Vietnam urged to grow its own food

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A farmer works on a vegetable field south of Hanoi. Vietnam imports a large volume of plant and vegetable seeds each year.

Vietnam's weak plant and animal breeding industry has left the country with no choice but to spend a lot of money importing seeds and breeding stock, which will impair the future growth of the country's entire agricultural sector, experts say.

Ngo Van Giao, chairman of the Vietnam Seed Trade Association, said each year the country imports around US$46 million worth of rice seeds and 100,000 tons of corn seeds which cost between $30 million and $40 million.

Most of the imports come from the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea, China, Indonesia and Thailand, he said.

The plant seed market has great potential, but Vietnamese companies are too small to tap it, Giao explained. The risk is high that they will all become distributors for foreign firms, he warned.

Even scientists admit that the local breeding industry has failed to supply enough seeds for agricultural production.

Tran Dinh Long, chairman of the Vietnam Seedling Association, said only 35 percent of hybrid rice varieties being cultivated in Vietnam are locally bred while the rest comes from foreign countries. Up to 80 percent of vegetables and flowers are grown from imported seeds, he said.

"Vietnam's vegetable and fruit exports reached $600 million last year, but the country had to spend nearly $100 million on seed imports alone," said Tran Khac Thi, deputy director of the Fruit and Vegetable Research Institute in Hanoi.

"We have to import seeds for corn, vegetables and even rice because our breeding technology is still at a low level, unable to meet the demand for production," he said. "Foreign breeding companies have the money and the technology to create high quality hybrid strains, which have become more dominant in Vietnam due to their high yields and other economic benefits. The fruits and vegetables are also consistent in quality and thus suitable for the food processing industry and for exports."

He said what is even worse is that the country cannot even create good strains of tomato, cucumber and okra, which are easy to develop.

Experts said such failures could hinder the development of the whole agricultural sector, which has been hailed as one of Vietnam's greatest successes over the past two decades.

The World Economic Forum said in a report in January that Vietnam has successfully pursued a development strategy that has prioritized agricultural growth as a vital component of the national economy. "This journey has produced remarkable results for the country in terms of increased food security and economic growth," it said, noting that Vietnam has become globally competitive in a number of cash crops.

Even as the economy struggled last year, agriculture continued to stay strong with a growth rate of 4 percent and export earnings of $25 billion, accounting for 22 percent of the country's total exports, official data has shown. The sector was in fact the only one to post an export surplus for 2011.

But the surplus does not mean the reliance on imported breeds should be taken lightly, experts warn.

In husbandry, foreign livestock breeds are also widely used by chicken and hog farmers around the country.

Le Ba Lich, chairman of the Vietnam Animal Feed Association, said it takes much longer for pigs of a domestic breed to gain the same weight as foreign ones, which can add up to half a kilogram every day. Similarly, a foreign chicken breed requires 40 days to fully grow to 1.5 kilograms, while a local breed needs 160 days, he said.

"There is no way local breeds can compete against foreign ones," he said.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the dependence on imported breeding stock puts local farmers at a disadvantage they have their hands tied and have to accept the prices set by foreign producers.

"The problem is that we keep developing breeds which are already abundant, allowing foreign companies to make huge profits from the breeds we lack," said Deputy Minister Diep Kinh Tan.

Ministry officials said a national plant and animal breeding program has been initiated that encourages participation from both public and private business sectors, with the goal of developing new strains.

Long of the Vietnam Seedling Association said what the country needs now is a "revolution" within the breeding industry.

"The priority should be given to training in order to create a group of skilled experts," he said. "The government needs to provide incentives to scientists so that they can focus on their job. They need to know they will receive royalties if the strains they create are put into use."

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