Undermine rice and we might pay a heavy price

By Tran Ban Hung   November 18, 2019 | 04:48 pm PT
It's not quality vs quantity, but quality and quantity. Cutting rice production could put our food security at risk.
Tran Ban Hung

Tran Ban Hung

When I was a kid, a frequent question I asked mom was why the rice cooked by our family was not as good as the one I had at Minh's.

His family mixed rice with other ingredients like, sweet potato or adlay millet (Job's tears). We never did this at home.

Minh was an only child and my best friend. We usually spent a lot of time at each other's house.

A typical meal at his family would include boiled water spinach, roasted peanuts and the mixed rice. Once in a rare while, they would have braised pork, and on those occasions, his parents, both state officials, would let us kids have all the meat.

In answer to my question mother would not say much. The most she would say was: "You will understand when you grow up."

I also noticed that my mom would keep Minh around for food as much as she could every time he came to my house. She would also tell me to avoid being at Minh's at lunch or dinner time.

She was right. I understood once I grew up.

My childhood with Minh began just after the Vietnam War had finally ended and the nation was reunified in 1975.

During that time, there was not enough rice for domestic consumption and Vietnam had to get help from other socialist countries. Minh's family was one of many that had to mix rice with other ingredients for their daily meals to make sure they did not go to sleep hungry.

But less than a decade after Doi Moi, the economic renovation policy adopted in 1986, Vietnam had became a "powerful nation" in rice production and exports, and has since been in the top three rice exporters behind India and Thailand for several years now.

I personally prefer using the "powerful nation" term every time I work with foreign business partners, to express my pride about Vietnamese farmers. I feel proud because their hard work helped the nation to escape hunger in a very short time and contribute to food security in the world.

Farmers harvest paddy on a field in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, June, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Huynh Van Thai

Farmers harvest rice in a paddy field in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang in June 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Huynh Van Thai.

According to the General Statistics Office, Vietnam produces around 42.84 million tons of paddy a year, which yields 26.78 million tons of processed rice. Of this, the country exports 5.8-6 million tons, or 9 percent of the world's total.

Each Vietnamese consumes 285 kilograms of rice per year, according to global market research firm Index Box. To put that into perspective, 96.2 million Vietnamese consume 27.42 million tons of rice per year, which means Vietnam is only producing enough rice to meet domestic demand.

It is a fact that Vietnam is still importing rice in small amounts from Thailand, Cambodia and even Japan. It is not difficult for a consumer to find Thai or Japanese rice in professionally designed packages in Vietnamese supermarkets these days.

Meanwhile, in the world market, the price of Vietnamese rice has always been lower than others, and lower quality is frequently cited as the main reason.

The average price of Vietnamese rice on the world market is around $425 per ton, well below the $600-1,120 per ton fetched by rice with Fair Trade certification.

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, Fair Trade is a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.

When consulting with businesses looking to send their rice to the world market, I have met many that have tried hard to acquire the Fair Trade certificate. Unfortunately, they are unable to do this, because of the production process of Vietnamese rice, which normally involves overuse of plant protection products. There have even been cases in which exporters have failed to find customers for rice products carrying Vietnamese brand names.

The paradox of a powerful rice nation whose brand is associated with cheap prices and low quality has always haunted those working in the agriculture sector, including me.

Last week, it was revealed that the government plans to seek approval from the National Assembly to reduce the area under paddy cultivation by 0.5 million hectares from the current 4.1 million hectares, which would reduce rice output by 3-4 million tons a year. The rational for this? Only half of the world’s seven billion people eat rice daily and the rice sector was fraught with risk these days.

I think this proposal is fraught with greater risk. It is one that should be reconsidered carefully, keeping in mind the need to ensure the nation's economic benefits and food security, and to ensure that Vietnam contributes to the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal to leave nobody in hunger by 2030.

We also have to consider the impacts of the ongoing climate crisis, given that Vietnam is said to be among those that will be hit hardest. We should not forget the scenario sketched by the Vietnam Panel on Climate Change under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which has said the Mekong Delta could lose up to 40 percent of its paddy area if the sea level rises by one more meter by the end of this century.

With the delta known as the nation's rice granary, this is a development that threatens the nation's food security.

Of course, there are cash crops we can grow with greater economic benefits, but I am no longer that little boy who once asked his mother that my rice be mixed with other ingredients. I believe a majority of Vietnamese people are with me in this.

To develop a reputable brand name for Vietnamese rice and restructure the rice industry, we need more imagination than narrowing the area for paddy cultivation, or giving priority to varieties that are most in demand and to commercial rice products that can generate higher economic values such as rice bran oil, or switching to other crops, as agriculture minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong told the NA.

The government should find solutions to reorganize the rice sector towards stability and improve the quality of Vietnamese rice instead of going after quantity as it has been doing for years. Research on rice varieties that can endure salt intrusion or flooding is also a need.

If we don't do all this, Vietnam is putting its own food security at risk, especially in the context of the climate crisis. No matter how the crisis hits us, there is a fundamental fact that needs to be assured.

Every Vietnamese citizen should always have a bowl of rice every meal.

If we undermine rice, we might end up paying a heavy price.

*Tran Ban Hung is an expert with Fair Trade Asia-Pacific in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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