After five years implementing the Party Central Committee's Resolution N°7 on agriculture, farmers and rural development, weaknesses remain in the agricultural sector, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).

Growth slowed from 3.79 percent in 2008 to 2.72 percent in 2012 and is estimated at 2.14 percent in 2013. Moreover, the incomes of farmers remain low and Vietnamese agricultural products still struggle to compete in international markets. Viet Nam News talked to experts, officials and farmers about this critical issue.

* What are the major problems that our country's agriculture sector faces?

- Professor Vo Tong Xuan, Acting Rector of Nam Can Tho University:

Vietnamese agriculture developed spontaneously. If it had been appropriately and scientifically organised, with accompanying incentives and sufficient finances, then at this point in time - 38 years after peace and unification - Vietnamese farmers wouldn't have to sell their new harvest immediately and there would be no rural people leaving their fields to seek jobs in cities and industrial zones or farmers returning land to the state.

During the 1980s, the piecemeal contract movement in agricultural production in the Mekong Delta prompted the Party and the Government to adopt the doi moi (renewal) policy in agricultural management, which freed every farmer to conduct production activities as he or she wished.

But then there were no further improvements. The farmers were free, yet the government did not have any policies to help their transition from a state of self-sufficiency to profit making. Farmers broke up government agricultural zones to plant whatever they wanted. They grew dozen of rice varieties in the same area to sell to middlemen who then mixed them up before selling to rice exporters. This ruined the quality of our rice. Thousands of individual farmers grew coffee on small land holdings, then near harvest time, thieves came around at night to steal branches of unripe berries. The farmers had to compete with the thieves, so they ruined the quality of our coffee beans. Vietnamese farmers turned out products in high quantity but very low quality.

Government investment in the agriculture sector focused on water management. The Government did not invest in establishing agricultural production zones with a complete value chain for each product.

Farmers and distributors are not collaborating. Even with the rescue policy of buying cheap paddy for temporary storage, the farmers do not benefit from the price difference later on when the paddy price goes up. At the end of the day, it's the farmers who suffer.

- Dang Kim Son, Director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD)

Production land is scattered and farmers are working with backward production techniques. Our agriculture infrastructure is poor but we have to cope with high risks. This prevents large-scale production.

The agriculture sector has been left behind. Investment goes largely to urban and industrial development and services, while agriculture lacks capital, skilled labour and proper infrastructure. Without industrial support, the sector has to import expensive materials and tools. Without a processing industry, the sector has to export raw products for a low price.

* What can be done to tackle these problems and support farmers?

- Professor Vo Tong Xuan: The Government needs to help farmers with actions, not words. Documents have not proven to be effective in the past 38 years.

We don't need a lot of money, just better policies. The Government's agriculture reform policy needs to create a stable market for farmers' products.

After the wars, our country was poor, but the doi moi policy improved people's lives. We need such a policy again, but focused on farmers. Instead of letting enterprises benefit from farmers' labour, they should work for the benefit of farmers.

- Dang Kim Son : I think MARD's agriculture reform project offers sound solutions. First, we must develop science and technology. This is the only way for agriculture to develop to a higher level. This requires more investment in the science sector. Many attempts to do this have been foiled, which affects other sectors as well.

We can't develop a large-scale modern agriculture sector based on small households. Farmers need to be gathered in co-operatives. Support for such co-operatives in terms of land, capital and science is essential.

We also need to focus on marketing farmers' products so that they can focus on production.

Infrastructure is also a problem. The agriculture sector lacks transport and electricity. Rice from the Mekong Delta area has to be transported to Ho Chi Minh City for export. For the whole Highlands area, there is only one highway, which is regularly congested. There is no railroad running through this area and waterway service is poor.

The Government should not make farmers pay for increasing costs of fertiliser, education and health care while agriculture product prices are decreasing.

Farmers also need forums to learn from one another and present initiatives.

* To create a modern agriculture sector, we need technology. But modern technology reduces the demand for human labour. With 70 percent of Vietnam's labour force working in the agriculture sector, how can we resolve this dilemma?

