Not easy, although with engagement of the whole political system
In Bac Giang at any time of the year, we can recognize that Luc Ngan lychee is the center of many stories. For instance, the last winter was less cold than usual and much rainy, that affected fruiting capacity. Another story is about how conveniently container trucks transport with such situation of the road. Last year, when we came to work in Luc Ngan district, Mr. Tang Van Huy, Director of Agriculture Division of Luc Ngan district, just talked about the lychee growing area qualified to Global GAP standards while answering an urgent phone call by a business inquiring information about a guiding session on Chinese bar code requirements. He said, lychee is the main product not only of the district but also of the whole province, so it receives attention of provincial leadership, or in other words, "the engagement of the whole political system".
Farmer’s joy in lychee season
Perhaps that is the reason why Luc Ngan lychee has a special position: it is one of three products (besides Binh Thuan dragon fruit, Buon Ma Thuot coffee) out of more than 70 geographical indications of Viet Nam selected to be registered for geographical indication protection in Japan within the framework of a cooperation agreement between the Intellectual Property Office of Viet Nam (Ministry of Science and Technology of Viet Nam) and the Department of Food Industry Affairs Bureau (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan) in 2017. “To prepare for the selection course, we have to build a set of criteria such as special elements of product; having a mass production capacity and exporting potential; high production level, relatively standard production process; available local associations... In particular, we highly appreciate Luc Ngan lychee for its representative, typical characteristics for Vietnamese products to be able to enter the Japanese market", Mr. Luu Duc Thanh, Director of International Trademark and Geographical Indication Examination Center, Intellectual Property Office of Viet Nam said. And another important factor is the support of the local authority, where from provincial-level to district-level officials are always enthusiastic to think about protecting local products in difficult markets.
Indeed, Department of Science and Technology of Bac Giang province and authority of Luc Ngan district have quickly completed the registration dossier for geographical indication and deployed more than 100 hectares of lychee production site to comply with the Japanese market standards. They also realized that this is a golden opportunity to expand the market for agricultural products, and to avoid the risk of depending on a single market. "The export volume to Japan may not be much, but it will help improve the reputation of Luc Ngan lychee because Japan is the most difficult market," said Mr. Ngo Chi Vinh, Deputy Director General of Department of Science and Technology of Bac Giang province. This working spirit has not only just begun in recent years when the province shows its determination to register for geographical indication protection in Japan, but since 2008 when the Luc Ngan lychee was registered for geographical indication in Viet Nam and its price in domestic market increased by 1,5 or 2 times. Generations of officials of the Department of Science and Technology have been always busy and in a hurry to develop geographical indication and more than 60 certification and collective marks for other local agricultural products.
But ... things are not "home and dry" as expected. Being the earliest filed applications between the 03 above-mentioned products, Luc Ngan lychee’s application has not yet obtained geographical indication protection in Japan until the beginning of the lychee harvest season in May, 2020.
What was the reason? In fact, "their requirements are quite brief and clear", according to Ms. Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, representative of the Technology Transfer and Investment Consulting and Research Company (Concetti), the consultant firm for the Department of Science and Technology of Bac Giang province in registering for geographical indication protection in Japan for Luc Ngan lychee, but all of them require tracking the roots of problems. The most important remarkable requirement for applying for geographical indication protection in Japan is to prove that the product bearing geographical indication has a specification obtained by natural factors (climate, geology, ect.) and/or human factors (skills, traditional production processes, etc.). The characteristics of the product bearing geographical indication must be determined by quantitative indicators, verified by experts in the relevant fields.
At the first glance, these requirements are similar to the ones of geographical indication protection in Viet Nam. For example, the characteristics of Luc Ngan lychee are big shape, rich sweetness thanks to the growing area located in the “concave” part of Dong Trieu bow, less affected by heavy rain and storm, high difference of temperature range between day and night, traditional farming techniques to ring (tighten) branches (cut a circle around the trunk or main branch of the tree) to stimulate flowering, etc. The bold sweetness is reflected in the value of the average Brix value of Luc Ngan lychee which is about 2-3% higher and in the total average total sugar content which is about 2-5% higher than lychee from other cultivated areas in Viet Nam. However, this feature has not been verified over time, so its continuity and stability have not proved (according to Japanese law, every year, the applicant of geographical indication have to submit a report on whether the product’s characteristics brought by natural conditions is still guaranteed).
However, the evidence given by Viet Nam has not fully complied with the Japanese requirements, for example, they argued, high sugar (brix) does not mean high sweetness. Most people think that a fruit with more sugar is sweeter, but the reality is different: watermelon is sweeter than dragon fruit, but the sugar content of 280g watermelon is equivalent to the sugar content of 115g dragon fruit. According to Assoc. Nguyen Van Loi, Director of the Biotechnology and Food Processing Division, HAUI Technology Institute (Hanoi Industrial University), in order to correctly explain this problem, we need to understand the sweetness mechanism as well as ingredients in fruits. Sugar creates a sweet taste, but there are many types of sugars with varying degrees of sweetness. If the convention of the sweetness of sucrose is 100, the sweetness of the sugars will be as follows: Fructose (common sugar in ripe fruit) - 173; Glucose - 74; Mantoza - 32.5; Galactose (sugar in milk) - 32.1; Lactose (milk sugar) - 16. To prove that Luc Ngan lychee has a characteristic sweet taste in comparision to other regions, we need to analyze specifically on the sugar content in the sweetness of lychee fruit, on the location where to take samples, in the comparison with other regions instead of showing only general brix.
