Shrimp in a basket, iStock photo.

Hu tieu, a Vietnamese dish spiced with prosperity and climate change

On a visit last month to the town of My Tho, the capital of the Tien Giang province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, I found a riverside restaurant that served the local specialty, a dish called hu tieu. It’s a delicious soup, dense with stretchy rice noodles and topped with succulent locally farmed shrimp.

These two ingredients of hu tieu have set the delta on a remarkable path to prosperity. In provinces like Tien Giang and neighboring Ben Tre, as one drives east toward the South China Sea, the landscape is stitched together with fertile rice paddies and brackish ponds teeming with shrimp. This transformation has taken place in just one generation.

As late as 1990, 15 years after the Vietnam war ended, the country faced the threat of famine, and rice was strictly rationed. Now, thanks to the government’s “rice first” policy, many farmers get three crops a year, including one in the dry season, from November to April. Earnings from this year’s harvests have broken all previous records. Last year, Vietnam overtook Thailand as the world’s leading rice exporter, with 90% of the export crop grown in the Mekong Delta.

One of many rice paddies in the Mekong Delta. Nearby, the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute works to make rice production more sustainable and resilient to salt amid climate change. Courtesy of V Meadu on Flickr
One of many rice paddies in the Mekong Delta. Nearby, the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute works to make rice production more sustainable and resilient to salt amid climate change. Photograph: Meadu on Flickr

Meanwhile, tempted by the big profits reaped from aquaculture over the past couple of decades, many other farmers have converted their rice fields into shrimp farms. In the villages of the delta, mud-and-thatch homes have given way to sturdy new buildings with cement walls and metal roofs – and even the occasional flashy mansion belonging to someone who has made a killing from shrimp.

While the biggest buyers of Vietnamese rice are other Asian countries, it’s mainly American and European diners who drive the demand for shrimp, which earned Vietnam $4bn last year. Americans eat about 4lbs of shrimp a year per person, and last year the United States displaced Japan for the first time as Vietnam’s biggest export market.

This drive for prosperity, and the wealth that comes from feeding foreign appetites, is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success. A growing number of scientists and economists say that without major changes in the way the land is used, the boom is unsustainable. And the brackish water in those shrimp ponds hints at the reason. The relentless pressure to earn more money and boost development is both intensified by climate change and worsening its impact.

Vietnamese mansion in farming community; courtesy of Stan Middleton on Flickr.
One of the  mansions that have sprung up due to new wealth in Vietnam’s farming community. Photograph: Stan Middleton on Flickr.

The Mekong Delta is more vulnerable to encroaching oceans than almost any other agricultural region in the world. Climate change is already a palpable reality. “We’re seeing more rain in the monsoon season, with worse flooding, and less in the dry season, with more severe droughts,” said Dao Trong Tu, director of the Center for Sustainable Water Resources Development and Adaptation to Climate Change in Hanoi and formerly Vietnam’s representative on the multinational Mekong River Commission.

In provinces such as Tien Giang and Ben Tre, he said, saltwater is steadily moving inland from the ocean, threatening the fertility of the soil. Bursts of extreme heat, meanwhile, are becoming longer and more intense. According to Ben Tre’s provincial meteorological station, average temperatures have risen by 0.5C since 1977, when record keeping began.

The growing salinity of previously fertile rice-growing land is also a man-made problem, said Andrew Wyatt, Vietnam country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and an expert on land use in the Ben Tre province.

In his office in Ho Chi Minh City, he projected a Google Earth image of the delta on a large screen, showing me the changes occurring along the coastal strip of Ben Tre. In some areas there was a green swath of mangrove forests hundreds of yards wide, a vital but tenuous buffer against storm surges from the South China Sea and the upstream flow of salt. But as he moved the cursor south, he pointed out many areas where huge areas of mangrove had thinned or vanished.

Aerial view of shrimp farms in Soc Trang, Tien Giang Province, Vietnam; Google Earth.
Aerial view of shrimp farms in Soc Trang, Vietnam; Google Earth.