- Professor Vo Tong Xuan: When farmers recognise the importance of competitiveness in the current context of economic integration, they will see that individual producers cannot compete in the market. They have to group together to be competitive; these co-operatives will also have to co-operate with enterprises to process and market the branded products. Farmers will have to follow the established good agricultural practices that enterprises require. So in the near future, agriculture production will be mechanised and conducted on a large scale. By that time, the industry and service sectors will have developed further and attract more workers from farming communities. Only those farmers capable of large-scale agriculture production will remain in the agriculture sector.

* What is your wish for the agriculture sector for the new year?

- Professor Vo Tong Xuan: Japan's industry sector recovered only 15 years after they surrendered to the Allies.

The Japanese Government's policy at that time was that all of their farmers join agricultural co-operatives.

This policy actually helps farmers to increase their income quickly. Japan's law on agricultural co-operatives was established in 1947 and had been amended 46 times by 1993. Members earned no less than workers at companies.

Vietnam also has a Law on Co-operatives, but this law is not designed specifically for agriculture. It does not give much incentive to encourage farmers to join like the Japanese law. The Japanese system considers co-operatives a tool that the Government uses to help poor farmers escape poverty.

At the beginning, they don't have to pay income tax. On the contrary, Vietnam's Law on Co-operatives considers farmers as rich investors and requires them to pay enterprise tax. Once farmers join co-operatives, the Government does not have any supportive policy for them, which is totally different from Japan's policy.

I have two wishes which have not been realised. One is that Vietnamese farmers can be as wealthy as Japanese farmers, and the other is that Vietnam's education sector could have graduates who are truly skilled in their profession and are fluent in one foreign language so that they can be as competitive as graduates from other countries.

- Dang Kim Son: Scientific research quality is poor, at a moment when Vietnam critically needs qualified science and technology products to be able to compete in the world. In scientific research institutes, many outstanding individuals have retired or plan to retire. Many younger researchers lack experience and enthusiasm.

I wish we could quickly rebuild the systems of research institutes, not only those run by the Government but also private ones.

- Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu

The year 2014 will be a year of many challenges for the agriculture sector, especially natural disasters and decreasing investment.

The ministry has instructed relevant agencies to carry out reform policies in order to raise the sector's added value and growth.

The ministry is focusing on the application of high technology to improve productivity and quality. The sector will also focus on the processing phase to raise the value of products. We strongly encourage enterprises to invest in the agriculture sector and rural areas.

Human resources for science and technology will decrease this year. I hope that the sector can gather many people who are working in science and technology to address the agriculture sector's needs.

- Nguyen Thanh Hung, Vice Chairman of Dong Thap province's People's Committee

The Prime Minister approved Dong Thap province's project on agriculture restructuring in 2013 and we have agreed on an evaluation commission to implement the project. The project will focus on building co-operation models, which include production, preservation, processing and consumption. Three factors will be focused on: building agriculture co-operatives, attracting enterprises' investment in large-scale pilot fields and building production chains based on local strengths.

We wish the Government would issue a separate decree on agriculture co-operatives. Such co-operatives offer a solution for scattered and spontaneous agriculture production and would be a decisive factor in the country's agriculture development.

- Duong Thi Huyen, resident of Village 6, Ha Hai commune, Ha Trung district, Thanh Hoa province

My mother has around 0.5ha of fields. When she was younger, she still did field work and planted rice. She gave the fields to my sister and me when she got older. Last year, I worked very hard on the fields. But this year, I just don't care about it and let other people use the area for free.

If I continued to plant rice, I would make only 50,000 - 80,000 VND (2.5 - 4 USD) for each 0.1 ha each month. Input costs are increasing: fertiliser and breeding prices are getting higher and higher and the cost of harvest machines exceeds the potential profits. If weeds developed uncontrollably, I would even suffer losses.

I want to do field work. In fact, I love field work. But I think the Government should have some policy to control input prices to support farmers, or else we'll all abandon our fields. In my village, many have given the land back and shifted to other jobs-VNA