Vietnam: Industrial Tiger or Food Security?

  • Published on February 12th, 2009

Vietnamese rice

Vietnam faces a stark choice. Its farmlands are shrinking as government policy to achieve ‘industrialised nation’ status by 2020 continues. But national food security has always been a focus of Vietnamese political and cultural life. How is it to balance these two competing aims. One answer is through the use of atomic energy.


In the past eight years, nearly a quarter of a million hectares of cropland has been taken into industrial use and farmlands will continue to shrink, especially rice paddies in coastal areas and brackish water tables, which can be used for aquaculture, which is both more labour intensive and more profitable.

Vietnam has more than 4 million hectares of land under rice production and twice, last year, attempted to limit exports, once by refusing licences and once by raising export taxes, to try and ensure that the country remained self sufficient in its staple crop. Food security is not yet a pressing issue for the country, because productivity is set to increase by around four million tonnes in the next three years. However, that isn’t going to keep pace with population growth. The current population is around 87 million, but is expected to settle at around 120 million, while top productivity of current rice species, is likely to be enough to feed around 100 million, even before land is removed for industrial purposes.

Mekong river – rice bowl of Vietnam

The rice paddies of the Mekong River provide a long established and almost unique habitat which is under threat from industrialisation. In particular, there’s a strong drive to increase salinity in the area to allow prawn and crayfish production.

Seed hybridisation is one potential solution – offering the chance to create more saline tolerant seeds, but nuclear energy offers a different route. Called mutation induction, it requires seeds to be bombarded with radiation to create a wide range of mutations. Those that seem to have agricultural value are then handed over to crop scientists and agronomists to breed and test for unwanted characteristics and to ensure the mutation is stable.

Radiated rice provides some of the answers

In Vietnam, since the 1990s, the most commonly grown form of rice is the VND series – a radiation mutated variety that is shorter in height than its parents, meaning that it is less prone to falling over into the brackish water, and getting spoilt. It also has good salt tolerance. Perhaps the most valuable attribute to food security conscious Vietnam is the fact that one member of the VND series has a germination to harvest life of 100 days, meaning that the same land can be harvested three times a year.

One the one hand, this is good news for Vietnam, and for the rest of us, as food security is rising up national policy agendas everywhere – the more our neighbours can be self-sufficient, the more likely it is that we can trade them for crop surpluses. But on the other hand, such intensive outputs require ever more intensive inputs, and the levels of energy, pesticides and fertilisers that three crops a year would demand are staggering, as is the potential for pollution.

Most of us have little idea how crops are produced, although we’re getting better at understanding how they get to us once they’ve been harvested. Radiation mutation is a long used and highly respected technique, bringing benefits that it could take generations to produce by hybridisation processes.  We have even less idea how food policy plays out on the international stage, and while organisations like Traidcraft try to promote interdependence and interrelationships via food trade, protectionism like Vietnam’s can lead to international repercussions that nobody expected. Dust bowls and potato famines may seem like history, but mono-culture agriculture and overdependence on a staple crop, allied to reliance on one or two varieties that may be susceptible to a change in climate, insect predation or viral or fungal infection can all lead to disaster. And river deltas are fragile systems – it might not just be rice we lose, but whole stretches of marine ecosystem.

Rice photograph courtesy of IRRI at flickr under a creative commons licence

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