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FOOD SECURITY: A VIEW FROM THE SECOND LARGEST RICE EXPORTER

by Nguyen Thai Thanh

For more than 10 years of implementing the government's renewal policy, from a country that had to buy around one million ton a year, Vietnam has succeeded to feed itself and, furthermore, become the second largest exporter.

Since 1989 rice output has been consecutively increased by over one million ton a year, or 3.5%, more than doubling the population growth rate. Even last year, despite of heavy natural disasters, the rice output could reach 34.6 million tons. The year of 1989 also witnessed Vietnam joining the team of the world leading rice exporters with nearly 30 million tons sold abroad to date. Concerning rice supply a rice market has been set up with the participation of different economic sectors on equal competition basis, helping to buy all commodity rice from the farmers at a price that can encourage the producers. Rice export has become the regulator and stabiliser for the market prices, as well as a source of foreign currency revenue.

Export activities have recorded a considerable progress in both quality and quantity, thus, helping to narrow the price gap between Vietnamese and Thai rice. Late July this year, Vietnamese rice could sold, for the first ever time, at the higher price as compared with Thai rice of the same category by between 10 and 15 US dollars. With regard to food approach the Government of Vietnam has issued various socio-economic policies on job creation and increase of income for all population circles. The poverty rate has been ever reduced by 2% per year, and downed to 11 % in 2000. Malnutrition of under-five-year-old children has been surmounted quite well with the rate dropping by 1% a year, and in 2000 it was only 33%. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural [Development of Vietnam has concluded that the country could gain initial but important achievements of food security.

Firstly, the potential of land and labour force has not been used up fully to develop subsidiary crops and stock-raising in order to meet the daily needs and improve the income for farmers. Secondly, the network for food trading fails to have a close link with the producers and well perform a role of supporting and stimulating production. The food market in the remote and isolated areas remains undeveloped, and the economic interests between producers, processors, suppliers and exporters stays unequal. Thirdly, the life and income of part of the population remains at low level. During the between-harvests there are 1.2-1.3 million farmers short of food for up to three months, and when natural disasters took place, like in 1999, or 2000, this figure could be doubled. The poverty rate of Vietnam is still high with 2162 poor commune and 11% poor population in 2000 (under the new criteria this figure reaches 17%). The rapidly widened gap between the poor and the rich has been obstructing the hunger alleviation and poverty reduction in areas in need. What is warning here is that the number of farmers without land tends to increase. Post-harvest loss remains high, especially during dry and storage. The loss rate for rice is 13-15%, while that for maize is 17%.

The targetsfor food security have been defined by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development as "to develop production in the direction of diversification and firmness, rapidly increasing output of food and food stuff, and improving farmers' income in order to have them available to whoever, whenever and wherever in both commercial and nutrition terms." Vietnam is striving to bring the calorie consumption per day up to the world standard of between 2600 and 2700 calories by 2010. Under this calculation 95-100 million people of Vietnam by 2010 will need 21 millions of paddy, 4 million tons of meat, one million ton of fish, 15 billion eggs, 2 million tons of sugar, 10 million tons of vegetables and 500 thousand tons of milk.

If we take into account food for stock-raising and poultry, need for breeders and materials for industry, the total amount of food stuff needed by 2010 (including 4 million tons for export, or reserve) will be 30 million tons. This figure does not include about 12 million of post-harvest loss, so by 2010 the country must produce 42 million tons, or, in other words, the annual growth rate for 9 years from now must reach 4.6-4.8%. To obtain the above-mentioned objectives Vietnam should surmount the difficulties as follows:

Commercial efficiency of food production remains lower than that of other industries and the consequent low income is making farmers to chose other plants. A farmer in Thai Binh province, the richest rice storage in the Red River Delta, can use his net profit gained on 360 m2 growing rice in two crops for 4 hours on Internet. For now 80% of the Vietnamese population are farmers, and in average each of them has 560 m2 for cultivation. Unemployment rate in rural areas is rising with 1.4 million farmers having no job every year, while non-farm jobs have not been developed well and the infrastructure stays poor. If we take into account half-unemployed so this figure may reach about 7 million, 30% of total rural population, the majority of which are young people. This is a headache for many localities, especially high-populated ones. The ever increasing and uncontrolled migration flow from rural to urban areas and between parts of the country is causing bad impact on development of forestry reserve and protection of ecological environment, as well as growing social evils.

In order to overcome these challenges, the Government of Vietnam has pointed out the basic directions on food security in the country as follows:

1. Continue to increase food out by improving competitiveness and efficiency. It's necessary to build up high-quality and concentrated foodstuff production areas for export and local consumption on the basis of closely connected interests between traders and farmers in accordance with the government policies. The government is planning to spare 1.3 million hectares for producing 13-14 million tons of high quality rice, of which 7-8 million tons for export. Maize growers can also receive one million hectares to produce 5-6 million tons of commercial maize a year.

2. Development of rural industries, especially processing to upgrade quality of farming products, minimise post-harvest loss and create non-farm jobs on the spot. Things to be focused on are as follows:

· Each locality and area will develop the its spear-headed products, using up the industrial potential and comparative advantage in order to define scale and technology level of industrial establishments, especially in processing of farming products, as well as outlets for them.

· Priority will be given to building infrastructure for developing industries in rural areas like roads, electricity and communications; all economic sectors are encouraged to participate in this business.

· Develop and diversify production, create jobs for the households in danger of poverty and hunger. Development of food markets: Building material foundation for food market like storage network, perseverance and processing network, shipping terminals, trading centres and food trading network, as well as food bank network.

3. Acceleration of socialisation of food security, international co-operation in food security: After the summit on food security held in Rome in 1997, a trilateral co-operation program between Vietnam, FAO and developing countries has been worked out. Under this program Vietnam has to transfer its experience in settlement of food security, firstly in rice and food production. Vietnamese experts are currently present in Senegal, Benin and Madagascar, and will be in Laos and Cambodia soon. The cooperation program has got a high appreciation from FAO.

Nguyen Thai Thanh is a Reporter at Saigon Times Daily in Hanoi, Vietnam.