Is the Triple Rice Crop Sustainable?

By Jenny Lovell


Rice Fields in Mekong Delta 

The “Rice Bowl” of Vietnam
Tien Giang is one of the many provinces in the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta that produces a large amount of rice each year. In fact, beginning in the mid-1990s, the whole area skyrocketed into massive rice production thanks to the irrigation infrastructure and newly adopted seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. This part of the delta earned the nickname the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, producing upwards of 20 million tons each year.

Some say that Vietnam was late to adopt these highly intensive rice-cropping practices. The Green Revolution, a development movement in the 1960s aimed at reducing poverty and increasing food security, pushed for adoption of improved seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. The movement took root across Latin America, Africa, and Asia and helped alleviate hunger and poverty in many situations. Because of the war with America and other civil unrest, Vietnam did not join the movement until the late 1980s.

Vietnam paired the systematic promotion of rice production with other policy reforms called Doi Moi, aimed at establishing a “socialist-oriented market economy.” The lasting effect of the Doi Moi policies was to restructure the way land was distributed and the way rice was produced, which did not favor women. In fact, because of fewer land rights and fewer opportunities for wage labor jobs in villages, there was a swell of women migrating to cities for work.

So what happens when men are left back on the farm? What happens when women are absent for days or weeks? How does this change the decisions made on the farm?

The Pressure Is On

Woman in a rice field, Mai Chau, Hoa Binh province, Vietnam

Woman in a rice field (photo credit: Robert Harding)

In Tien Giang, as well as many other provinces in the heart of the Mekong Delta, women still migrate. Some women journey to Ho Chi Minh City or Can Tho for textile factory work. Others commute locally to fish processing factories in the delta. This puts a lot of pressure on male farmers to produce – three crops per year, in fact.

In Mỹ Quới and My Phú hamlets in the Cai Be District of Tien Giang Province, the story is the same. Men primarily do rice farming, but there are female-headed households that produce rice as well. Women also help with certain stages of rice production, such as weeding and post-harvest drying.

In many households, the family land that used to produce one or two seasons of rice would have been used for a different crop in the dry season, such as vegetables. Women have a much larger role in vegetable production. With the new focus on three rice crops per year since the 1990s, there are fewer jobs for women to perform on family farms.

As a result of the pressure to produce, rice farmers are more likely to use the Green Revolution production practices to hit their goals each season. The legacy of the Green Revolution is intensification of agriculture through improved seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery. Both male and female farmers are still much more likely to practice intensified agriculture than sustainable agriculture.

Policy Responses to Sustain Mekong River Delta Agriculture


Mekong River Delta View from Helicopter (photo credit:

But the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, together with the Plant Protection Department, have started to promote more environmentally sustainable approaches to sustaining this massive rice production. Vietnam is promoting sustainable agriculture through the “1 Must Do, 5 Reductions” (1M5R) campaign.

The policy aims at reducing inputs, such as fertilizer and water, while sustaining production. The “1 Must Do” of the policy refers to improved seed varieties. Possibilities include drought-tolerant varieties, short growth cycle varieties, and other such climate-specific modifications. The “5 Reductions” part of the policy includes reducing inputs of seeds, water, fertilizer, pesticides; and reducing post-harvest losses. The question is, how is it working?

The policy began in 2013 and has been a successful col laboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), the World Bank’s extended the Agricultural Competitiveness Program (ACP), and local extension agent trainings and farmer field schools. But adoption of the six practices is not even across the delta.

One major reason for the unevenness is that the 13 provinces in the delta have varying levels of funding and support. For example, An Giang is a very strong rice producer and receives a lot of funding and support for initiating sustainable practices, such as Alternative Wetting and Drying (AWD), a water-saving approach to growing rice. However, Bac Lieu and Soc Trang do not have an much success with AWD adoption because of less capacity and funding for trainings.

Tien Giang is somewhere in the middle. There is a high degree of adoption of AWD, for example, but not as much support for reduction of pesticides. What is fascinating about the unevenness of adoption in Tien Giang Province is the difference between male and female choices.

Are men more sustainable?


Men are working in a rice field (photo credit: Declan McCullagh)

Male-managed plots receive more support for sustainable practice adoption. Men receive twice as many years of education and are two and a half times more likely to receive extension training. Financially, men receive up to eight times the remittances that women receive and less than ten percent of the men sampled were credit constrained, compared to 24 percent of the women sampled.

This translates into huge differences in complying with the “1 Must Do, 5 Reductions” policy. Men lead the charge on adoption of sustainable measures. Not surprisingly, given the educational, financial, and institutional support men receive; the male- and jointly-managed plots are more likely to adopt almost all sustainable practices.

However, it should be noted that men are not shifting the overall sustainability of Vietnamese agriculture because they are inherently more environmentally conscious. They are shifting the sustainability of rice cropping practices because of systematic advantages in resources and education. If women were given the chance, perhaps the female farmer population of the delta could help carry the sustainability torch even farther.

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