Vietnam aims to boost rice crop for food security

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Vietnam vowed to maintain current rice crop areas and boost yields to ensure supplies remain adequate in the face of demand pressures from a fast-growing population as well as the effects of climate change.

The government's pledge of security of food supplies touched a key agenda topic at two conferences that opened in Hanoi on Tuesday, bringing together more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and traders from nearly 70 countries.

With more than half of the world's 6 billion people eating rice as a staple food, changes in availability and prices often affect the poorest and most vulnerable people, said Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"Projected demand for rice will outstrip supply in the near to medium term unless something is done to reverse current trends of slow productivity growth and inefficient, often unsustainable management of natural resources," Zeigler said in his opening remarks at one conference.

The past three years have witnessed some of the most volatile commodities prices ever, including for rice. In April 2008 Thai rice jumped to a record $1,080 a ton, sparking food riots in some parts of the world.

Since then Thai rice prices more than halved to $480 a ton in late October. Rice in Vietnam dropped to $350 in April and $475-$485 now from the record of $1,000 in May 2008.

Rice prices will not rise much above the level of $600 a ton next year, predicted Eric Wailes, professor in agricultural economics of Arkansas university.

Vietnam has transformed itself from a rice importer in the 1980s into the world's second-largest exporter of the grain after Thailand.

However, it now has to deal with the severe effects of "rapid population growth, decreasing farm area and water resources, more frequent natural disasters, floods, droughts, and diseases," Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said.

"The Vietnamese government has identified that ensuring long-term national food security under any circumstance is essential for the country's socio-economic development," Dung told delegates at a conference organized by the Manila-based IRRI and Vietnam's Agriculture Ministry.

The two are running parallel conferences this week, one on rice research and another on rice policy and investment, with a shared opening ceremony.

He said Vietnam aimed to keep the area for rice production stable, increase investment in irrigation, mechanize production and processing, and use scientific and technological advances to improve rice varieties.

Yield above world's level

Vietnam's rice yield has reached 5.3 tons per hectare per crop, well above the world average of 4.2 ton, and its rice exports of around 6 million tons a year account for a fifth of the world's total trade in the grain.

The country is forecast to export nearly 6 million tons of rice next year, Wailes forecast, down from a record shipment of 6.5 million expected this year.

But Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat said Vietnam still needed to do more as countries seek to increase global food production by 70 percent and to double food production in developing countries by 2050 to feed fast-growing populations.

"We need new varieties with higher yields, good quality, and short maturity duration, as well as advanced production processes that are input-efficient and cost effective," Phat said.

In the Mekong Delta food basket, scientists have been developing new rice varieties to resist salination, which is forecast to strike fields in southern coastal provinces severely in the next few months.

Salination caused by the encroaching of sea water on rice fields due to high tides or low water levels during the flooding season in the Mekong Delta can stunt the growth of rice plants and even destroy the crop.

The new strains are expected to be in mass production from 2012, Director Le Van Banh of the Cuulong Rice Research Institute told Reuters last week.

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