Ordinarily, in south-west Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, farmer Phan Van Giang can wade through a rice field. Rising from the region’s dark, fertile water – typically about 50 centimeters deep – are green plants. They taper off into feathery beige blossoms, called panicles, which hold the grains of rice that are the object of his attention.
Cultivating White Gold
Today, it is a different picture. Van Giang stands on the mud of a 1.4-hectare rice plantation, a farm for which he had saved over many years. The field is bare except for a few pale reeds jutting out of the soft earth and salinity hangs in the air. This is what remains from the former owner’s rice field. Still, Van Giang looks across his new field as if he can already see it flowering. He is determined – despite mounting challenges.
2016 has seen the biggest drought on record in Vietnam. Last year on his main farm, Van Giang suffered 20-30 percent losses compared to 2014. Still, he says, “other farmers completely lost their harvests. We consider ourselves lucky.” Despite these obstacles, Vietnam is predicated to have only a 1.5 percent reduction overall in rice output for 2016 – but how is this possible? One explanation may be the implementation of new strategies developed by farmers, researchers and the agricultural community.
Farmers in the Mekong Delta need robust, high-yielding rice varieties that can thrive even in very salty water.
Recent weather has presented an all-too typical pattern. In 2015, four weather calamities struck Vietnam: heat, drought, salinity and flooding, all of which led to crop problems. Drought has been a consistent problem since the 1980s, but 2016 marked a new record in intensity. When there is no rainwater, the second calamity strikes: rice paddies along coastal areas become flooded with seawater, leading to higher salinity. Other parts of the country experienced flooding – or all four calamities over the course of a year. Plants already weakened by extreme weather are even more vulnerable to attacks from pests and bacterial diseases.
This is a particularly troubling situation for Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’ – the twelve provinces of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta – where up to 80 percent of the population is involved in rice farming. The north of Vietnam also cultivates rice. Because of its predominance, rice – also known as White Gold – has a powerful place in Vietnamese culture. Per capita, the Vietnamese consume about 191 kilograms annually – almost forty times as much as Europeans eat. Rice is also a staple food for 50 percent of the world’s population. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), farmers will need to increase rice harvests by 80 million tons per year over the next decade in order to feed a growing world. This is even more of a concern given mounting crop challenges – and losses.
The Need for Seeds
At the beginning of 2016, the water in the Mekong Delta was at its lowest level in 100 years. However, farmer Phan Van Giang has been using hybrid rice seed that are specially developed to withstand drought, salinity and other extreme conditions. These seeds are part of Van Giang’s relative success in the last years. He also finds that he needs only 18-20 kilograms of hybrid seed per hectare – normally, farmers use about 140 kilograms of conventional seed for a space of that size.
Amit Trikha, Head of Seeds for Bayer’s Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, explains: “Quality hybrids have a 90 percent or more germination rate. They have the qualities fit for cultivation in a given region.” Although hybrid seeds cost more up front, Trikha points out “each seed has great potential through multiple tillering – up to 14 tillers. The hybrid seed’s performance more than compensates for the higher cost.”
What is Hybrid Rice?
Hybrids are produced by crossing two different parental plant lines. Under this approach, one of the lines is deliberately sterilized to prevent the usual process of self-pollination. The plants, which are then purely female, receive pollen exclusively from plants of the second parental line growing in the immediate vicinity. In this way, the genetic material of the two lines is combined, and the female plants produce the hybrid seed. A targeted choice of the two parental lines allows production of hybrids with specific, desirable properties: for example, a particularly high yield potential. In fact, finding suitable parental lines is an expensive and protracted process.
Trikha explains that a seed’s vigor – and a hybrid seed’s comparative strength – can be judged against three key elements: the Tiller-Root-Panicle (TRP). The tiller refers to the number of branches from the seed; in hybrid seeds, this is 20 percent higher than conventional varieties. The root quality – the plant’s ability to absorb water and nutrients – is also stronger among hybrids. Finally, the rice plant’s ability to flower is an indicator of robustness. Hybrid seeds have a consistently higher number of flowers, or panicles, that will result in healthy rice grains. “At farms in the north and south, hybrid seeds mean you have 20 to 25 percent more yield,” says Trikha. With the high average yields currently enjoyed by Mekong Delta farmers, an additional 20 percent incremental yield represents a significant improvement in their earnings.
Trikha maintains a cautious assessment for the future. “Salination, for example, is something farmers think will never happen to them. But 250,000 hectares in Vietnam are no longer good for rice.” His Seeds Development Team has been working on a rice variety with high abiotic and biotic stress tolerance. “And we are almost there with a salinity-tolerant hybrid,” he adds.
Hybrid seeds have a 90 percent or more germination rate. They are developed to have the right qualities in a given region.
For North Vietnamese farmer Do Thi Tuyen,1985 remains very fresh in her memory. As a young woman on her family’s farm in Ninh Binh, she witnessed their entire harvest destroyed by flooding. Unfortunately, Tuyen has experienced other crop failures since then.