He paused at one point to zoom in closer on one section of the Soc Trang province. There was nothing left there but a fragmented ribbon of forest. On the landward side was an immense checkerboard of rectangular, industrial-scale shrimp ponds, the white spray from their aerators clearly visible in the satellite image.“Originally it was rice that was pushing into these areas,” Wyatt said, “but in more recent years it’s been shrimp.”

As farmers cut down the mangrove buffer to make way for aquaculture, storm surges and increasingly frequent typhoons can swamp the embankments that used to shield farm fields from saltwater. In some parts of the delta, the shoreline is now being pushed back by as much as 100 meters (109 yards) a year.

Canals, dikes and sluice gates, some of them dating back to the French colonial era, no longer keep saltwater out of the rice fields they were built to protect. “Those salinity control structures no longer work,” he said. “The sluice gates have been opened permanently, and because they’re no longer used, they’ve rusted in place.”

It’s no wonder so many farmers have switched to shrimp. Not only can shrimp thrive in saltier water – and farmers are increasingly introducing more salt-tolerant species, such as white-legged shrimp – but earnings from shrimp can be five or seven times higher than from a comparable acreage of rice, according to Ngo Thi Phuong Lam, an agriculture expert at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City. Despite the high start-up costs, the lure of quick profits continues to prove irresistible.

From an environmental point of view, all these developments have created a vicious cycle of pressures. Salinity threatens rice production. Strongly influenced by retailers and advertisers, farmers anxious to keep up their yields further sully freshwater supplies by applying profligate amounts of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. (Ho Van Chien of the Southern Regional Plant Protection Center in Tien Giang calls this “emotional buying.”)

These practices are not only unsustainable; they also threaten export revenues. Contaminated rice has already provoked temporary import bans by China and Japan, and American rice growers are up in arms because of what they say is inadequate inspection of rice from Vietnam by the Food and Drug Administration.

The shrimp boom, meanwhile, produces its own cycle of threats. Intensive farming, especially of white-legged shrimp, leads to grossly overcrowded ponds; more waste excretion; increased risk of disease; heavier use of chemicals, feed, and antibiotics; and slipshod quality controls.

In 2013, disease swept through shrimp farms in several Asian countries, including Vietnam, and the resulting decline in production caused export prices to skyrocket. US restaurant chain Red Lobster reported a 35% increase in the price it was paying for imported shrimp. Although the disease itself isn’t caused by climate change, Wyatt said, heat makes the shrimp more vulnerable to it. “Higher water temperatures stress the shrimp, and high temperature extremes have caused mass die-offs,” he said.

The government is acutely aware of the threat of climate change and environmental degradation, said Dao Trong Tu, but the demand for development creates a huge conflict. One problem, he explained, is that the Delta’s 13 provinces set their own economic targets – and furiously compete to attract new investment and boost exports, driving the growth of more rice and more shrimp. And all the time the oceans continue to inch steadily upward. With most of the Mekong Delta no more than five feet above sea level, as many as a million people are likely to lose their homes and their livelihoods by the middle of the century.

Can consumers help make the Vietnamese shrimp industry more sustainable? International organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance have made great headway in certifying sustainably grown and “fair trade” coffee. The Marine Stewardship Council has certified more than 20,000 seafood products as “fish to eat.” Now the certification movement is turning its attention to aquaculture.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which was created by WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) and the Dutch Sustainable Trading Initiative, is now in the process of certifying its first Vietnamese shrimp farm, and a handful have already been certified by GlobalGap, a consortium of European retailers. Once shrimp with this stamp of approval start arriving in US and European markets, consumer awareness may begin to give added impetus to more sustainable forms of production in Vietnam.

When I got back to New York, I found a recipe for hu tieu and went down to the small section of Chinatown known as Little Saigon to shop for imported shrimp and the right kind of stretchy rice noodles. But I wondered, as I prepared the dish for my kids, whether I should serve it with a warning – that if one day they want to fix it for their own children, they may have a harder time finding the ingredients.

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