The race for rice

By Pamela Whitby
Mekong Delta, Vietnam

  • Published
Workers use specially designed cans to spray crops with fungicide.
Image caption,
Fungicide spraying has made lighter work for rice farmers in Vietnam

In the south-western corner of Vietnam lies the Mekong Delta, a fertile region crisscrossed by rivers rich in shrimp, prawns and lobster and dotted with lush orchards and swampy paddy fields.

In 2009, Vietnam produced 40 million tonnes of rice.

After feeding its own people, some million tonnes was left for export, all of which was grown here in the Mekong Delta.

Vietnam is now the world's second biggest exporter after Thailand and it now has the most productive rice farms in all of south-east Asia.

This is no mean feat considering that after the war with the United States, only three decades ago, the country faced famine and was heavily reliant on rice imports.

Today agriculture contributes 17% to Vietnam's GDP.

And with clear plans to grow this, it remains central to the rapidly growing economy's long-term growth strategy.

Africa's 'green rice revolution'

On the other side of the developing world, in Africa, where rice is an increasingly important staple crop, the situation looks quite different.

Despite rising productivity since 2007, last year Africa still needed to import 40% of the rice it consumed, accounting for about a third of what was available on international markets.

In fact, last year Egypt was the only major exporter of rice in all of Africa.

But with the food crisis of 2008 still a raw memory, in the past two years African governments have now identified rice as a "strategic crop".

If, says Dr Aliou Diagne, a programme leader at pan-African research organisation AfricaRice, these countries sustain current levels of investment while addressing the two major stumbling blocks - post harvest techniques and marketing - the continent could be on the brink of its own green rice revolution.

Investment needed

Image caption,
Lieb van Phoc says crop protection technology produces bigger plants

In Vietnam, the setting and conditions may differ from Africa, but the challenges - boosting yields, managing water supply and access to finance and markets - are universal.

Vietnam has proved it can be done, so what are the lessons for Africa?

Lien van Phoc and Hieb Vuong, both smallholder rice farmers in the Mekong Delta, know only too well how fluctuating prices, uncertain weather patterns and rising labour rates can hit the bottom line.

All costs are upfront, says Vuong, and what keeps him awake at night is whether he will see a return on investment - on average around $1,000 (£621) per crop.

In a good year, rice growers in the Mekong, whose average size plot is 0.8 hectares, will enjoy three crop cycles.

But this year it will be just two as late annual flooding has left water levels at an all time low.

Fear of crop failure

Farmers like to see tangible results.

For Vuong, a 45-year-old father of three who has been farming since he was 22, herbicides have had the single biggest impact in his lifetime because they marked an end to manual weeding.

Witnessing this encouraged him and others to try other products.

For the past two years, both Phoc and Vuong have been using a crop protection product developed by global agribusiness, Syngenta.

Just 18 days after transplanting seedlings, Phoc says, the plants are clearly bigger and greener, yields should be up by at least 10% and with less need for fertilizer.

However, both admit that training is essential because an incorrect application of a product could lead to crop failure.

For these reasons, Syngenta offers a product packaged in a one-application dose to ensure it is used correctly.

It has also established farmer training network programmes around the country.

Incentives required

But products such as Syngenta's are just one way to improve yields, and arguably not the best.

Cornell University's Norman Uphoff, a scientist and strong advocate of the system of rice intensification, argues that simple methods - such as transplanting seedlings into moist rather than flooded soil, spacing them further apart and weeding manually - can boost yields by as much as 50% with no need for agrochemicals or risk to biodiversity.

However, whichever the approach, success is unlikely without government commitment to agriculture, probably the single biggest reason for Vietnam's success story.

After the Vietnam war, the socialist government decided to build on its strengths.

Rice, which has been farmed here for centuries, was one of them.

Recognising too that this is a tough business, a number of incentivising steps have been taken.

These include:

  • education initiatives through private sector co-operation
  • infrastructure development to support access to markets and
  • proposed legislative reforms such as tax exemptions for farmers and foreign investors.

Such policies have made Vietnam an attractive business proposition for multinationals such as Syngenta, which has a 24% market share here, followed by Bayer CropScience with 11%.

Tough to compete

While Africa is much further down the line, government commitment to agriculture is being taken seriously.

Image caption,
Rice could go a long way to help feed Africa's malnourished

As a result, rice productivity in many African countries has risen in recent years.

According to Nicolaus Cromme of the UN-founded Common Fund for Commodities, the 2008 food crisis was a "blessing in disguise" because African countries realised the risk of relying on imports.

In fact, in the same year, Burkina Faso boosted production by 241% and Benin, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda all recorded double-digit increases in production.

But while commendable, that was still not enough.

In West Africa, rice is now the number one staple crop and consumption continues to rapidly outpace consumption, which rose annually by 4.5% between 1961 and 2006.

Moreover while productivity may be improving, Diagne admits that only recently he found "a farmer in Benin crying because he had increased production, but nobody wanted to buy it".

Increasingly, rice produced in Africa cannot compete with Asian imports because it is broken and contaminated, often with stones.

"This is unacceptable to urban consumers and millers too, who don't want their machinery broken," says Mr Cromme.

New Rice for Africa

Recognising this as a problem, some African countries have now imported post-harvest machinery and are working closely with IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, on implementing such techniques while developing local high-yielding, good quality varieties.

Local is the key word as conservative estimates are that there are around 40,000 known cultivated rice varieties and thousands more wild ones.

In other words, it is not as simple as copying an Asian system.

The result is that various African stakeholders are currently working on a New Rice for Africa, or Nerica, a recently developed cross between local rice, suited to cope with harsh climatic conditions, and high-yielding Asian rice.

Now, the challenge is to ensure it remains palatable to consumers.

Dr Diagne is hopeful.

"We have abundant land, a long-standing tradition of growing rice and, with just 3% of Africa's water resource currently being used, plenty of water," he says.

In fact AfricaRice argues that Nigeria, currently Africa's biggest importer, has "the capacity to supply all the continent's rice needs" by 2018.

This would be a significant achievement in the quest for food.

Global food security

In 40 years, the global population is expected to swell by 2 billion, so rice, today the fastest growing staple which feeds more than half the world's population, will become increasingly important to global food security.

It is also a thinly traded commodity - less than 5% of the rice produced globally was available for export in 2009.

This, says Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural policy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes the situation incredibly volatile.

"Right now, there is no functional mechanism for governing global rice markets and what we really need to understand is the politics of rice," says Mr Pingali, because it will only take a natural disaster for a major producer to stop exporting, which would almost certainly trigger another crisis.

There are indeed many vested interests at play from the multinationals, whose business depends on product sales to scientists trying to crack the latest genetic code and governments trying to feed the hungry.

Syngenta's chief executive, Mike Mack, insists that with or without his products, farms must become viable businesses.

"Global food security depends on farms being attractive places for the younger generation," he says.

But ask any grower in Vietnam, or for that matter Africa, if they want their children to end up farming and the answer is a resounding no.

In 2009, Vietnam's farmers earned on average around 20 US cents per kilogramme of paddy rice.

The situation is much worse in Africa where most farmers are subsistence and at best those who irrigate will earn 10 cent a kilogramme.

Unsurprisingly then, many of the younger generation are being lured into higher paid factory work.

Something has to change, says Dr Diagne, and tackling the $100,000 subsidies currently given to US rice farmers would be as good a start as any.

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