In the early 90s, soon after Vietnam reopened its door and abolished the subsidy system my grandfather, Mr. Sinh, wrote a poem for my grandma. This poem often brought up at family gatherings, reminds everyone of a time when people, regardless of occupation, regardless the size of their living quarters, have at one point or another tried to keep livestock as a supplement to their diet and income. My grandparents were actually fortunate to have access to the understructure under their apartment to keep chicken. In Danang during the mid 80s, my parents too have tried their hands at chicken farming while many in their neighborhood raised pigs in the cooperative’s yard. In Hanoi, particularly during the subsidy period, when everything was rationed and everyone was hungry even people living in crammed soviet-era appartment buildings kept pigs, in their bathrooms.
Here is my translation:
On raising chicken
We live in open times
Our heart yearn for a free economy
Watching people trade North and South
earning billions, we too harbour dreams.
Mrs. Que pioneers, raises the flag and launches ahead
With her wisdom, foresight and strategy
Investing half a million
Fence up the understructure, secure it inside out
Skillfully raise a flock of hen.
Feeding on dropped grains of rice they lay golden eggs.
Mr and Mrs prosper in no time
Savoring golden eggs, they’d live to a hundred
Mr. Sinh eagerly adopts their farming model
Fences up his understructure, even builds connecting stairs
He makes a 4-room coop
The chickens surely will be happy with so much room.
Mrs. Sinh looks for choice chicken of a strong breed
but unwittingly, she brings home sick ones
Mr and Mrs frantically look for a cure
trying various medicines for several days
One after another the chickens drop,
Soon after the whole flock’s done for.
Tranh Đông Hồ – traditional woodcuts from Dong Ho village, Bac Ninh province, has been around for hundreds of years, and was most popular during the 17th and 18th century. People commonly refer to them as tranh tết as they’re often produced and sold around Tết (lunar new year) as decorations as well a charm to bring good luck. In recent years they’ve suffered from lost of interest and consequently economical difficulties. What was once a whole village’s craft, passed down through the generations, has now dwindled to a few households. The rest of the village has now turned to making hàng mã (offerings for the dead) as it is more profitable. There are only 2 woodcut masters alive who know how to make these woodcuts in the traditional style, Nguyễn Hữu Sam and Nguyễn Đăng Chế.
Tranh Đông Hồ obtain their subjects from from village life and folklore, they often depict farm animals, sometimes with human and other times by themselves. In some cases, the animals even take on the activities of human beings (such as in Đám cưới chuột – Mouse wedding, Thầy đồ cóc – the frog mandarin). Animals motifs work as allusions and metaphors. They provide rich insight into the relationship between human and animal, and the extent of respect given to animals that goes beyond seeing them merely as food.
There are 4 main themes in Đông Hồ woodprints.
Back to the subject of farming models. Vietnam is shifting towards changes that are very similar to those in the Philippines from the 70s, and surrounding countries such as China, Thailand, India, Taiwan.
This article on worldwatch.org details the shift in the Philippines and environmental consequences. It points out that farming policies in Western Europe have become increasingly strick, resulting in a number of companies moving their meat production to other countries where there is little or very loose regulations. The article mostly focuses on the environmental consequences of industrial farms, but also touched upon the susceptibility to zoonotic disease due to the increasing movement between farms.
In Vietnam people used to bring living livestock to the market to slaughter and sell. After the outbreak in 2005 the government banned this practice, but in fact in the countryside this is still very common. Most families would buy live chicken and slaughter them in their own backyards.
On the Journey for Animal Science, there is another detailed essay on the economic importance of livestock keeping for small households, and the risk of zoonotic and food-borne disease.
According to online news sources each year 100-200 people die from food poisoning. That’s 4 times more each year than the worse of H1N1 death toll during the breakout in 2005. In Vietnam, it’s not just in farming practice, but in everything else that quality and safety control often fails. In simplistic terms, the question lies not just in what farming model to employ but rather how to improve the overall facility and health standards for both human and animal, and to have some form of quality control from livestock to meat produce.
It was inevitable that on discussing animals we arrived at animal farming first of all. Vietnam, as a developing country, consists mainly of small household farming without proper structures or vets, posing many different health issues.
My impression after the conversation is that industrial farming is the future and inevitable, whether I like it or not. But why? Vietnam is in a place where it could try a different route and avoid the long term damage caused by industrial mass production.
Household farming in the past was predominantly the supplier of meat but since the outbreak of Avian Flu H5N1 in 2005 the government has ceased to support small farmers and instead encourage adoption of the industrial model.
Close human and animal contact certainly make transmitting illness much easier. At the same time being exposed to animal at a young age, human bodies get acclimated and develop natural antibodies. There is no proof that the industrial model is any safer than traditional household models. While industrial model provide better infrastructure but over time, as their purpose is to raise broilers with faster growth and return, they breed weaker chicken, kept alive only by vast doses of antibiotics (which leads to the other problem of antibiotic resistance). The long term prospect of having only a few breed is also problematic, and unfavorable by nature since if a virus succeed in killing one certain strand there is no other variety to escape this fate.
While avian flu emerged in Asia, and the first outbreak of the swine flue strand H1N1 in 1918 is unknown, the next outbreak in 1976 was in the US. There were numerous outbreaks in subsequent years, including in industrial farms.
One researcher also pointed out that it is not for health reasons that the traditional model is increasingly replaced by industrial farms, it is rather a matter of economic growth. The industrial model gives a fast return and seems the ideal model for cheap meat but is not sustainable and will ultimately result in costly environmental damage. Importing foreign breed also means dependency on foreign imports, not just in terms of the breed but also antibiotics, facilities, feed, etc.
Cheap meat is also an illusion. The cheaper the meat the lower the quality. In the long run, money needed for cleaning up resulting environmental damages are substantial. Feeding the world is a strange excuse as there is little meat available in places that are actually suffering from food shortage. Industrial farming is also not good for farmers and only beneficial to those already with substantial capital.
So what is Vietnam’s issue?
Does it make sense to import a farming model from the West that has proven to be faulty in various ways? Is it possible to create a model that is safer and smaller?
At the moment, local chicken are still prized and valued for their meat and their cultural qualities, and household livestock contribute substantially to the farmer’s livelihood. What of the future?