countries which produce smaller quantities of coffee are known for high-quality (for coffee aficionados, the right blend of bitterness and acidity, coupled with strong, nice aroma), Vietnam exports robusta, similar to our baraco, which is not as favored as the highland arabica, but has a greater market volume. It is also the type best preferred by “instant” coffee makers.
Many of us think of Vietnam’s agriculture in terms of rice, which it exports to us by hundreds of thousands of tons each year. Vietnam is blessed with the existence of the great Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan China highlands through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and empties into the China Sea, where it gets so wide and brings not only voluminous water but organically- fertilized topsoil to irrigate and enrich southern Vietnam’s paddies.
But Vietnam through all the years of peace after the terrible North-South war where they fought no less than the mightiest armed force in the world, the US of A, has been single-mindedly diversifying its agriculture from mono-crop to many high-value crops such as coffee, rubber, tea, and yes…dragon fruit.
There is a lesson to be learned here for Philippine agriculture, which has been pursuing the quixotic dream of becoming “self-sufficient” in rice and devoting most of the budget towards it, but failed miserably in the process.
We have parallelisms: The population of Vietnam is 96 million, ours is 106 million. Vietnam is slightly bigger in land area, 33 million hectares in all. But that is basically one contiguous whole that spans the entire eastern Indo-China, as against our 30 million hectares spread out through several thousand big and small islands.
We have a bigger GDP than theirs, but they are fast catching up. In ASEAN circles, there used to be a category called the VMLC, referring to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as the economies still catching up with the rest. But as foreign investments continue flooding Vietnam which has a purposive and almost single-minded obsession to catch up, the fear is that the V might soon be replaced by a P.
And worry about Myanmar and Cambodia, which are also flexing economic muscles.
In a small but significant effort to give our high-value crop cultivation a boost, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture through the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute, launched last Friday a demonstration button mushroom project in Baguio City, along with our Bureau of Plant Industry.
The project aims to assist the Philippines with its button mushroom cultivation, local demand being quite high, as we continue to import the commodity which is highly prized, especially by the restaurant industry.
The joint project, initiated last year through bilateral cooperation of MECO and TECO, will assist local farmers to generate more revenues from small plots of land and help create job opportunities because button mushrooms require a lot of manpower during harvest.
Dr. Chen Junne-jih, who heads the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute himself attended the launch, along with DA Undersecretary Ariel Cayanan and BPI officials and TECO’s Representative Michael Hsu with TECO Vice Chairman Gilbert Lauengco.
Hopefully, the cooperation will bloom into other agricultural products, as well as in aquaculture, which should be a natural for our 7,107 islands.