Vietnam: the high stakes of hybrid rice for farmers

by GRAIN | 3 Oct 2008

Vietnam is considered the next “success story” in hybrid rice adoption after China. Starting with about 11,000 hectares in 1992, the same year the hybrid rice programme was launched, it reached 600,000 hectares in recent years, most of it grown in the North of the country. Vietnam aims to further increase the hectarage for hybrid rice to 70% of the country’s total rice area (currently 7.5 million hectares) by 2010.

The government is very much behind the push for hybrid rice, which it props up with subsidies. The Cultivation Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) says that support for each hectare of hybrid rice stands at VND4 million (US$250) in the delta region and VND6 million (US$375) in the mountainous regions. In February this year, when a prolonged cold spell ruined rice production in the North, the instant response of the government's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) was to plant more hybrids and extend more than VND17 billion (US$ 1 million) of subsidies to help farmers recover. What the figures don't say, however, is whether farmers are benefiting from this hybrid rice push.

In July this year, GRAIN went to a few of the major hybrid rice growing provinces around the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam to talk with farmers about their experiences with hybrid rice. In our discussions with 30 or so farmers, and a few scientists and NGO officers, from Ha Tay to Ha Nam, and Nam Dinh to Thai Binh, a worrying picture emerged.

A poor trade-off

Vietnam's hybrid rice research and development programme, launched more than a decade ago, claims to have created many new pest resistant strains of very high quality like Nhi Uu 838, Bac Uu 63, TH3-3, PAC 807, HR 641, and BTE 1. But none of the farmers we talked to spoke of any of these. In fact, at least three-quarters of the hybrid varieties in Vietnam right now come from China, which, according to the farmers and scientists we talked to, are all very susceptible to pests and diseases like rice blast and leaf blight. All the farmers we met with growing hybrid rice said that their use of fertlisers and pesticides had increased over the years and some even told us that they had only started using chemical inputs when they shifted to hybrid rice. Conveniently, most of the pesticides and fertilisers for rice also come from China, leading some to call hybrid rice "a package deal". While the Vietnamese government portrays hybrid rice as a national success, from what we saw, the actual result is a big export market for China's emerging seed and pesticide industry.

According to a crop protection scientist we talked to, few studies have been undertaken on the experience with hybrid rice in Vietnam and those that have been done have been rather superficial. Still he says that it is well known that in recent years in hybrid rice growing areas the problems with brown plant hopper (BPH), one of the most devastating pests of rice, have worsened and problems with another serious pest, the white-back hopper, are spreading and getting more severe. These two pests were once very minor pests in the North but have become major problems since the introduction of hybrid rice. Scientists that he has talked to from China, confirm that the same has happened in hybrid rice growing areas in their country.

Our conversations with farmers in Nam Dinh province confirmed what the scientist had said. They have been growing hybrid rice for many years and have observed that the incidence and degree of pests and diseases are increasing, especially with brown plant hopper. Those farmers in the area with a long experience growing hybrid rice, of between 6-10 years, said that they have had to increase the amount and frequency of their pesticide spraying to manage the problem. One woman farmer said this past season she sprayed 3 times more than the previous.

For all of the problems that hybrid rice appears to bring, it was hard to find evidence of a yield increase that might justify the switch. The government's line is that hybrid rice provides a yield advantage of 15-20%. But a scientist told us that recent surveys point to only a 5-10% yield increase, and it seems that production of hybrid rice in Vietnam is now declining.

During our trip through Ha Tay province, just outside of Hanoi, we were surprised that not many of the farmers we met with were growing hybrid rice. Most were growing a conventional variety called Khang Dan that the farmers acknowledged was not great when it comes to eating quality but was high yielding. The yield data we gathered from farmers growing Khang Dan ranged from 4.2 to 8.4 tons per hectare - a yield that surpassed that of hybrids in many areas. This variety also doesn't require as much inputs and investments. In Thai Binh Province, some farmers we spoke with also reported good yields from a conventional variety called VO, which they said yields around 7-8.4 tons per hectare. Some of them are also growing a conventional variety called V10 for animal feed and several local Tam varieties - sticky rices for home consumption that farmers tend to save seeds from. Further southeast, in Thai Binh Province, the centre of rice production for the North, we expected to find many farmers growing hybrid rice but none of the farmers we met with were growing it. They all told us that they had tried hybrid rice before but the small yield gain it provided was not worth the extra cost for inputs.

A precarious situation for the farmer

Overall, Vietnamese farmers do not seem to exercise much control over their rice seed supply. When we asked farmers why they had selected certain varieties, most of them said that it is their cooperative that decides what seeds they use. Choice of seed seems to be a highly centralised, supply-driven affair in Vietnam. What variety a farmer ends up planting depends on what the coop selects from the list of varieties that the government makes available. With the private sector coming more and more strongly into the rice seed market, this could leave farmers in a very vulnerable position.

This vulnerability is made worse by the belief held by many of the farmers we spoke with that they must buy new seeds every cropping. Farmers are advised by extension officers not to save and replant seeds but to buy new ones every season "to ensure good yields". Whether they get seeds from the coop, or from "seed centres  and institutes", the uniform advice is to buy a fresh supply of seeds every cropping. And this is not just for hybrids – many farmers who prefer to use inbred or local varieties are also advised to buy a new batch of seeds every cropping, undermining the old culture of seed saving.

Indeed, times are tough for Vietnam's rice farmers, and they seem to be only getting tougher. A chairman of a local farmer cooperative in a village in Thai Binh Province summed up the general situation. He said the price of rice paid to farmers increased a little bit this year, but not enough to offset the increases in the price of inputs and irrigation. He says farmers get paid about 9,000 VND/kg for milled rice (6,000 VND for unmilled) and typically only make about 100,000 VND (about US$ 6 ) in income per season!

With the increasing price of food and fuel, he believes that farmers are the most vulnerable. Yet they are the most neglected. For him, the government should step in to protect their livelihoods. His argument comes from the fact the government has stepped in to protect coal miners from layoffs because they supply a vital national resource. “Why can't the government do the same to farmers who supply food?” he asked in disbelief. He says farmers feel powerless to change their situation. “That's why so many of them are leaving the land”.

In our brief trip through the hybrid rice growing areas of northern Vietnam, one of the things that stood out was that pretty much all of the farmers we saw working in the fields were women, and most of them older women in their 60s. The men and younger women have left to look for factory work or jobs in urban centres. With the global and national economy now in turmoil, domestic food price inflation spiraling out of control and the price of fertilisers, seeds, pesticides and other farm inputs in the stratosphere, Vietnam's agricultural model is on course for a major crash, and the renewed push for hybrid rice is only going to make things worse. Those who stand to suffer the most are unfortuantely those who could turn things around if they had the political opportunity - the farmers.

Author: GRAIN
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