Developing a safe and sustainable vegetable sector
Vegetable Forum 2017
26 October 2017, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Vientiane
Opening remarks by John Williams, Australian Ambassador to the Lao PDR
H.E. Dr Phouangparisak Pravongviengkham, Vice Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure to be here today to speak on behalf of the Australian Government, to showcase some of the outcomes of an Australian initiative in support of the vegetable industry here in the Lao PDR.
I speak to you as someone who would not look a vegetable in the eye until at least my pre-teens (brussel sprouts were a particular challenge to my taste buds), but who now is an unashamed convert, and someone who recognises the potential value of the vegetable industry to the socio-economic development of this fertile country.
Not to mention it’s importance domestically in helping Laos address its ongoing nutrition crisis.
Each of us here today brings different and varied perspectives. But we all share a common aspiration – to ensure the development of a safe and sustainable vegetable sector in this country.
Our experts tell me there remain significant challenges in seeking to develop the vegetable sector here, to provide the Lao people with high quality and safe food.
I understand vegetable production in Laos is troubled by low yields and production difficulties in the wet season, as well as post-harvest losses as high as 40 per cent.
This coupled with significant competition from regional neighbours, and the challenges of maintaining consistent supply that meets the quality and safety demands of consumers.
I’m therefore delighted the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has been able to support a research partnership of Australian and Lao experts to determine how to help local growers improve market engagement and post-harvest management, and to help lift the productivity of the Lao vegetable industry.
This research partnership, drawing on the lessons of similar work in Cambodia, has also helped bring us together today, to strengthen collaboration across government, civil society, smallholders and the private sector.
I wish you all a productive discussion. It’s gatherings like today, drawing this expertise together, that can often stimulate the best ideas on how to address these challenges and foster the development of the vegetable industry.
And this is a government here in Laos that is hungry for quality policy ideas, and practical suggestions on how to utilise and scale up the outcomes of research projects like this to deliver concrete outcomes for the Lao people.
Today, we will hear more about the research outcomes of a project that looked into how low-cost protected cropping structures assist farmers in producing high quality produce in the wet season.
Although the late-dry and wet-seasons present farmers with a number of technical challenges, I understand there is a strong market demand for high quality, high value vegetables at this time.
This is an important foundation on which a safe and sustainable sector can be developed, and presents a real opportunity for smallholder farmers and the whole vegetable industry.
This brings me to the challenge for Lao producers of meeting international standards, which are often higher than (or just different from) in-country and regional standards.
2016, of course, saw the onset of the ASEAN Economic Community, the AEC, which brings significant implications for Lao vegetable producers - including compliance with the Good Agriculture Practice, or GAP standards.
While the AEC comes brings new opportunities for trade, it also brings the very real challenge of achieving the food safety standards required to open new opportunities.
I note the majority of Lao farmers are smallholders with limited record keeping practices - a vital compliance factor for GAP certification.
For a safe vegetable sector, our researchers tell me, there’s a need to address the potential causes of unsafe food, such as contaminated water, poor farm hygiene practices, post-harvest mishandling and inappropriate use of pesticides.
Bringing a two-fold challenge: helping develop best practice policies and standards on the one hand; and also providing education and training that will build skills and partnerships in farming communities.
I understand our research collaboration has also helped demonstrate the implications of simple post-harvest practices, that enable smallholders to better understand and preserve product quality through the supply chain.
Technologies and practices that offer the potential for farmers to target higher seasonal prices and maintain product value.
And also that will enable farmers to consider vegetable production as a viable livelihoods option across the whole year.
Before I end, I would like to acknowledge the research partnerships involved in this project.
My thanks to the three Australian organisations (University of Adelaide, NSW Department of Primary Industries and Charles Sturt University), and to their three Lao partner institutions (Horticultural Research Centre of NAFRI, National University of Laos, and the Clean Agricultural Development Centre).
Thank you too to the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Laos and the Korean Environment Institute for their support for today’s forum.
Once again, I wish you every success in your deliberations today, and look forward to hearing the outcomes from today’s forum in support of vegetable producers, and consumers, here in the Lao PDR.