This has resulted in the fact that the Japanese authority has not yet accepted the geographical indication protection for the Luc Ngan lychee. "Registered products as geographical indications in Japan will obtain the absolute trust from Japanese consumers and have a much higher selling price than non-protected products in Japan”, representative of Concetti explained. But if even in the main lychee season in 2020, when succulent lychee fruits reached its highest quality, a scientific basis to prove all of those requirements could not be produced, then missing the registration opportunity and have to wait until the crop season in 2021.
Publication on Luc Ngan lychee, Bac Giang, Viet Nam registered as geographical indication in Japan
The FIAB's Portal clearly states: the weight of Luc Ngan lychee is at least 10% heavier, the average height from bottom to top of the fruit at least 11% longer, the average Brix value about 2-3% higher, and the average total sugar content about 2-5% higher than lychee in other cultivated areas in Viet Nam.
Currently, researchers are still having a headache with a problem of preserving lychee fruit after harvest. "Although we have conducted many researches on preserving fruits, lychee is the most difficult to preserve among all fruits in general." Unlike other fruits, lychee fruit is susceptible to browning because the enzyme polyphenol oxidase (PPO) which breaks down anthocyanin pigments in the peel, forming brown by-products. Without appropriate storage solution, the lychee fruit can turn completely brown in 48 hours. On the other hand, after picking from the tree, the lychee will stop ripe and only respiration process takes place, causing the oxidization of the substances in the lychee, the fermentation of the sugar creating a taste like alcohol.
To solve this problem, Bac Giang has studied for a long time many advanced preservation technologies in the world such as Modified Atmosphere Packaging Technology (MAP), CAS technology (Cells Alive System), sulfur inhalation, sudden heat treatment technology and organic acid using technology of Juran Company (Israel), etc. However, these technologies are not suitable for the conditions of Vietnam due to the insufficient storage time or the high price.
Assoc.Prof.Dr. Nguyen Duy Thinh
Calling for the involvement of scientists
Bac Giang has found all the ways to bring the lychee to Japan in time. With the support of the Intellectual Property Office of Viet Nam, the Department of Science and Technology of Bac Giang province has tried to find laboratories capable of analyzing the indicators required by Japanese authority to timely register for the geographical indication protection in Japan in the lychee in 2020. To save time, the project team has searched for available research results on this issue. However, although "overturning" all the scientific databases of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Education and Training or research institutes related to lychee plants, there is almost no information that they need. Finally, they have found out a book published a long time ago by the Times Publishing House, but it was still refused by the Japanese authority because the author's scientific biography is not accessible because the Times Publishing House has been closed.
This also reflects a reality that only industry insiders know. "Most studies on lychee plants in Vietnam focus on farming techniques, varieties, preservation methods,… but few people conducted in-depth research on lychee fruit", Assoc. Nguyen Van Loi commented on the lack of in-depth studies on lychee in universities and institutes.
Therefore, the Department of Science and Technology of Bac Giang province and the Geographical Indications and International Trademarks Examination Center urgently proposed to the People's Committee of Bac Giang province on the necessity of a study on Luc Ngan lychee immediately conducted by a research institute who meets Japanese scientific standards. “At the briefing meeting of the Provincial People's Committee, the Chairman and Vice Chairman immediately agreed with the proposal", Mr. Ngo Chi Vinh recalled a year ago. At that time, the Central Institute for Vegetable and Fruit Research (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) was assigned to take samples of fresh fruits in 20 communes and towns of Luc Ngan district for analysis and comparison with lychee samples in 5 communes representing the lychee area in Luc Nam, Bac Giang and 5 in Thanh Ha, Hai Duong to clarify criterias, such as: fruit weight, fruit size, brix level, total sugar, total acidity. All stages from the decision of the Provincial People's Committee to the taking samples and analysis were carried out with urgency to keep up with the lychee crop season, then to finish a full report which had to be sent to Japan by the end of June.
With these convincing scientific information, the Japanese side has established a national-level geographical indication council, including agriculturalists, sociologists, marketers ... for evaluation purpose. This was the basis that the Intellectual Property Division, the Food Industry Affairs Bureau (FIAB), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan announced on March 12 that the lychee of Luc Ngan, Bac Giang, Viet Nam is protected as geographical indication in Japan.
The story of registering Luc Ngan lychee for geographical indication protection in Japan is just one of actual cases showing how the lack of scientific research has affected the chances of developing lychee in particular and agricultural products in general. “Many people think that Vietnamese agricultural products are better, or even the best, compared to neighboring countries’ ones. But what is the basis for this conclusion? If there are no quantitative research results to prove it, these assessments are only emotional”, Assoc. Nguyen Duy Thinh, Institute of Biotechnology and Food (Hanoi University of Science and Technology) commented. Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Van Loi also stated that "we need to study methodically, from the change of nutrient components according to the time of growth, the time of harvest, the active ingredients in the fruit... Clearly understanding the scientific nature of lychee is an important basis to find preservation methods, deep processing methods or other ways to increase the value of lychee”. Therefore, if research is not radical and deep, "perhaps we just spin our wheels".
What happened in Bac Giang shows that, despite the engagement of the whole political system, from provincial leadership to closely working district-level agricultural officials, there is still no optimal solution for the lychee if there is no scientific research as a basis. There is no "shortcut" to prove the value and characteristics of agricultural products, the involvement of science in finding solutions for the lychee will become the "model" for another vietnamese crop and livestock products to follow.
It is also expectation of the Intellectual Property Office of Viet Nam, who was companion of Bac Giang in the the plan of registering for the geographical indication protection in Japan. "We hope that the experiences learned from the process of registering for the geographical indication protection for Luc Ngan lychee will become a model for the development of other agricultural products in Vietnam," said Mr. Luu Duc Thanh.