Such a move by Australia was the latest in international commitments in response to Vietnam’s calls for international support and cooperation in one of the key sectors of its economy.
The Government has been calling for reform in the agricultural sector for years to little avail, until a series of intense natural disasters hit Vietnam last year.
The fatal floods in northern and central Vietnam, followed by prolonged drought in southern areas occurred in tandem with increasingly severe saline intrusion in the Mekong Delta - the largest rice producing region in the country.
Such disasters left Vietnam’s agriculture sector - a key contributor to the country’s economic development - with unprecedented minus growth for the first time in decades.
It was a big wakeup call to both the Vietnamese Government from central to provincial levels, and also society as a whole, on how vulnerable the country’s traditional ways of working on the fields are to natural weather disasters in times of climate change.
The race to modernise the farming sector by applying more advanced technologies in producing, harvesting and post-harvest stages in an effort to reduce farmers’ reliance on nature, started to heat up.
In addition to changes in land and capital policies, Vietnam has approved plans to build ten agricultural zones applying high-tech methods in Hau Giang, Phu Yen, Thai Nguyen, Quang Ninh, Thanh Hoa, Khanh Hoa, Lam Dong, HCM City, Binh Duong and Can Tho provinces by 2020.
The number is expected to more than double to 22 zones by 2030. In the meantime, several high-tech agricultural centres at a municipal level have started popping up across the country.
Vietnamese leaders constantly called and aggressively pushed lower levels to engage more in the sector’s reform, while seeking technological and financial support from other countries.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc this year paid State visits to Japan and the Netherlands, two of the leading countries in the agriculture sector, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also visited Vietnam. President Rivlin visited the VinEco farm, which uses Israeli technologies to grow vegetables.
Dozens of meetings at ministerial levels and below between Vietnam and several other countries that are strong in agricultural technology like Australia and the Republic of Korea, also took place.
Vietnamese enterprises and farmers found new ways of farming through cooperation with international businesses or study trips to agriculturally-advanced destinations. Israel was one of the most popular destinations.
“Israel has faced a lot of agricultural problems like climate change or lack of water and so does Vietnam now,” said Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission in Vietnam Doron Lebovich.
Lebovich believes that there is a win-win match between Israel and Vietnam in agricultural cooperation.
“Israel is just a small country of 8.4 million people, well-known for cutting-edge agricultural technologies, and is seeking a big market, while Vietnam is a huge market looking for a transition from traditional agriculture,” he said. “Obviously, there is huge potential for the two”.
“More and more delegates from the Government as well as the private sector have come to Israel to observe and explore the cooperation potential.”
Most of Israeli business involvement in Vietnam’s agriculture sector so far has been technology transfer and consultancy in particular fields, Lebovich said.
These range from dairy and greenhouse, for example, coordination with the Vietnamese dairy group TH, or the drip irrigation that by now is largely applied by many Vietnamese companies and farmers to tackle water shortages, and even aquaculture with new methods to run fish and shrimp farms.
Israel in 2007 signed an agreement with Vietnam to offer some US$150 million in loans to Vietnamese enterprises which partner with Israeli ones, and upped the ante by another US$100 million in 2011.
Such aid has encouraged Vietnamese businesses to look for a partnership with the Israelis as they stepped into the long-neglected agriculture sector.
“In recent years, people have started seeing the potential of the Vietnamese market and so did Israeli businesses. But the biggest challenge to establish a partnership in Vietnam is that it is very hard to find a good local partner,” Lebovich said.
While Israel is a typical example of how Vietnam can learn new farming methods and technologies to improve production in both quality and quantity, others like the Netherlands have a specific focus to support Vietnam’s agriculture sector.
“High-tech is sometimes spoken of like a magic formula. It’s as if you have high-tech, everything can be solved. However, the focus should be on sustainability instead and high-tech methods are just a means to an end,” said Dutch Ambassador to Vietnam Nienke Trooster.
Sustainability is a much more important concept to develop in agriculture, she added, while stressing the comprehensiveness of the concept mentioning the three P’s – there should be benefits for People; protection of the Planet; and lastly Profits for businesses.
In order to support sustainable agriculture in Vietnam, the Netherlands and Vietnam signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement on Climate Change Adaptation and Water Management in 2010; and another on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in 2014.
“In that framework we will hold high-level governmental dialogues with Vietnam every year to discuss how we can create the right conditions for Vietnam’s agriculture to strive. We are expecting the Vietnamese Agriculture Minister to attend a meeting in the Netherlands this fall,” Trooster said.
An approach that is very successful in the Netherlands, she said, is to foster cooperation and consultation of four parties: the government, the private sector, knowledge institutes and civil society.
“What Vietnam needs is a comprehensive strategy for different parties from central to provincial level, to work together in the sector. To organise such coordination well is not easy,” she said.