Because of the difficulty of preparing land for rice cultivation, improving yields remains the most actionable way of increasing production. Like all other crops, dramatic increases in rice yields began in the 1960s with the advent of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and high yield crop varieties whose combinatorial effect was aptly called the “Green Revolution.”
In Vietnam, a significant increase in output began in 1986 when the Vietnamese government moved away from communal farming to a system of private ownership. For the average farmer, this change resulted in a 40 percent increase in income from the harvested crop and therefore a renewed interest in maximizing production.
Government subsidies of pesticides and fertilizers abetted more aggressive farming practices such as double or triple cropping in the Mekong Delta Area. An 11 percent annual increase in fertilizer use in Vietnam occurred from the 1970s through the ‘90s, with the most robust annual increases occurring during the 1980s. While Vietnam lost its most consistent fertilizer supplier with the fall of the Soviet Union, it quickly found a new supplier in China. Today, China remains Vietnam’s largest source of imported fertilizer. The country needs an abundant supply of agrochemicals as it is one of the largest users of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers in Southeast Asia. Vietnam applies 2.5 and 5 times more tons of phosphate fertilizer per hectare than Thailand and Cambodia, respectively.
Similar to fertilizers, Vietnam also experienced a revolution in its use of pesticides. With little training or education available, few knew or understood how to appropriately apply pesticides. Experience with fertilizers taught Vietnamese farmers that “more is better.” This sentiment fueled excessive use of pesticides into the present day. During the 1990s, Vietnamese farmers sprayed their crops, on average, seven times a season as they associated leaf damage with crop damage, a correlation that has consistently been proven false. While in many cases decreasing pesticide and fertilizer use could create healthier crops with higher yields, the practical experience of Vietnamese farmers contradicts this scientific fact.
Since 1980, average yields have increased 2.7 times over, a change in yields well above the global average. This historical increase in production for Vietnamese farmers in tandem with misleading fertilizer and pesticide peddlers creates a veritable problem for the Vietnamese government as it tries to fight a losing battle in enforcing responsible farming practices that contradict the past experiences of most farmers.
Less is more
Vietnam’s endemic overuse of inputs creates economic, social, and environmental costs that will only worsen over time. Incredibly, Vietnam imported 5,000 times more chemicals for plant protection in 2013 than in 1994. A lack of control over the situation is evidenced by the fact that in 2008 about 30-35 percent of the pesticides sold in Vietnam were imported illegally as farmers continue to believe in the efficacy of often more hazardous and less effective fertilizers.
Overusing pesticides and fertilizers does serious harm to all involved. Pests begin to develop resistance to them, causing a perpetual arms race between pesticides and pests that is not only expensive for the farmer but also leaves the crops and the surrounding wildlife more vulnerable than before. Human safety concerns must also be considered. Excessive pesticide use contributed to the 5,000 people hospitalized in Vietnam for food poisoning in 2014. A 2011 study found that 35 percent of farmers in Southern Vietnam showed blood cholinesterase levels indicative of acute pesticide poisoning and that 21 percent of the farmers had chronic signs of poisoning. Furthermore, excessive use of fertilizer damages the soil and calls into question Vietnam’s capacity to even maintain its current production levels in the future. More on this topic can be found in our previous insight, Like Day and Nitrogen.
Can Cambodia learn a valuable lesson?
As for neighboring Cambodia, its agricultural revolution in rice production has just begun. Inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides are still relatively new to the country, with current usage well below that of most other rice producing nations. With a coming flood of pesticides and fertilizers, Cambodian farmers will likely experience similar yield booms to those their Vietnamese counterparts experienced in the 1980s. But now, can Cambodian farmers reap the benefits of increased yields via inputs while also heeding warnings of overuse?
Having finally emerged from 30 years of civil war and instability, Cambodia must begin an extensive program of economic catch up. Prime Minister Hun Sen made rice production a centerpiece of his economic plan as he tasked his country with exporting a million tons of rice by 2015. While the goal was not met, the country has made significant progress considering rice exportation was stagnant at about 5,000 tons per year until 2008. This emphasis on agriculture is justified as improvements to output and profitability lead to reductions in poverty. Between 2007 and 2011, nearly 4 million Cambodians were lifted out of poverty, based on a $1.15-per-day poverty line, with 60 percent of this reduction attributed to agricultural improvements.