In 2015, Tuyen saw drought at the transplanting stage, followed by heavy rains at the flowering stage – and the sowing season was cold. While the North Vietnamese terrain often traps extreme weather – it is a narrow landscape close to both the sea and mountains – recent years have been trying, even for seasoned farmers. Heavy rains accompanied by stormy weather cause injury to rice plants, making them prone to Bacterial Leaf Blight (BLB) attacks, in which badly-infected seedlings and plants wither. To meet this disease, Bayer recently launched the BLB-resistant hybrid seed called Arize Tej Vang. The preliminary feedback from Vietnamese farmers has been encouraging. The new hybrid rice variety Arize Tej Vang can play an important role in improving the productivity of rice plants and can help to ensure a sustainable supply of this important staple food in Vietnam.
Extreme Weather Events
Experts from Bayer’s ‘Much More Rice’ (MMR) initiative have also been providing regionally-based training to help rice farmers optimize crop production and yields. The MMR initiative is an integrated rice production program based on hybrid seeds and crop protection products, as well as consultancy and advisory services. It is designed to improve yields, quality and profitability, while at the same time promoting sustainable agriculture.
In the south’s export-based Mekong Delta region, there has been a growing adoption of hybrid seeds. In this region, there are up to three harvests per year. Therefore, intensive rice farmers prefer shorter duration hybrids that can be harvested in 100 days or less to allow two to three crop cycles per year. In the brackish regions of Mekong Delta, many farmers including Phan Van Giang, alternate rice harvests with shrimp breeding. With a rich soil quality, chemical fertilizers are not typically needed. Another Bayer hybrid rice seed, Arize B-TE1, has proven to be beneficial for regional shrimp farmers. An independent, local university study demonstrated the positive impact of Arize B-TE1 healthy root systems for keeping shrimp waters clean, providing a healthy and balanced ecosystem favorable for shrimp. These healthy and balanced ecosystems are necessary to achieve bigger and better-quality shrimp harvests.
In northern Vietnam, where farmers like Tuyen feed local communities, many rice farmers have not heard about hybrid seeds. Drought and salinity are less of a problem than in the south, but there are only two harvests per year in less fertile soil. The challenges are different.
For Tuyen, basic solutions – such as using plastic mats to cover rice seedlings – have provided cost-effective crop protection. Tuyen has also been empowered by her training: “It includes rice cultivation methods, identifying pest problems and using crop protection products safely.” Overall, the program’s participants report increased yields by an average of ten percent, while saving costs on fertilizer, seeds and plant protection. Participating farmers report a twenty percent increase in profits – a gain that allows them to continue their profession.
In the current summer season, Tuyen has developed a number of concrete plans. One is to focus on monitoring sanitation while using an appropriate crop protection product. She will also start the farming season earlier to reduce the effects of hot weather.
The Top 10 Rice Exporters 2015
Products, such as hybrid seeds, and professional support are helpful at the local level. Bayer Seeds Manager Amit Trikha and members of the Better Rice Initiative Asia (BRIA) are increasingly advocating a transformational approach. In order to increase efficiency, they encourage farmers to form co-operations, so that they have ten or twenty-hectare farms. “This helps mechanization and allows input on a larger piece of land,” notes Trikha.
In southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, there is increased interest in managing farms as professionally as possible. Northern Vietnam, where farms have been less business-driven, could also benefit, says Trikha: “Farm cooperatives are more efficient in terms of labor input and output. And you free up land for other crops.”
For rice farmers, new approaches are welcome. Their core desires remain straightforward. In northern Vietnam, Do Thi Tuyen hopes for better weather for farming. She also wants to continue learning. In southern Vietnam, Phan Van Giang states, “I have only one wish – to always have a good harvest and sustainable crops. Then we will not feel tired, even though we have to work really hard.”
Preventing Future Problems
In 2007-08, South-Asian farmers in countries like Vietnam had such limited rice supplies that their exports were severely limited. Rice prices rose dramatically. The result was global unrest. Martin Maerkl, a Bayer Sustainable Development Manager, remembers this crisis as a wake-up call for politicians and world organizations. In 2013, the German Ministry of Economic Development, private sector partners and the German Development Cooperation Agency (GIZ) initiated the Better Rice Initiative Asia (BRIA). Bayer is one of the BRIA’s founding members.
What are the main targets of the BRIA?
The BRIA targets the entire national rice value chain and analyzes its main shortcomings, challenges in close co-operation with the Ministries of Agriculture in Southeast Asia. The BRIA also promotes innovations along the rice value chain e.g. to decrease labor shortages and to enhance water efficiency. The initiative is working directly with smallholder farmers to improve their livelihood.
Critics of the BRIA stress the point that mechanization and innovations in seed and crop protection will drive smallholder farmers to become dependent on multinational companies and will burden them with high financial risks due to upfront investments.
The BRIA offers a holistic vision of the rice farming sector with the rice farmer as the focal point. Farming has to be developed into a profitable business to improve the livelihood of farmers with an eye towards present and future crop conditions. To continue rice farming in Vietnam as it is today is not an option. The entire sector has to go through a transformation. This has big social implications on the entire rural sector in Vietnam.
What does the transformation of the rice sector mean?
Farms must be jointly managed. Access to training, modern input and mechanization require a coordinated approach. The individual smallholder does not have a voice, which is why farm cooperatives will have to be formed. This is, as well, a necessity to get access to financial services. Better infrastructure, supported by local and national governments, is also part of the BRIA’s advocacy. Overall, we want to holistically improve the livelihood and productivity of farmers throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia.