Food insecurity will no longer be a threat to the country, and rice production should shift focus to emerging challenges to achieve sustainability, heard a conference on June 13 in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho.

Held by the Ministry of Agriculture and Development (MARD), the conference brought together leading technical experts, researchers and authorities from the agricultural sector to discuss a vision for the country's rice production following a report issued by the World Bank.

When the country is on track to become a prospering middle-income country, it is about time to ‘chart out a vision of how the agricultural sector can evolve,' said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank's country director in her opening remark.

"The role of rice is changing," she said, noting that rising per capita income has induced demand for higher quality and more diversified diets apart from rice.

With the change in the role of rice, food security also takes a new dimension.

"In all circumstances, food security is ensured," noted the Centre for Agricultural Policy's Dr Nguyen Do Anh Tuan in his report.

Tuan calculated the country's rice balance for the next 20 years in the worst case scenario, taking into account the minimum total hectares used to cultivate rice allowed by the Government, higher rice consumption per capita and lower yields.

"The outcome is an adequate surplus after domestic consumption and exports," he said, adding that the target of keeping 3.3 million hectares of paddy set by the Government is justified.

He noted that while the country's paddy land had remained the same between 1990 and 2010, its rice output had more than doubled in the same period to almost 40 million tonnes.

Rice exports and reserves have jumped almost four-fold and nine-fold respectively, while domestic rice consumption took a downward trend in the last ten years.

This optimistic scenario is more than enough to neutralise the risks of climate change, high food prices, conversion of arable land and population growth.

In term of productivity, Vietnam increased its yield per hectare by 28 percent, compared to Thailand 's four per cent between 1999 and 2010, according to Cuu Long Rice Research Institute's Dr Nguyen Cong Thanh.

On the other hand, the country should look to narrow the gap with Thailand in terms of rice exports, he said, noting that eight years ago, Thailand exported twice as much rice as Vietnam, but now Vietnam exports up to three quarters of the amount Thailand does.

With rice deficiency far behind, the country's food security is now at a turning point, noted experts at the conference.

"More rice is not generally the solution to food security," remarked Dr Dao The Anh, director of the Centre of Agricultural System Research and Development, "We need an integrated approach to food security which is not only based on rice."

Although the Mekong Delta is known as the country's rice bowl, many of its children still suffer from malnutrition.

"The malnutrition reduction rate in the Delta is much lower than in other parts of the country," he noted, adding that this is linked to dietary deficiencies or maternal health.

Attention should be turned towards small farmers in mountainous and remote regions with inclement weather and limited employment opportunities, poor urban workers whose jobs are unstable and farmers with little or no arable land, he said.

Diversification of livelihoods and staple food other than rice where rice is not widely available are among solutions that Dr Anh recommended.

Food security should be focused on the dimensions of local communities, chronic and temporary food insecurity, said World Bank's Rural Co-ordinator Steven Jaffee, who is mainly responsible for a World Bank study of the country's rice production.

He attributed untraditional food insecurity to food price volatility and natural disasters, among others.

The study, which was a joint effort by the World Bank and local agricultural research institutions, came up with insightful findings that Jaffee presented at the conference.

"More from less," Jaffee concluded on the study's findings "More farmers and consumer welfare from less resources, with less cost and risk and less adverse environmental impact."

He pointed to the country's well earned credibility as a large rice supplier, cost advantages over Thailand and projected expansion of the global market as positive factors that affect its rice production.

On the other hand, he also noted threats from emerging rice exporters like Myanmar and Cambodia , considerable investment in rice production in Africa and rising demand for fragrant rice.

The cost of rice production in the country should also take into account water resources infrastructure, aquaculture losses due to water diversion, the impact of the use of pesticides, zero-interest loans for farmers and greenhouse gas emissions, he noted.

The persistent challenge of rice production in the Mekong Delta, according to the report, is that ‘output and export growth do not translate into livelihood success for most rice growers.'

"There are too many growers here and most of them are on a very small scale," he said, adding that even though rice farming could generate up to a 30 percent margin, most farmers still survived on less than 1 USD a day.

He noted that big farms (two hectare upwards) also generate big income, while small farmers struggle to make ends meet.

"The study is evidence for us to understand what the challenges are and what the options are," Kwakwa told the English-language daily Vietnam News on the sidelines of the conference.

"We're ready to help the Vietnamese Government put in place the right policies to improve quality and productivity, and transform the way the market works towards sustainable growth for farmers," she said. /.