Why We Waste: Vietnam’s Transition from Poverty to Abundance

Whenever my family and I go back to Bắc Giang, my father’s hometown, for Tết, Giỗ (death-day commemoration) or any occasion, we would be bombarded with plates and plates of food. The mâm would be overflowing with huge, juicy chunks of meats, fish and vegetables, much of which would remain uneaten by the end of the meal. Then would come the problem of what to do with the leftovers. “Divide it amongst yourselves and take it!” my grandma would insist, claiming she could not possibly finish the food herself. Of course, my parents, aunts and uncles always rejected. In the end, most of the food would be left to spoil before eventually being tossed out.    

A traditional Vietnamese mâm – that’s a lot of food!

Compare that to the stories my father’s stories about growing up in the 1980s, and you’d find it almost impossible to believe that this was the same family. In his childhood, my father hardly ever ate meat, except on the rare occasions of Tết. We often had to độn khoai, độn sắn (cook rice mixed with potatoes or cassava) because there simply was not enough grain. Many of the village’s poorer families lived off watered-down porridge, wild weeds and banana trunks, which had no nutritional value whatsoever and only served to satiate hunger. My grandma, who now overcooks all the time, used to fiercely scold my dad whenever he scraped off a tiny bit of egg while peeling the shell. 

When placed side by side, these two images seem to sit on complete opposite ends of a spectrum – excess and shortage, abundance and hunger. In a few short decades, Vietnam went from a poor nation with 1 in 3 citizens being malnourished, and 1 in 4 at risk of starvation to the second largest food waster in the Asia Pacific region1 – only after China – and families continue to chuck away plate-loads of food every day. Now, how on earth did that happen? 

Tales of Hunger 

After unification of North and South Vietnam in 1975, the Communist Party rose to power and transformed the nation from a wartime economy to a centrally planned economy. This meant that the State could then decide exactly what and how to produce, how much to produce, and how production is distributed. The State owned all major means of production, private-owned enterprises were taken over or removed, and perhaps most relevantly, all farmers (70% of Vietnam’s population at the time2) were moved into agricultural cooperatives.    

Agricultural Cooperatives. Photo: Bao Nam Dinh. 

These new regulations imposed utmost frustration on the farmers, who not only had their land taken away, but could no longer own the crops they cultivated. The fruits of their labor – whether grains, vegetables, or livestock – was confiscated by the State and divided equally amongst members of the cooperative. The average farmer would of course lament, “What’s the point of working harder if I only get as much as the lazy family next door?” and as motivation to work plummeted, so did production. Despite halted production, demand for consumption was still high as ever! This resulted in great shortages of not only food, but essential products like clothing, soap and so on. What is more, the government’s goods distribution system of tem phiếu (ration stamps) only exacerbated inequalities as normal state workers found themselves only allocated 1.5kg of meat – four times less than officials. With dwindling food production and ineffective distribution mechanisms, the 1980s food supply felt even more unstable than during wartime! 

Exchanging “tem phiếu” for essential goods. Photo: VN Express. 

Deeply exasperated, Vietnamese people quickly found ways around regulations and started producing and trading in secret. From families muzzling up pigs and chickens to raise in silence, to neighbors trading vegetables and goods, to the ever-resilient petty enterprises… these all contributed to a growing black market, or shadow economy. However, this would do little to save citizens from the soaring inflation rates that would come as a result of stagnant production and the governments poorly-informed money printing decisions (up to as high as 500%, according to Tetsusaburo Kimura in his book Present Phase of Transition to Market Economy in Vietnam.). 

A New Chapter  

Noticing that the Soviet Economic Model did not seem to be working, in 1986 the Communist Party of Vietnam rolled out a series of economic reforms called Đổi Mới. The reforms were oriented towards transitioning Vietnam from a centrally planned economy to a socialist-oriented market economy under state guidance, and changed the rules to allow for market forces to play a larger role in communal life. 

