Organic farming buds in Laos – The Christian Science Monitor/RTÉ World Report

csmlogo_179x46RTE – broadcast on Jan. 5 2014

Trader Sengphachan Phommaxay and customer Sonethong Syhalath cut a deal at That Luang organic market (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Cutting a dawn deal at That Luang organic market (Simon Roughneen)

VIENTIANE – Every Wednesday, Sengphachan Phommaxay wakes at 4 a.m. and heads across town to the That Luang market in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There she meets a truckload of papaya, onions and pumpkins dispatched that morning from her family’s 32 acre farm, which sits 20 miles outside Vientiane in green, sun-dappled countryside close to the Mekong River.

As the sun comes up and orange-clad monks plod barefoot around the funereal Vientiane streets seeking alms, the 23-year-old business student gets in some hands-on practice for life after graduation — selling the family’s produce at Vientiane’s main organic market.

“10,000 kip for one kilo,” or $1.25 for just over two pounds, says Ms. Sengphachan, a student at the Lao American College, when asked how much the papaya costs.

She expects to clear her stall by mid-morning, when the market winds down, but concedes that organic vegetables and fruits are a new thing for many Laotians.

“The population that takes organic vegetables is not that much, and the group that grows [organic produce] is not so big,” she says.

But the growing Vientiane middle class is becoming better aware of organic food. “The taste [of organic foods] is different, better. If you are used to eating organic vegetables, you will notice the difference,” says Sonethong Syhalath, who detours for some pumpkin and onion shopping while out for her early morning exercise.

“The price is more expensive, but for the extra time it keeps and for the health it is worth [it] to pay more,” she explains.

One reason organic foods are more expensive is the extra work needed to get the vegetables from farm to market. “The process and the difficulty is more than with ordinary vegetables, where you use pesticide, so that’s why many people are not ready to turn to this farming,” says Sengphachan, handing Ms. Sonethong her change.

Around three-quarters of Laos’ 6.5 million people live off the land — with agriculture making up about 25 percent of the country’s $19.5 billion GDP (numbers adjusted for for purchasing power parity). The Laotian economy is small — about half the size of Cambodia’s — and miniscule compared with Thailand’s $662 billion or Vietnam’s $325 billion GDPs.

Laos’ main export earnings — and much of the country’s recent 7 to 8 percent growth — come from mining and hydropower. But those sectors do not provide many job, leaving farming as the main employer for the foreseeable future.

Laos is a one-party state governed by the Communist Party, meaning that there is scant recourse for people to push for a change in economic policies that might benefit the wider population. Laos’ restrictions on freedom of speech do not usually prompt much international criticism, but the disappearance a year ago of Sombath Somphone —  a well-known activist who lobbied for the rights of Laos’ rural poor — resulted in foreign governments criticizing Laos for not doing enough to help find the missing man.

Much of the agriculture here is subsistence, so boosting incomes in the countryside means selling more value-added crops, such as organic fruits and vegetables. But as the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos faces additional costs in getting goods to markets overseas. For farmers further inland, away from the border, those costs are raised by Laos’ relatively primitive infrastructure.

“The roads in Laos need to be improved and developed,” says Somphone Phasanvath, deputy head of the Lao Freight Forwarder company, which, as the name suggests, makes a living by helping companies forward goods from, say, Bangkok, Thailand, to Hanoi, Vietnam — a road trip that involves crossing Laos.

The Asian Development Bank, based in Manila, The Philippines, is “helping promote organic vegetable production” in Laos and Thailand, according to a paper by Rattanatay Luanglatbandith, an economist at the bank. With organic food consumption increasing five-fold in the last six years in Thailand, Laos has “enormous cross-border trade opportunities,” the bank says.

According to an October report by Transparency Market Research, the global demand for organic food and drink could jump from $70.7 billion in 2012 to $187.85 billion in 2019.

But for farmers in Laos to get a foothold in bigger, often protected Western markets, the country’s remoteness from ports presents an added burden. Loumkham Vongsay owns a vegetable-processing factory near the Mekong River, about an hour’s drive from Vientiane. From there it is another 20 minutes’ drive to the Laos-Thailand border. He buys organic corn from local farmers, which he processes before sending by road across the border to Thailand and on to Laem Chabang port, where the corn is shipped to buyers in Germany and Britain. There it appears, branded as organic, on supermarket shelves.

He could not export to Europe, however, without Laos being included in the European Union’s preferential trade scheme for poor-country exporters. “It costs around 50 percent more to send a container of corn from here to the port, compared with someone sending from the Thai side of the border,” he explains.

• Sengphachan Phommaxay and Sonethong Syhalath are pseudonyms. Both women asked that their real names not be used.

At organic farm at Boung Phao, a 90 minute drive from Vientiane (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

At organic farm at Boung Phao, a 90 minute drive from Vientiane (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Business gets going at That Luang market, early on December 11 2013 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Business gets going at That Luang market, early on December 11 2013 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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