While the Vietnamese society is still dreaming of turning the country into the world’s top rice exporter, rice farmers are the first to wake up, as they realize that the more rice they produce, the less profit they earn.
It is necessary to adopt a correct understanding of the role of rice in the Mekong Delta’s socio-economic life so that all-for-rice production for the sake of food security would not gain ground again
Rice farmers in the Mekong Delta are now living in constant worry. When freshwater flows in abundance, farmers in the upstream provinces like An Giang, Dong Thap, Long An and Tien Giang have to stay up all night to watch out for possible dike breach. In the year when the rainy season ends early and freshwater flows less, those in coastal provinces, such as Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Hau Giang and Kien Giang, are anxiously worried over crop losses due to saline intrusion. Even in the years with “good weather” like 2018 and 2019, they are still uneasy because of a continuous fall in rice prices.
Some people said the woeful situation is a consequence of the heavy priority for rice farming. It’s not a wrong statement, but it would be more correct to say that the priority for rice farming is maintained too long.
Not a long time ago, the Government formulated a policy which was to ensure a profit of at least 30% for rice farmers. Whenever rice farming was facing difficulties—such as drought, saline intrusion and falling prices—the whole society was engaged. The Government instructed related bodies to purchase rice for storage. Banks reduced interest rates for rice exporters, or froze or extended their debts. Fertilizer traders, agents and retail outlets rolled over or rescheduled farmers’ debts. Such privileges are never extended to other crops.
Rice has enjoyed priority because after 1975, Vietnam faced economic blockade and trade embargo. The infrastructure for production was unavailable and agricultural reform was unsuccessful. Rice farming in the Mekong Delta had to ensure enough supply for the whole country and at the same time share the food burden of friendly countries. Therefore, State funds were prioritized for rice production, especially irrigation works. Provinces in the Mekong Delta were striving for the target of “membership of the one-million-ton rice group,” with activities like population redistribution and land reclamation. Research institutes focused on selecting short-term, high-yield rice varieties and farming technologies suitable for different soils. Farmers tried every way to increase crops, sometimes up to seven crops per two years.
All these efforts resulted in a surge in the Mekong Delta rice production, which soared from 17 million tons in the original target to 24 million tons per year. The one-million-ton rice target became history for many provinces. Areas with heavy alum soil in the Plain of Reeds and the Long Xuyen Quadrangle and saline soil in the Ca Mau Peninsula were turned into intensive rice farming lands with production on par with those in areas with alluvial soil and freshwater.
Rice is the most “closely attached” to humans than any other crops, from the production to distribution, processing and consumption phases. Therefore, the staple food crop is always associated with the potential social and political instability whenever it falls into degeneration. The State has “assigned” rice a heavy responsibility, that is to ensure food security. In essence, the issue is actually political and social security.
Therefore, the society’s pride of rice grew immensely when Vietnam was turned from a hungry country into a rice exporter. In this context, the dream of becoming the world’s top rice exporter is something natural and understandable.
While the society is still deep in the dream, rice farmers are the first to wake up. They have realized that the more rice they produce, the less profit they earn because of high fertilizer and insecticide prices. And so they have become the first to reduce crops. Farmers in upstream areas with rich alluvial soil and freshwater have cut the number of crops from seven per two years to two per year, while those in coastal areas grow only one rice crop and cultivate one tiger shrimp crop.
Nevertheless, everything has now gone too far. The upstream areas have an extensive closed dike system. Farmers with land within the system would find it not easy to turn to growing other crops, for example, how to secure enough water for lotus and fish farming in the dry season. Meanwhile, the coastal areas have a dense network of salinity prevention dikes and sluices, so it’s difficult to get enough saline water for tiger shrimp farming.
More importantly, the privilege afforded to rice has been maintained too long; so, all facilities and services, like the canal system, dikes, sluices, fertilizer and insecticide supplies, land tilling, rice seed sowing and rice harvest, have been directed to rice production. Furthermore, rice has taken up the area of other crops and aquaculture products for a long time, sending them into oblivion. So, the young farmer generation now is not enthusiastic with growing crops like beans or sesame because of lack of experience in land management and pest control, in addition to the difficulty in finding farm laborers or traders for consumption. Worse, the traditional farm products have been replaced with imports over a long period of time, which have changed the consumption habit of the Vietnamese without their awareness. For instance, children now no longer like to eat psidium cattleianum, a kind of guava, because it has many hard seeds, or local grapes or sweet tangerine because they have to spit out seeds. Housewives prefer seedless lemons, as they do not have to take out seeds when making sauce. Chinese gingers are favored because they are big and easy to slice. Animal feed producers like American soybeans because they can get a large supply with low prices instantly.
In such a situation, farmers wishing to turn from farming rice to other crops would find it not easy at all. They would not know where to find the varieties of the new crops and whether they are suitable to their lands. In case of pest attacks, it would be hard to find the suitable insecticide because only insecticides for rice are available on the market. And most importantly, they do not know whether the new crops are marketable. Therefore, though rice farming is insecure, faced with risks and causing soil and ecological degeneration, it still secures the Government interest and has necessary services at hand, and especially the market, no matter the price may be.
The above presentation explains why many people feel bewildered and perplexed with the Government’s Resolution 120/NQ-CP which re-arranges the order of the three pillars of the Mekong Delta agriculture as aquaculture, fruits and rice. They do not know why aquaculture is put first and what to do with rice placement.
Some explained that aquaculture is put on the first place because it generated export revenue of US$9 billion in 2017, triple the rice export revenue of US$3 billion. The top placement may aim to increase income for farmers who are yet to get better off after years of rice production.
The recent efforts to build a brand for Vietnamese rice—which focus more on rice quality than quantity, reduce rice crops and encourage agricultural transformation towards high efficiency—are laudable. The fact that some Vietnamese rice varieties have higher prices than Thai rice for the first time is a positive signal for the return to the “right” path for rice farming in the Mekong Delta. However, many difficulties still lie ahead, and it needs the whole society’s consensus to overcome. More importantly, it needs a correct understanding of the role of rice in the Mekong Delta’s socio-economic life so that all-for-rice production for the sake of food security would not gain ground again. SGT