Vietnam is one of the many countries whose primary sector is agriculture and employs over half the population. A country that was once regarded as one of the most poorest nations in the world, with a per-capita income of less that $100 in the 1980s, turned over a new leaf and introduced major policy reforms about three decades ago. The first of these reforms, the Doi Moi policy in 1986, helped the country achieve significant economic and political transformation in the years that followed, which drastically reduced the poverty rate of over 50% in the 1980s to less than 3% at the moment. The adoption of Doi Moi has also strengthened Vietnam's agriculture, and promoted the country from being a food importer to one of the major exporters in the world, with an export value of 30 billion USD annually and providing stable livelihoods for over 10 million rural households. Presently, rice, sugarcane, cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, nuts and cotton are some of the major crops in the country, along with lush plantations of banana, pepper, citrus trees, rubber, coconut, coffee and tea in different regions across the country. In recent times, the government is introducing policies to cope with adverse effects of climate change, and is now a member of the Global Alliance for Climate Change Smart Agriculture, to promote research and technology adoption for a sustainable, climate-resilient approach to agriculture.
In Conversation With
is an agro-evangelist and a prominent figure in the agriculture sector, with over 18 years of experience across the complete spectrum of segments including aquaculture and animal nutrition, and the last 14 years in agri-inputs like fertilizers, chemicals and seeds. The greater part of his career has been in Sales & Marketing functions, where he covered various markets in South and Southeast Asia. Over the last 10 years, he has been living and working in Vietnam, managing business operations in the Indo-China region for various multinational companies. A seasoned sales person with an innovative approach towards sustainable agriculture, Sanjeev Bhambi is presently leading the business of Bioseed Vietnam
as its General Director and Country Head.
Your journey in the agriculture sector is quite remarkable! For nearly two decades, you have played diverse roles in multinational companies like Unilever, Biostadt India, Novozymes and Monsanto, but what prompted you to take this career path in agriculture?
Sanjeev Bhambi: Right from my childhood, I have had a keen interest in agricultural and animal husbandry activities. We had cows and buffaloes at our home and grew vegetables like onions, potatoes, okra and chilies, on our own. Growing up in such an environment had created a passion in me for agriculture since my childhood days. Later, my elder brother joined the dairy industry, which further deepened my interest and provided me with an additional exposure in the field of agriculture.
What is it about this industry that motivates you to contribute towards its advancement?
Sanjeev Bhambi: In the era of disruptive innovations and technologies, the agriculture industry has a mammoth task to feed the ever-growing world population, which would be 9.7 billion by 2050. My passion to help farmers every day in solving new challenges and supporting their ‘never say no’ attitude with new innovative products and technologies inspires me to continue working and contributing to the industry and ultimately to the society too.
You have had a phenomenal career graph working with some of the industry giants, and have been in Vietnam for a decade now. How has agriculture evolved in the past few years, and what impact has technology had on it?
Sanjeev Bhambi: Rice is the main crop in Vietnam, covering 82% of the total cultivable land. The focus of government bodies and farmers in recent years has been on increasing productivity and quality of produce, while diversifying the crops that meet the requirements of high-price export markets, mainly fruits and vegetables. In my opinion, building a sustainable model for every crop, focusing on hi-tech agriculture for fruits and vegetables, and increased use of new technologies, such as the usage of QR code and GI code to aid in identifying the origin of the produce for instance, would support in the evolution of agriculture. However, the challenges in terms of erratic weather like high temperatures, floods, drought, and typhoons along with saline soils have increased the pressure on farming. Apart from the aforesaid problems, demand-supply scenario has impacted the prices of agricultural produce, which is one of the main factors causing losses to farmers as well.
Precision farming is proving to be a vital element in improving agricultural productivity and making agriculture sustainable. What are the recent trends that you see in terms of precision and sustainable farming around the world and how do you think it will help in the inclusive growth of farmers?
Sanjeev Bhambi: Agriculture 4.0 is the time for “big data” and its analysis. Precision agriculture, IoT, and the use of AI to develop smart farms would support digitalization of agriculture sector to build a sustainable agriculture industry. When we use the word ‘sustainable’, it implies economically sustainable, ecologically sustainable, resource sustainable and finally time sustainable. If we look at the adoption of mobile technology in farming communities, the use of drones, sensors, and satellite imagery, along with the availability of internet in rural areas are agtech trends that gaining popularity at the moment. These modern technologies help to address numerous issues around availability of right information, accurate weather forecast, real-time crop updates, labour issues and efficiencies. It would also help farmers to think from ROI (Return on investment) per square foot instead of ROI per acre. Better and sustainable returns to farmers will provide great growth to farming communities around the world.
What would you say are some of the major challenges that seed producing companies are facing today?
