Experts advise switch to cash crops with much higher returns
Farmers thresh their price harvest in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province
Despite the country being a leading rice exporter for nearly two decades, few Vietnamese farmers have made it good in life from rice farming, and experts are now suggesting they turn to more profitable plants like those in high demand for making animal feed.
Vietnam exported 7.72 million tons of rice last year, an 8.3 percent increase, but revenues fell nearly two percent to US$3.45 billion.
Official figures show that this has been the case for many years with export value not keeping pace with volume.
Around four million rice farming families in the Mekong Delta, the country's largest rice basket, are living under the official poverty line of VND400,000 ($19) a person a month, surveys found.
Experts said Vietnamese farmers can earn better with other plants.
"Vietnam has many [sources] that can give farmers higher incomes than rice," said Nguyen Lan Hung, a biology and agriculture professor.
Hung said that for many years now, Vietnamese farmers have been stuck to nearly four million hectares of rice fields that earn more than $3 billion every year, while France has turned one million hectares of wheat into vineyards to earn $11 billion a year and used some of the money to buy grains from other countries.
"Food security is important, but besides rice, farmers need to get rich through other plants," he said.
Experts say a switch to other plants can be beneficial to the breeding sector as well, because Vietnamese businesses have been spending around $2 billion every year to import wheat, corn and soybeans for making animal feed.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development estimates that Vietnam's demand for animal feed will increase 1.3 times to 27.4 million tons by 2020.
Nguyen Dang Vang, chairman of the Vietnam Breeding Association, said Vietnam should not feel proud of being among the world's top rice exporters, because the grain accounted for an annual trade surplus of around $1.5 billion, while animal feed made a deficit of $4 billion.
Vang said planting rice also consumes more water than other crops.
Experts say Vietnam can start with soybeans, with local production only meeting 10 percent of demand.
With the current small cultivation area for the beans, estimated at around 173,000 hectares nationwide, farmers can apply crop rotation on their rice fields, helping reduce weeds and pests, and improve soil quality.
When crop rotation was applied at several areas in Tien Giang and Dong Thap provinces, the income was higher than from cultivating rice alone, according to the agriculture ministry.
Dealers bought the soybeans at VND15,000 per kilogram, leaving farmers with a profit of around VND16 million a hectare, VND6 million more than they made from rice.
Experts said Vietnam can also apply new technologies, including genetically modified crops, to increase productivity.
The country now produces four tons of corn per hectare a year, more than two times lower than in the US, but if the productivity can be raised to five tons per hectare, Vietnam would not only produce enough corn at home, but can also export it. Vietnam imports a million tons of corn and nearly two million tons of soybeans every year to make animal feed.
Although genetically modified crops are still controversial, they have been taking up more area, a 94-fold increase from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 29 countries including the US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Mexico and Spain, according to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
It said 10 percent of the world's crop lands were planted with GM crops in 2010.
Nguyen Tri Ngoc, former head of the Crop Production Department, said it is "extremely necessary" for Vietnam to quickly apply scientific advances that many countries in the world have used and are using if it wants to catch up with them.
But Ngoc also said risks have to be assessed carefully and the process of applying controversial technologies tightly monitored and managed.
Bui Chi Buu, head of the Institute of Agricultural Science for Southern Vietnam, also called for a green revolution, failing which Vietnam will face an agricultural crisis with an increasing population, reduction of arable land, water shortages and higher temperatures because of climate change.
"Bio technologies can help create new varieties that can sustain in such conditions. We will not create these varieties using chemicals, so we will still protect the environment and can protect our biological system. There will be more gains than losses," Buu said.
Duong Hoa Xo, director of Ho Chi Minh City Biotechnology Center, said current regulations require anyone who wants to use genetically modified varieties to have their fields checked by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and submit research results about relevant practices in other countries to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Once the varieties are assessed as guaranteeing biological safety and carrying no threats to people or the ecology, cultivation can proceed.
"The ministries are being very enthusiastic about this," Xo said.
Related agencies are checking a worm-resistant corn variety developed by three local importers and results have been positive so far, said Nguyen Tan Tuat, a food safety official from the agriculture ministry.
A recent resolution issued by the Prime Minister on agricultural development has genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton take up between 30 and 50 percent of the crops' cultivation area by 2020.
Experts say biotech advances can also be applied in the nation's orchards to create "unseasonal" crops. Currently, seasonal crops cause surplus supply that drags prices down.
Nguyen Minh Chau, head of the Southern Horticultural Research Institute, said, "After many years observing [the local market], I've seen that fruit prices are very cheap during summer time from June to August.
"That time is the main season for durian, rambutan and mangosteen in the Mekong Delta, litchi in the north and dragon fruits in the south-central region, as also the time when Chinese fruits such as apples, pears and peaches flow into Vietnam in large quantities at cheap prices."
Surveys by Vietnam National Institute of Agricultural Planning and Projection said several experienced farmers have been successful with unseasonal crops, earning big money by avoiding "collisions" with other crops.
Farmers in Binh Thuan Province in the south-central region, known for dragon fruits, have earned double, or even three times their normal income, from unseasonal crops, and a large inventory has never piled up.
Some farmers in the north have used litchi or longan seeds that allow the fruits to ripe 20 or 30 days sooner or later than normal, setting them apart from the mass harvests.
Chau said citrus crops in southern Vietnam do not need such intervention as they bear fruit between March and September, when such fruits from the north and China are not available.
Vo Mai, vice chairman of Vietnam Gardening Association, said crop scattering can only be successful if there is a system for farmers at different localities to cooperate with each other. The exercise would be futile if every farmer goes his or her own way and make unseasonal crops collide, he said.
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