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Understanding Food Security in Vietnam

1 April, 2013

Saint Mary`s students looking at food security issues in Vietnam take a lunch break with the interpreters.

With the United Nations warning that rising global food prices are causing poverty, Anthropology professor Rylan Higgins recently took three undergraduate students to Vietnam to see the impact first hand.

Teaming up with counterparts at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, the students spent three months looking at the ways local food is distributed and consumed. The team, made up of International Development Studies student Ross Grant, Religious Studies student Nicola Fendert, and Anthropology student Magdalene Bitter-Suermann, surveyed 300 households, uncovering deep concerns about food safety.

“When we went into houses, especially in the low-income areas, the people on the street would come in to listen to us and hear the questions we were asking,” said Bitter-Suermann. “People stared at us all the time because we went into areas where few Westerners ventured, but after we got used to it, it was fine. People treated us warmly, and even we got lots of invitations to dinner.”

Organized in cooperation with Saint Mary’s International Activities Office, and with funding through CIDA’s Students for Development program, the research project found Ho Chi Minh City riddled with problems related to food, with low- and middle-income families reporting they encounter food problems on a regular basis.

Poverty at the Front Door

Although Vietnam has enjoyed remarkable economic growth, global integration and reductions in poverty rates, Dr. Higgins says it has also faced skyrocketing food prices as commercial and residential developments eat away at agricultural lands and a rural exodus strains urban infrastructure.

‌Rising sugar and grain prices, prices which are heavily influenced by European Union and United States agricultural subsidies, are one of the leading factors for the rise in food prices worldwide, adds Grant, so it’s not surprising that questions about how the city feeds itself have become worthy of investigation.

Ross Grant enjoys a meal with a family in Vietnam

On one afternoon, a team member spotted an older homeless man foraging in the trash just outside the host university. Watching him devour a discarded container of popcorn underscored for them how difficult it is for much of the city to feed itself. In subsequent discussions, such observations drove the team to think critically about the relationship between poverty and hunger.

“People are truly anxious about access to affordable, healthy food. This was clearly prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City and, by extension, likely throughout most of urban Vietnam,” said Dr. Higgins. “Individuals are worried, on the one hand, that they will not be able to provide even basic meals regularly, given that food prices are rising rapidly, alongside those of many other commodities, such as gas for cooking.”

Food Pathways

Bitter-Suermann says people are also increasingly alienated from the processes that bring food to their homes and cringe at regular media reports about common food items being produced without safeguards for ensuring quality and safety.

“We blindly trust our regulators to keep our food safe. In Viet Nam there is no such safeguard in place.”

The problems that Ho Chi Minh City residents are facing are not unique, says Grant. Most of the developing world is feeling the pressure from rising food prices and have growing concerns about food safety and efforts that transcend borders will be needed to address them.

“The value behind our research not only lies in looking for solutions to the situation in Vietnam but in that it provides us with valuable lessons on how to feed the rest of the world too,” says Grant.

With last year’s work as a foundation on which to build, Dr. Higgins, Bitter-Suermann, Grant and a new student will be returning to Vietnam later this month to do further research.

Anthropology student Magdalene Bitter-Suermann

Postcards from Vietnam

Look for a weekly posting on this website from Magdalene Bitter-Suermann updating the Saint Mary’s community on the research work of Saint Mary’s students as they experience the culture of Vietnam.

Anthropology student Magdalene Bitter-Suermann