A Tale of Two Rice Producers

Published: 15/04/2013 06:06



Vietnam and the Philippines both love rice. But only one of them has enough of it.

Like many people in Vietnam, I grew up close to a rice field in the Philippines. I fondly remember childhood days when I would ride my bike on the dirt road cutting through the heart of it.

The only conspicuous living things for miles on end would just be me and maya birds. It seemed like a scene straight out of a painting.

With the passage of time these paddies dwindle, giving way to commercial buildings and other urban eyesores. Where once was rice, there now are…construction supply stores.

I look at pictures of Vietnam’s paddies with a glint of envy. They seemingly grow wider with time. Incidentally, the Vietnamese and Filipinos share a love of rice. Since 1964, hundreds of Vietnamese scientists have trained at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) headquartered in Manlina.

Vietnam has parlayed education into success. Today it is the world’s top rice exporter after India. And in the irony of ironies, the Philippines, the nerve center of IRRI, is the world’s biggest rice importer.

"You will notice (Vietnam’s) agricultural production...seems to be something worth emulating. There's a dearth of areas that are left vacant," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III admitted during his 2010 visit to Vietnam. 

Vietnam’s success on this front can be generally chalked up to both out-and-out political will and IRRI intervention. As it enacted historic reforms, Vietnam’s government encouraged the institute to disseminate more prolific rice variants throughout the country. Since 1969 IRRI has released dozens of these varieties which are now grown on nearly all irrigated lands in the Mekong delta region alone. 

Vo Tong Xuan, known as “Dr. Rice” for his extraordinary contributions to rice production, noted that farmers have adopted these varieties to the point of zealousness. If only to stay ahead of evolving diseases and pests, farmers would troop to schools and research stations every year to ask for new varieties. Scientists who could not produce any are bound to receive censure from not just farmers but also the government.

Contrast this with the average Filipino farmer. In her 2009 research Why Does the Philippines Import Rice, Normalyn Yap Tibao noted a study showing how old varieties are still grown in around 50 percent of Philippine rice fields. These paddies yield just 2.75 metric tons per hectare.

But even the most productive variety is for naught without resolute policies. The impetus for them in Vietnam was widespread hunger.

The reason was the country had just emerged from the war ending in 1975. Signaling the start of a period of reform called doi moi, the government issued a directive permitting households to join cooperatives in 1981.

Six years later, farmers gained long-term rights to land use. This land law also stipulated that farmers paid 40 percent less taxes than before.

In 1988, the Philippines passed a law redistributing land among farmers and farm workers. However, the law has been criticized for weak enforcement and kowtowing to oligarchic interests. 

In the same year, Vietnam enacted Resolution 10, which traded the collectivized economic system for a household economy. In effect, the government granted greater autonomy to rice-producing households. These households were even entitled to receive billions of dong in credit from the state.

Due to such incentives, Vietnam stunned the global stage when it reached a surplus and exported 1.67 million tonnes of rice in 1989. Vietnam has never looked back since, exporting up to 2 million tonnes yearly. Saddled with droughts, storms, and an economic crisis, the Philippines began importing rice in 1985.

Granted, the Philippine populace, which stands at 97 million, grows at around 2 percent per year: far too zippy for harvests to break-even with demand. The problem is compounded by corruption, conversion of agricultural land to other uses, inefficient irrigation systems; and lack of transport infrastructure.

But economist David Dawe of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) insisted that all countries, including Vietnam, have their fair share of these woes. He noted that the rice growing areas in the Philippines have actually expanded in recent years. 

With its flatlands and humongous delta, Vietnam is destined to be an exporter, Dawe argued. Archipelagos like the Philippines and Indonesia tend to be more mountainous, in comparison. Arable land in such countries competes with urban sprawls and protected areas. The Philippines is also a tad notorious for typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

Tibao thinks a solution to the rice quandary is to fall back on other kinds of staple fare, such as noodles, potato and corn. But it is a recourse Filipinos would want to stave off for as long as possible. State officials recently claimed the Philippines would be self-sufficient by 2014.

As cities close in on paddies, I couldn’t help but envision a future of eating corn with my steak. For Filipinos like me, such a scenario is nothing short of dystopia. No meal is complete without rice. I do not doubt that the Vietnamese share my sentiments. I am just glad we are all in this together.


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