Vietnam plans to gradually reduce rice production and switch to other more profitable crops, a plan that experts say makes sense since the country grows so much paddy and is a massive exporter of the unprofitable crop.
The National Assembly’s Economic Committee recently agreed with the government’s proposal to reduce the area under paddy by 270,000 hectares to 3.76 million hectares by 2020.
Another 400,000 ha of land in places where seawater is salinizes rivers during the dry season will be used for other crops, but could revert to growing paddy if required.
“Reducing land for paddy cultivation is reasonable as Vietnam has ample rice supply for local consumption while export is unprofitable,” rice expert Vo Tong Xuan said.
More land could instead be used for other crops, animal husbandry, and aquaculture, which offer farmers bigger profits, he said. He also suggested not limiting it to 400,000 ha as proposed by the government.
Vietnam exports 7-8 million tons of rice a year, or a third of its total output.
Nguyen Cong Tan, the late deputy prime minister, had once said, "If land under paddy is reduced by two million hectares, rice prices could go up 1.5-2 times and farmers could make profits."
Xuan said Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of the grain, but intensive rice cultivation, particularly with a shift to growing three crops a year, is taking a toll on farmers and the ecosystem. Due to the huge supply, rice prices are too low, and so many farmers are poor, he said.
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.
Tan had argued that the delta would be better off if farmers cultivated a more diverse range of crops, from coconut to even prawn, with just the most suitable land used to grow rice.
Experts said another reason for the planned shift from rice to other crops and aquaculture is that the weather no longer suits paddy cultivation in the Mekong Delta.
The water level in the Mekong River has fallen to its lowest levels since 1926, leading to the worst drought and salinity in the low-lying farming region, which is home to more than 20 million people.
Nearly half of the 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of arable land in the Mekong Delta has been affected by saltwater and hundreds of thousands of people there are suffering from a water scarcity.
Le Anh Tuan of Can Tho University’s Institute of Climate Change Research said cutting rice production would be an effective measure to mitigate the groundwater depletion in the Mekong Delta.
“Up to 70 percent of groundwater in the region is used for agriculture, mainly rice production. Only 7-8 percent is used for people’s daily life.”
Switching to other crops that require water less than rice or to aquaculture could be more profitable, he said.
Drought-stricken Thailand is headed down the same road. The Thai government recently instructed farmers to cultivate less rice to help the country manage its intensifying water crisis caused by a drought that experts have called the worst in decades.
“Farmers, for example, can grow corn-for-animal feed and pods instead," Thailand’s Nation newspaper quoted government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd as saying.
Vietnam started planning to replace rice with other crops in some areas with low yields some years ago. But it has remained on paper due to a lack of specific directions to farmers about what crops to grow, where to sell them, and technical and financial support for switching to other crops.
Bui Chi Buu, former head of the Southern Institute for Agricultural Technology, said the agriculture ministry two years ago encouraged farmers in some areas to switch from rice to maize and soy, which Vietnam now has imports in large quantities to serve husbandry.
It said profits from maize and soy are higher than from rice, and conditions in the Mekong Delta are ideal for growing them.
But some agricultural experts said it would not be easy to sell the items because of their less competitive prices since Vietnamese production costs are much higher than import prices. Thus, companies continue to buy imported rather than locally produced maize.
The country imported nearly 7.6 million tons of maize in 2015, up 71.2 percent from the previous year, the agriculture ministry said.
Agriculture officials in the Mekong Delta provinces of An Giang and Dong Thap said many farmers continue to grow rice because they do not know what other crops to grow.
Xuan suggested that farmers in some salinity-prone areas should raise prawn, which would fetch them higher profits.
Farmers earn around VND11 million ($500) from a hectare of paddy, while the profits could be five times higher if they breed prawns.
But prawn farming requires a lot of experience since the creatures are highly susceptible to diseases, experts said.
Nguyen Bao Ve of Can Tho University said farmers, despite being encouraged to switch to other crops, continue to grow paddy because it can be sold easily.
Many other crops are not easily marketable.
Vietnam's rice production is expected to edge down this year to 28.38 million tons from around 28.43 million tons last year.