In most of Asia, almost no meal goes by without rice. But rice is not just rice — it can be turned into almost everything from paper to wine and can take many forms like steamed, puffed, or flaked. The colors also vary, some are white, brown, red, black, or even amber and rice grains can be either short or long, thick or thin, or even broken. Rice kernels are used to make noodles, cosmetics, and cooking oil. And rice hulls provide fuel and fertilizer.
In Vietnam, aside from its popularity at the dining table, rice is even considered as the unofficial symbol of the country because of its many uses.
Not only that, with regards to the sources of high-quality rice seed, Vietnam currently has many varieties, making it highly competitive to meet the preferences of importers. In addition, Vietnamese rice is dominant in the middle and high-end markets compared with other countries in the region.
Higher rice prices
Thanks to higher rice prices, Vietnam has exported $1.01 billion worth of rice, up by 1.2% year-on-year, during the first four months of 2021.
According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the volume of rice exports from January to April dropped 11% year-on-year to 1.9 million tons. However, its value remained and even topped that of last year as the average export price grew 13.4% year-on-year to $534 per ton.
The Vietnam Food Association released information that since late March 2021, rice exports increased as the supply of commodity rice is abundant and businesses have completed processing rice for export. Moreover, the VFA has forecast the country’s rice export value will continue to rise because of higher selling prices.
As per the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam plans to produce 43 million tons of paddy and targets exporting 6.5 million tons of rice this year.
From rice to shrimps
Generally, there are two ways to grow rice — in wet paddy or on dry hillsides. The paddy rice yields a high tonnage per hectare but requires more labor. The dry rice is usually planted by poor farmers who have no access to water or live on slopes too steep to terrace.
However, because of the intense impact of climate change, planting in paddies isn’t the same anymore.
Before, a farmer is deemed lucky if one’s land is sandwiched between the Mekong River and the South China Sea, a region widely known as Vietnam’s rice bowl.
As climate change causes seawater to rise and reach freshwater sources, growing rice even in the country’s rice bowl has become a lot more complicated, and sometimes a waste for the farmers.
Although technology is doing its best right now to invent a kind of grain that can grow in saltwater, normal rice can’t grow in water containing more than 0.3% salt. To understand how salty the sea is, there are 35 grams of salt in 1 liter of seawater. That’s a lot.
Because of the salination levels in the Mekong Delta region, the trend toward cultivating shrimp ponds is expected to supercharge the country's seafood industry.
"We planted rice but we harvested no rice," now shrimp farmer Ta Thanh Long told Reuters. "There was a time the rice could still grow when the water was still fresh. But then the water became more and more salty each year."
To address the challenges of the then-rice-farmers-now-shrimp-growers, the local authority organized training sessions and other measures like soft loans to keep their livelihood going. To boost the industry, the government has set an ambitious target to more than double shrimp exports from current levels to $10 billion by 2025.
Vietnam is the world's third-largest exporter of rice, but the revenue generated from shrimp exports has exceeded earnings from rice since 2013 and is growing steadily. Additionally, industry analysts expect exports to rise by 5-10% annually over the next decade as the country's total shrimp farming lands — mostly in the Delta — increase by 3-5% each year.
In an interview with Reuters, former rice farmer Thuy said, “Life was very hard for us until we began to farm shrimp. Many shrimp farmers around here have been able to build nice houses and open saving accounts at banks."
Former director of Soc Trang’s Agriculture Promotion Center Duong Minh Hoang said that at least one-third of the rice farming area along the province’s 72-kilometer coastline has been affected by salination over the past few years. Adding they have urged local residents to switch to crops that are suitable with salination. “Climate change is impacting everyone here, we have to try to adapt to survive,” he told Reuters.