Sanjeev Bhambi: The main challenge being faced by seed companies is the changing regulations for both biotech and new technologies. Another difficulty is in developing new-generation seeds that are stress tolerant — for instance, climate, drought, temperature, and new pests and disease resistant — and require less resources. Farmers want to produce more with less. In other words, they need seeds which can give higher yields but consume less resources. R&D teams of seed companies around the globe are working to develop new products using the latest technological advances so that they can quicken or shorten the process of developing new products, which will enable them to bring these products to the market quickly. Most of the innovations are developed for large-scale farmer markets and do not fit into smallholder farmers’ market. Low profit to smallholder farmers due to low or no barriers on trading results in the locally-produced products becoming less competitive to those produced in large scale in some other countries.
Speaking of agricultural productivity, how have the seed companies revolutionized the farming sector in Vietnam and Southeast Asia? How have they addressed farmer-related issues in the region?
Sanjeev Bhambi: In the last 25 years in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam in particular, seed-producing companies have contributed greatly to farming by improving on old agronomical practices and increasing productivity in a sustainable manner. The main problems for farmers in the past were the quality and management of seed (OP or open pollinated varieties). The major innovations of seed companies viz “hybrid seeds” and “Researched OP” have helped to solve these critical issues. Inadequate knowledge of seed planting and their management, the right nutritional requirements of each crop, and the management of pest infestation and disease are some of the other obstacles. By the way of knowledge transfer, information sharing and training, and demonstrations, increased awareness on benefits of hybrid/researched seeds have contributed greatly to improve farm yields. A good illustration of this is the shift from the usage of 100% OP seed varieties of corn to almost 95% hybrid seed usage. Availability of good quality seeds have addressed many severe issues for farmers in terms of higher yields, more resistance to crop diseases, and better benefits, thereby improving overall sustainable agriculture.
What about rice-producing farmers around the world? What are their biggest challenges and how has climate change in particular impacted them?
Sanjeev Bhambi: The biggest challenge for a rice farmer is to produce rice sustainably. Rice requires the highest amount of water resource and nutrition, and has a big impact on global carbon footprint. At the same time, awareness around growing rice among 15 million smallholder farmers in Vietnam and 144 million farmers globally is low. Average income earned per month from cultivation of rice in Vietnam is USD 100, which is much lower than that in Thailand and Indonesia. Saline soil in coastal rice farming areas, and erratic weather conditions such as typhoons, high temperatures, and floods have also caused harsh impact. Continuous increase in the cost of inputs (fertilizers, pesticides and seeds) for rice farming and global pressure on rice prices always remain a challenge.
Governments in countries around the world, particularly in developing nations are introducing initiatives to boost agricultural productivity and make it more profitable. What such initiatives is the government promoting in Vietnam?
Sanjeev Bhambi: The local government is becoming more and more aware of the latest technological advancements in the world of agriculture and also upcoming challenges like climate change, limited availability of resources, pressure to produce sustainably, and the increasing demand by consumers for food safety and traceability. The government is working on implementation of new policies and changes in the structural framework of the industry (PPP and multi-stakeholder program like SRP, FDIs etc.), in addition to promoting new technologies such as biotech crops, hi-tech agriculture and precision farming, and the usage of AI, IoT, blockchain and QR codes among others. Hi-tech agriculture zones, and Viet GAP and Global GAP are some of the initiatives.
Having been a part of this industry for an extensive period of time, you must have seen so much happening in this space across the world. From your experience and your learnings, what would your advice be to the agriculture community?
Sanjeev Bhambi: With the new technological disruptive innovations, agriculture industry is at the cusp of transformational changes that have never been experienced in the past. In my opinion, data will be the most important thing. To get some idea of the magnitude of the data being discussed here, you can imagine 1 spoon of productive soil containing a billion bacteria, and think about the mode of action and interactions among them. Concepts like farm-to-fork or fork-to-farm are both possible by big data analytics, i.e. from producer to consumer or from consumer to producer - Circular economy, integrated smart farming, closed building vertical/bubble/hydro farming in cities near the markets, and biotechnological farming for raw crops focusing on productivity, cost, resource efficiency using big-data analysis will be quickly adopted across the globe. Focus will be on sustainability of farming, boost in productivity and the existing pressure on resources. However, biotic and abiotic stress (for instance, FAW, ASF and TR4 fungus in banana) will continue to pose more challenges in the time to come. Farming communities need to feed the ever-growing world population sustainably – the shift from ROI per acre to ROI per square foot should be the key. Global collaboration between various stakeholders (Producer – Processors – Regulators – Consumers) would also be critical.
SUSTAINING SUSTAINABLY WOULD BE THE KEY THEME FOR AGTECH IN COMING 30 YEARS.