For starters, the first Land Law in 1987 de-collectivized agriculture and allocated land to farmers, granting them the right to the crops cultivated on that land. Next, central planning was replaced by market mechanisms and restrictions on private-owned enterprises were lifted. Although the government still had key stakes in the economy, people were allowed to sell their excess products for personal profit, freely trade with neighbors, and buy goods they liked. Those who worked longer and harder hours could finally benefit from the fruits of their labor, and thus incentives to work re-emerged. Then in 1988, the first Foreign Investment Law was established, opening up Vietnam to opportunities from the United States, France and Korea, and for the first time in a long time, we started the path of export-led growth. As our economy grew, Vietnamese people finally had enough money… and food… to feed themselves.   

As a result, the decades following Đổi Mới saw vast improvements in economic conditions, and quality of life. From the 1990s to 2000, Vietnam’s GDP grew 7.9% while the GDP per capita grew fifteen-fold from $190 to $2750. Living standards have increased drastically from almost 60% of the population living in poverty in 1992, to 20% in 2004 and now only 2.75% in 20203.   

Why We Waste Food Now 

Moving out of poverty towards economic growth, Vietnam’s food waste also increased substantially. Today, an estimated 7,346,717 tonnes4 of food is wasted by Vietnamese households each year. In hindsight, I chalk our household food waste up to a few factors, including economic, cultural, and historical. 

Let’s start with the most obvious: economic improvements brought about by Đổi Mới have enabled food to be produced, transported and sold at much lower costs. Since Vietnam opened her doors, a wealth of foreign technological know-how has been imported, from advanced farming techniques to seeds and fertilizers, boosting production capabilities. Ploughing machinery have replaced traditional bulls, while most meat nowadays comes from the broiler industry or large-scale farms instead of family farms like before. Subsequently, products that were once reserved for rich folks like milk or meat are now accessible to most of the population. Most importantly, the ability to import and export internationally has allowed Vietnamese people access to a wider variety of goods at affordable prices and made us vastly better off. As a result, not only does Vietnam now have a relatively low rate of hunger, but food is so cheap that the average family can buy excessively, often enough that part of it goes to waste

Food has never been more affordable and accessible. Photo: Hugo Heimendinger. 

Besides explicit economic reasons, unspoken rules of Vietnamese culture also heavily impact our food portions. I have always wondered why we did not just cook less – not only would that save massive amounts of waste, but I would have to wash less dishes! Turns out, in Vietnamese culture, cooking in excess signifies generosity, hospitality and wealth, particularly when the family has guests over. Our roots as a collectivist, agrarian society heavily emphasize social relationships and reputation. As such, “saving face” is of utmost importance and treating guests to generous feasts is just one way to do so. During important occasions such as Tết, Giỗ or wedding celebrations, lavish feasts with piles of leftovers are taken as symbols of abundance, sometimes even pride. Hosts who cook up feasts are considered hospitable and welcoming, while hosts that provide less are labeled stingy, unwelcoming, and sometimes even gossiped about. This was why my grandma always insisted on overcooking – she would rather have most of the food end up in the dumpster than risk being called unhospitable, or stingy by other villagers – or worse, her own children! 

Lastly, I believe our wasteful attitudes now are a reflection of long, periods of famine and scarcity – namely the 1980s mentioned above. Those who lived through this dreaded period of poverty are now in their 40s to 70s, basically the ages of my father and grandma. To them, haunting memories of the past remind them of a time they never want to return to, and overcooking is a way to make up for the previous hardships. Never again will their offspring experience the hunger and destitution they did, not on their watch!  

In fact, Vietnam had been hungry and poor for so long that for most of our history, people were mostly concerned with… not starving! This “trauma” is partially reflected in our culture and language, through curious phrases like “nghĩ bằng bụng” (thinking with stomach), “giữ kỹ trong bụng” (keeping a secret inside your stomach), or “ấm cái bụng” (warm tummy) and “ấm no” (warm and full) and referring to happiness. Accordingly, abundance of food and full stomachs have become synonymous with happiness and celebration. The more excess food there is, the happier the occasion.  

