Vietnam is targeting to apply sustainable production methods on 300,000ha of coffee by 2015, delegates has told a forum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Pham Dong Quang, deputy general director of the Department of Crop Production, said on December 4 that Vietnam's coffee area expanded strongly, reaching 620,000ha last year.

Coffee is important to the country as it is the second largest agricultural export product in value after rice and offers a living for 3 million farmers.

Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world and the first for Robusta coffee, with yields being the highest in the world.

However, the coffee sector faces challenges, threatening its sustainable development.

They include poor techniques of farming, harvesting, processing, post-harvesting and preservation, a high proportion of old coffee areas, improper use of fertilisers and pesticides and wasteful use of irrigation water.

In response to the growing sustainable coffee consumption of the global market, the sector needs reforms to produce more sustainably sourced coffee, he said.

The Sustainable Coffee Programme began in Vietnam last year as a public-private cooperation.

Sustainable coffee production is a critical requirement to improve farming capacity, reduce input costs and increase value for farmers, the forum heard.

About 200,000ha was awarded certification under sustainable standards, of which 150,000ha meets 4C (Common Code for Coffee Community) standard, the department said.

The department is establishing a project to develop the coffee sector in a sustainable manner, with a focus on increasing product value.

Under the project, about 300,000ha of coffee plantation areas will apply sustainable production by 2015, and 480,000ha by 2020.

The project also targets increasing the processing rate, replanting areas and farmers' incomes, it said.

Nguyen Tan Trung, representative for farmers in Di Linh district of the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, the second largest coffee producer in Vietnam, said about 40,000ha of coffee in the province was certified sustainable coffee production in accordance with 4C, UTZ and RFA.

Trung said SCP brings benefits for farmers, enabling them to approach the way of proper fertiliser application, integrated pest management, proper irrigation, proper soil management, harvesting of ripe coffee cherries and new drying techniques, contributing to raising coffee quality.

However, he and other delegates agreed that there are many difficulties in implementing the programme.

Do Ha Nam, general director of Intimex Group and deputy chairman of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, said with the objective to develop coffee sector toward sustainability, the company last year began to implement two 4C sustainable coffee projects in Central Highland provinces.

Since many coffee growers are ethnic minorities, their awareness is still limited, making it difficult for the company to train farmers with good farming and management practices in compliance with the 4C code of conduct, adding that scattering plantation areas have led to high investment costs.

"It is not easy to change the practices of farmers. It requires a lot of time and cost," he said.

Trung said "local collectors did not fully satisfy the criteria of traceability". With economic benefits from the premium paid for certified coffee, they sometimes mixed certified coffee beans with non-certified ones, he said.

"Some collectors did not pay the premium to farmers," he said. As a result, many farmers did not comply with the criteria.

In reality, many coffee exporters organised technical training for farmers to standardise their documents for official audits, he said.

He said that companies and agencies should organise training on the code for farmers who participate in the certified coffee programmes every year.

They should limit the number of farmers in each course to about 70-100 farmers to make the course more efficient.

Strengthening independent audits for certified units, especially attaching more importance to the criteria of traceability, is also needed, he said.-VNA