Experts say Vietnam’s drive to become one of the world’s leading rice exporters is pushing farmers in the fertile delta region to the brink, with mounting costs to the environment.
The communist nation is already the world’s second-largest exporter of the staple grain, but intensive rice cultivation, particularly the shift to producing three crops per year, is taking its toll on farmers and the ecosystem.
A major famine in 1945 and food shortages in the post-war years led to the government adopting a “rice first” policy. This now generates far more of the crop than needed to feed Vietnam’s 90 million population and has catalyzed a thriving export industry.
Rice yields have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s, official figures show, owing to high-yield strains and the construction of a network of dykes that today allow farmers to grow up to three crops per year.
The amount of land under cultivation in the Mekong Delta has also expanded and quotas are in place to prevent farmers from switching to other crops.
However, experts are questioning who really benefits.
Vietnamese rice expert Vo Tong Xuan said farmers do not reap the rewards of the three-crop system — the rice is low quality and they spend more on pesticides and fertilizers, which become less effective each year.
He said the delta would be better off if farmers cultivated a more diverse range of crops, from coconuts to prawns, with just the most suitable land used to grow rice.
The nation should consider abandoning the third crop and focus on improving quality and branding to sell Vietnamese rice at higher prices, he said.
As salt water intrusion, drought and flooding increase in the delta — to say nothing of agricultural chemical pollution — it is hard to convince farmers to change.
The environmental costs of maintaining Vietnam’s current level of rice production are rising.
The system of dykes, which blocks flood water, are preventing soil nutrients from flowing freely and over time “soil fertility will fade,” Vietnam Rice Research Institute deputy director Tran Ngoc Thac said.
Scientists there are busy trying to breed new strains of rice that require fewer fertilizers and can survive in extreme weather.
“If farmers don’t change, pollution will continue and incomes will drop,” Thac said.
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