Continuing this trend of increased agricultural productivity will be crucial in Cambodia’s development as a nation. However, Cambodia’s past method of agricultural development hinged on cropland expansion led by deforestation, which brings a larger set of environmental and economic risks. Instead, inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides will lead the way in Cambodia’s future agricultural outputs. A recent study found that three quarters of rice farmers in Cambodia believed that the number of farmers using synthetic fertilizers over the next five years would increase. Sharp increases in pesticide use have already occurred and are expected to rise as credit to agriculture increases enabling further investment in production.
With a certain rise in the use of these inputs, Cambodia faces a considerable challenge in ensuring responsible use by its farmers to prevent them from making the same mistakes as their Vietnamese counterparts.
The development of domestic production of fertilizers and pesticides will be important in making this transition. The first fertilizer blending plant began operating in 2013 and more are expected to come. The influx of foreign inputs contributes to the abuse of fertilizers and pesticides in Vietnam. Not only are the labels of imported products in foreign languages and therefore unintelligible, but Vietnamese and Cambodian regulators often have trouble controlling product quality or preventing fake fertilizers from entering the market. Producing a domestic product that can outcompete foreign inputs will curb importation and give the Cambodian government greater control over the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Most importantly, an integrated education system for farmers that teaches best practices will be essential in preventing the abuse of inputs. Even amidst the political turmoil of the 1990s, the Cambodian government formed the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing (MAFF) which has instituted an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program to ensure appropriate use of inputs. As of April 2015, the program had taught 219,226 farmers how to appropriately use inputs. Rice farmers with training produced 24 percent higher yields all the while spending less on fertilizers and pesticides, allowing for a 54 percent increase in farmer income. Similar programs in Vietnam and Thailand have been far less successful. Many of these trainees revert back to their old ways after being disappointed by gains that are meager compared to past yield gains resulting from fertilizer and pesticide overuse. IPM’s early start in training farmers before Cambodian farmers have liberalized access to these inputs gives assurance that Cambodian rice farmers will not make the same mistakes as their neighbors.
While the Cambodian government has certainly learned the lessons of increasing yields through the correct use of inputs, questions remain whether the government has the efficacy to ensure that its farmers do as well. Considering that 67 percent of Cambodians are involved in agricultural, this education about new technologies and preventing their abuse is a critical issue for the country as a whole. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s IPM program has only trained about 2 percent of these farmers, and the government doesn't have the organizational capacities to adequately regulate the markets for these inputs. Additionally, with the government’s ambitious goal of being a major rice exporter by 2020, a conflict of interest may now exist between responsible production and rapid export growth. Cambodian policymakers will have some serious calculus to do in weighing priorities, both for the short term and long term. Agendas that seek to limit chemical usage will have to confront the fact that there could be a real short-term revenue increase in chemical overuse and offer a convincing alternative. Nevertheless, farmer education will continue to be key.
Although Cambodia’s IPM program is funded by the Cambodian government and international aid organizations, the project and others like it cannot expand fast enough to meet demand, as training individual farmers consumes too much time and money. There is an opportunity here for crop input providers to help meet some of this demand for farmer education. Agrochemical giant Syngenta has already identified Cambodia as a potential area that could benefit from its Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture in the future. Innovation in and expansion of educational opportunities for Cambodian farmers are sorely needed to have a significant impact on the nature of farming in Cambodia. Development organizations could also better partner with input companies to protect supply chains and reduce fake fertilizer use, especially in blending plants.
Ultimately, peer-to-peer knowledge dissemination may be the most effective tool in ensuring widespread responsible use of inputs. The higher yields and wages attained by trained farmers are enough to make any neighboring farmer take notice. One way or another, it’s critical that chemical overuse is curbed before the environmental damage is too great. Otherwise, the region is likely to see a reversal of much of the agricultural progress already achieved.