Rice farmer Nguyen Hien Thien is so busy growing his crops that he has never even visited Can Tho, a town only a few kilometres from his farm in the southern Mekong Delta.
“When I was a child, we grew one crop of rice per year — now it’s three. It’s a lot of work,” 60-year-old Thien, who’s been farming since childhood, told AFP.
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 country is already the world’s second largest exporter of the staple grain. But intensive rice cultivation, particularly the shift to producing three crops a year, is taking its toll on farmers and the ecosystem.
“Politicians want to be the world’s number one or two rice exporter. As a scientist, I want to see more being done to protect farmers and the environment,” said Vietnamese rice expert Vo Tong Xuan.
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 spawned a thriving export industry.
Rice yields have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s, official figures show, thanks 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.
But experts question who really benefits.
According to Xuan, farmers don’t reap the rewards of the three crop system — the rice is low quality and they spend more on pesticides and fertilisers, which become less effective year by year.
He argues 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 country should consider abandoning the third crop and focus on improving quality and branding to sell Vietnamese rice at higher prices, he said.
Currently, the bulk of Vietnam’s rice is exported at cut-price costs on government-to-government contracts through large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like the Southern Food Corporation, known as Vinafood 2.
“Over the last five years, the trend is towards lower-quality rice,” admitted Le Huu Trang, deputy office manager at the firm.