In our latest story, “Hu tieu, a Vietnamese dish spiced with prosperity and climate change,” FERN editor-at-large George Black leads readers through the waters of Vietnam’s polluted rice paddies and shrimp farms. With deft prose and vivid imagery, he reveals the environmental “perfect storm” of export agriculture, pesticides, deforestation, and climate change threatening the long-term survival of the region. The story is online today with our media partner, The Guardian.
“The relentless pressure to earn more money and boost development is both intensified by climate change and worsening its impact,” writes Black. “[The] 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.”
As late as 1990, 15 years after the Vietnam War ended, the country was racked by famine. But today, Vietnam boasts $4 billion profits a year in shrimp and is the world’s leading rice exporter. Most of that rice goes to other Asian countries, but the U.S. and Europe comprise the bulk of shrimp sales. Inspired by foreign demand, farmers have cut down huge tracts of the country’s mangrove forests to make way for aquaculture, quickly destroying their best buffer from the sea.
Without the mangroves, “storm surges and increasingly frequent typhoons can swamp the embankments that used to shield farm fields from saltwater,” explains Black. “The Mekong Delta is more vulnerable to the encroaching oceans than almost any other agricultural region in the world. 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.”
Black explains that the old irrigation systems, which block the upstream flow of salt, have often fallen into disuse. Under pressure to keep up rice production, farmers are now resorting to heavy treatments of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which have only further polluted the water and contaminated harvests, inciting major bans by importers like China and Japan, Black reports.
Meanwhile, shrimp farmers face an equally troubling situation. Shrimp can earn farmers 5 or 7 times more than a comparable area of rice, Black reports. But even shrimp farmers feel forced to achieve ever larger harvests, overcrowding their ponds and creating a dangerous stew of waste, disease, and the antibiotics used to treat them.
Scientists tell Black that warmer waters (average temperatures in the region have risen by 0.5 Centigrade since 1977) have contributed to the spread of pathogens on farms and huge shrimp die-offs, raising costs for international buyers like Red Lobster as much as 35 percent. Dao Trong Tu, director of the Center for Sustainable Water Resources Development and Adaptation to Climate Change in Hanoi, tells Black that the Vietnamese government is well aware of the risks posed by climate change and “environmental degradation.” But the demand for development is at this point a stronger motivation.
Vietnam’s best hope for sustainable agriculture, Black concludes, may instead come through consumer pressure and certification programs like those used to improve standards on coffee and cocoa plantations.