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Rice loses its aura of security amid calls for diversification in Vietnam

Publication Date : 29-06-2012

 

For thousands of years, food security in Vietnam has been associated with rice production. Rice farmers have helped lift the country out of poverty and propelled it to one of the world's largest rice exporters.

Now, with higher income growth, urbanisation, reduced rice consumption both at the domestic and global level, experts are suggesting the country adopt broader-based growth.

This could mean putting more focus on nutrition, developing livelihoods, social protection and food diversification.

Dang Kim Son, head of the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (Ipsad), said yesterday at a workshop organised by the institute and the World Bank that discussion on food security was particularly important at this time.

"While more focus is being put on short-term problems, such as inflation, we need to figure out how Vietnam's rice and paddy production can be developed amid global recession and efforts to restructure the economy," Son said.

Peter Timmer, Cabot Professor of Development Studies at Harvard University and one of the world's leading experts on food security and sustainability in Asia, said the shift from rice had been happening quickly in Asia.

He said rice had become the food of the poor. Studies in many countries had shown that rice consumption declined when income increased. Consumers switched to higher value fish, meat, prepared foods or ate out of home.

According to statistics from the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in Asia, rice contributed 34.7 per cent of an individual's daily intake of calories in 1990, but this dropped to 29.3 per cent in 2007.

Rice was no longer the macro-economic driver of the economy, Timmer said. The rice output was also falling rapidly in many regions.

In particular, rice as percentage of Gross Domestic Product in South-East Asia fell from 14.5 per cent in the early 1960s to 3.8 per cent at the end of 2000, according to calculations by Timmer using data from the World Bank and FAO.

Therefore, rice-exports countries, which include Vietnam, must learn how to cope with lower rice consumption and focus on raising the quality of rice, taking advantage of different marketing channels.

Steve Jaffee, coordinator of the World Bank Agriculture Department in Vietnam, noted that over the past 25 years, Vietnamese farmers had over-achieved the task of feeding the nation. Now the situation was that the more rice they grew, the less profit they made.

A survey of 117 farmers in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta conducted by Can Tho University in 2009, found that few could earn a livelihood primarily from growing rice.

The Government also projected that per capita rice consumption would fall from the current 135 kilograms to 100kg by 2030, Jaffee said, but experts forecast that under the worst scenario – that rice consumption fell to 100 kilograms and paddy land reduced at 3 million hectares – Vietnam would still have a surplus of 2.9 million tonnes available for export.

Son said that the mindset of policy makers must change from protecting paddy land to protecting agricultural land - and more attention paid to jobs and income generation.

"When it comes to food security, jobs and income are critically important because people can't buy food if they don't have the money," he said. "So our approach has to be much different from the past".

 

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