Salt – the New Danger Facing Rice Growers
In the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, salt seawater is increasingly penetrating into inland areas through rivers and ditches and destroying rice harvests. The problem has become a serious threat, and not just for farmers: as the world's second-biggest rice exporter, Vietnam plays a key role in feeding the world population.
Through the vast network of ditches and canals, seawater is advancing further and further inland from the coast and raising the salt content in the water that flows through the rice paddies. It is damaging to rice seedlings, as their roots are unable to develop properly. The leaves turn yellow, the plants wither away and the harvests are spoiled.
In the first half of this year the El Nino phenomenon reached its peak after 100 years. Heat waves, drought and saline intrusion seriously affected agricultural production and lives of local citizens. It is estimated that agricultural losses in the Mekong Delta amounted round about 4.7 trillion Vietnamese dong (210 million U.S. dollars).
According to a latest report by the Vietnam’s Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development, as of June 2016, the shrimp production area which was damaged by saline intrusion covered some 83,000 ha. At the same time, around 232,000 hectares of rice, 6,561 hectares of crops, and over 10,800 hectares of fruit and industrial trees have been damaged.
But the situation in the delta has now deteriorated dramatically. Climate change is to blame: the constant sound of rain that has been the soundtrack to the Vietnamese wet season for millennia was nearly silent last year. The meager rainfall was not sufficient to wash the fields clean. And dams now hold back some of the nutrient-rich water that travels down the Mekong. At the same time, the sea level has risen millimeter by millimeter in recent decades, causing the salt water to move further and further inland.
Bayer's research helps farmers in the delta: during the development of new hybrid rice varieties, the company modifies the seed's properties to meet the specific needs of rice growers. “Farmers in the Mekong Delta need robust, high-yielding rice varieties that can thrive even in very salty water,“ explains Nguyen Thanh Hoan Hao, a seed specialist in Vietnam. Eight years ago, therefore, Bayer developed Arize hybrid. “It's not just less susceptible to disease and higher-yielding, it also tolerates a higher salt content in water far better than conventional varieties.“
Bayer has already saved countless harvests in the delta with such innovative products, says Thanh Hoan Hao. “Many farmers today rely on Arize hybrid rice seed.“
Phan Van Giang also uses this hybrid. The rice grower was one of the first farmers in the delta to switch to the Bayer rice variety eight years ago. “It was definitely the right decision,“ he says. “While my neighbors had to give up their fields due to salinization, I'm still coping quite well financially.“
Before the end of this year, Bayer plans to launch a new hybrid rice variety with even greater salt tolerance in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Phan Van Giang is already excited about the new product. „I'll try it out immediately, of course.“ And what are the plans of Phan Van Giang? “I purchased another rice paddy, on which I plan to grow Bayer Arize rice,” says the farmer. He is still optimistic about the future.