From Excess to Moderation – A Changing Food Culture 

Although few stop to think about it, the impacts of food waste are plenty. Most significant is its environmental impact: as mounds of excess food decompose in landfills, they release methane, a toxic greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timespan. It has been estimated that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest global emitter of greenhouse gases5. Furthermore, food is an extremely valuable resource, and the fact that we waste so much of it is rather absurd when we remember that almost 4 million Vietnamese people remain hungry, with particularly high malnutrition rates in ethnic minorities.  

In sharing this story, it is my deepest hope that Vietnam will pay more attention to combatting food waste. From the policy side, this means developing more specific regulations on food waste, as well as better food waste management and recycling mechanisms. Yet for normal citizens, the fight starts with a small change in mindset. Haunting memories of a hungry past, and therefore a desire to overcompensate, will continue to stay with older generations. But for us younger folks, I believe it is possible to move towards a perception of happiness based not on abundance, but moderation and care. By choosing to purchase only what we need, consume moderate portions, and opt for healthier alternatives, we set the foundations for a more sustainable and conscientious Vietnam. 


References
  1. Electrolux. (2016, June 10). 80% of households in Asia Pacific regularly waste food at home. Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://newsroom.electrolux.com/apac/2016/06/10/80-of-households-in-asia-pacific-regularly-waste-food-at-home/  
  2. Tran, T. V. (2015). Việt Nam 40 năm qua và những năm tới:Cần một nền kinh tế thị trường định hướng phát triển. Tap Chi Thoi Dai. http://www.tapchithoidai.org/ThoiDai33/201533_TranVanTho.pdf 
  3. World Bank. (2021). Vietnam | Data. World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam 
  4. United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021. Nairobi. 
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2015). Food wastage footprint & Climate Change. http://www.fao.org/3/bb144e/bb144e.pdf 

One thought on “Why We Waste: Vietnam’s Transition from Poverty to Abundance

  1. I happened to stumble onto your blog and found it really informative. I want to offer my opinion and it should only be treated as such:

    First of all, your anecdote in the very beginning is not indicative of a “wasting food everyday” situation. It seems rather logical that there would be a big meal for such once-in-a-while occasions (gio, Tet, etc), doesn’t it? I’m sure your grandma wouldn’t have made such a big feast had she known only few people were coming.

    You actually did raise a very good point about us experienceing famine and starvation in the past as well as a move-up in socio-economic background as the reasons for the tendency to waste food. This brings me to a second point, how much do us Vietnamese waste? Using your source (UNEP Food Waste Index 2021), I was able to find the Household Food Waste Estimate for Viet Nam: 76 kg/capita/year. This is the lowest in Southeast Asia, lower than less developed countries like Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar and comparable to the developed Western world. In fact, if you divide 76 by 365 days in one year, the average Vietnamese waste roughly .2 kg a day, that is a very small amount and not noticeable in everyday consumption. Without the right metric, it feels short-sighted to impose such argument on the people.

    “Furthermore, food is an extremely valuable resource, and the fact that we waste so much of it is rather absurd when we remember that almost 4 million Vietnamese people remain hungry, with particularly high malnutrition rates in ethnic minorities.” Personally, I feel like this places the the blame on the general population, which potentially renders your argument invalid. The current population ethnic minorities in Vietnam stands at a little more than 10 million, the majority of which live in mountainous areas, where traditional farming is impractial due to geographical issues, food transportation also poses a challenge for the very same reason. You can imagine the dire situation in a wet-rice civiliazation like here in Vietnam.

    I must say, you have a very interesting take on food literacy in Vietnam and Vietnamese history/society as a whole. If your interested in her history/society, I would suggest go far and beyond, starting from the first century with the Indianization of Southeast Asia and Siniciziation of Vietnam all the way up to the 1986 Doi Moi period and the world order following the aftermath of the Cold War. Anyways, it feels pretty refreshing to have another young people with somewhat the same interest, feels like I’m not alone. :>

    Like

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