The average plot size for Vietnamese rice farmers is less than one acre (0.5 hectares) while the ideal plot size should be 2-3 hectares. Small rice farms are not cost-effective and undermine farmers’ competitiveness on the market. On top of that, lack of organisation and coordination at farmer level also contribute to their limited access to markets. Although farmers who are organised in farmer organisations have a better chance of earning a decent income from rice, they still face challenges in meeting the demand for quality rice due to a lack of market information and professionalism in the management of the organisations.
The intensification of extreme events due to climate change, as well as rising sea levels, exacerbate the risks posed by river floods and saline intrusion with consequent losses in agricultural productivity. Droughts are also projected to take place more often and for longer periods (World Bank, 2021), having a significant impact on rice cultivation and production. This will affect the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers, particularly in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's “rice bowl”, which accounts for about 52% of Vietnam's paddy rice production come from (World Bank, 2021). Meanwhile, rice production contributes to environmental degradation through greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, and soil depletion, due to mismanagement of straw management and an overuse of pesticides and fertilisers.
In fact, most of the rice grown in Vietnam is over-fertilised, over-pesticided and uncertified. Environmentally friendly technologies and practices are available but remain underused, despite recent efforts to promote sustainability in the sector. Although Vietnamese farmers have technical skills, the practical application of technology is constrained by the limited pressure of the main market for technical compliance and sustainability requirements. Smallholder farmers therefore are struggling to meet the higher quality demand and sustainability requirements of the world's more demanding rice export markets, such as European countries or Japan. On top of that, rice enterprises heavily rely on collection systems to supply their paddy making traceability difficult and hampering quality control.
Finally, the dynamics of the rice industry also contribute to low incomes for farmers. Many rice millers and exporters enter into direct supply contracts with farmer organisations, particularly for high quality rice for domestic and export markets, but these contracts tend to benefit them disproportionately over farmers. In addition, Vietnam's dominant position at the lower end of the rice market (low quality and low price) facilitates exports to low-income countries worldwide contributing to maintaining low prices for farmers.
In recent years, a number of opportunities to improve the sustainability of Vietnam's rice sector have emerged alongside the challenges outlined above.
There is a growing demand for higher quality products in domestic and international rice markets. This is driven by rising income levels and changing consumer food preferences. The world's top two rice exporters (India and Thailand) have temporarily halted rice exports to stabilise their domestic markets, pushing up export prices for Vietnamese rice and increasing demand. This trend creates an opportunity for smallholder farmers to improve the quality of the rice they produce and to earn a better income from it. This transition would require the introduction and application of quality standards and certifications that are accessible to smallholder farmers.
The Vietnamese government's policy supports the transformation of the rice sector by shifting the focus from quantity to quality, from food security to food safety, and from a supply-driven sector to a market-driven sector.
Rikolto is part of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) which has developed the first voluntary sustainability standards for rice production, providing a framework of 12 performance indicators to measure the economic, social, and environmental outcomes of farmers before and after adopting the practices required by the standard. Rikolto has been piloting SRP projects in 9 countries worldwide to promote mutual learning and provide the platform with strong evidence.
Rikolto's strategy is based on three pillars:
In partnership with farmers, farmer organisations, and local authorities in Phu Tho, Dong Thap, An Giang and Kien Giang provinces Rikolto has been promoting the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) standards in these regions since 2017.
The use of SRP has helped farmers reduce production costs by 12 percent compared to conventional farming, thanks to reduced use of pesticides, fertilisers, and labour. It also improves the quality of the rice and makes it safer for consumers' health.
In the previous 5-year DGD-funded programme (2017-2022) Rikolto worked with farmer organisations and local authorities to pilot some SRP projects through training, monitoring, and supporting farmers’ to comply with SRP standards. By the end of 2021, 1,700 farmers in 13 farmer cooperatives in Dong Thap and Kien Giang provinces, and two farmer groups in An Giang province had applied SRP in rice production on a total area of 5,000 ha. The adoption of SRP reduced production costs by about VND2.9 million/ha (equivalent to ~US$120/ha) as a result of reduced fertiliser and pesticide use.
Hear testimonials from members of rice cooperatives about their newfound commitment to environmentally sustainable practices.
Building on the achievements of the previous rice programme, Rikolto's primary focus from 2022 to 2026 will be on scaling up Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) production practices in the Mekong Delta region. To this end, Rikolto will pilot the use third-party verification to certify the sustainability of SRP rice, paving the way for for large-scale implementation and export opportunities for SRP-branded rice. This strategic approach not only ensures quality control, but also guarantees consumers affordable, healthy, safe and environmentally sustainable rice products. To extend the reach of SRP rice, a collaboration has been established with the SPR Working Group, a food distribution platform in Vietnam. This partnership aims to introduce and promote SRP rice to a wider consumer base, increasing its accessibility and impact on sustainable food systems.
As part of our commitment to empowering new farmers, Rikolto will continue to implement training and capacity building programmes. These initiatives will specifically focus on teaching good agricultural practices in line with SRP standards (water and organic management, proper use of N fertiliser to minimise emissions,...) and business management.
Rikolto will play a role in fostering and strengthening inclusive business relationships between farmers, farmer organisations, and rice companies, facilitating paddy rice procurement, rice processing and direct rice sales. Support will also be provided to smallholder farmers and cooperatives to ensure access to essential services such as input supply and access to finance for paddy aggregation where needed.
In addition to these on-the-ground efforts, Rikolto will engage in advocacy. Position papers will be developed and experiences shared through workshops, annual meetings, and roundtables with stakeholders and networks to influence rice-related policies and strategies. To promote collaboration and coordination, Rikolto will take the lead in facilitating an effective multi-stakeholder platform and SRP network in partnership with GIZ, Oxfam, Loc Troi, the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD) and the Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Traditionally considered labour-intensive, rice production often involves husbands working in the fields while their wives provide support in various capacities, such as purchasing inputs, soaking seeds, transplanting, preparing the harvest, selling rice and collecting funds. As a result, only 9% of women were employed in rice production, according to Rikolto's 2019 monitoring data. This underscores the urgent need to address gender equity issues in the rice sector. Recognising this urgency, Rikolto is committed to intensifying efforts to raise awareness on gender equity, working closely with farmer organisations and rice sector institutions. Rikolto will facilitate the involvement of women in decision-making processes, promote their participation within member organisations and foster links with various stakeholders along the value chain. Dedicated training and capacity-building initiatives will be implemented to empower women in these roles.
In addition, Rikolto aims to address youth exodus from the rice sector by supporting the development of small and medium enterprises, focusing on on-farm mechanisation services, extension support and organic input supply. This approach aims to create business opportunities for the youth while revitalising the rice sector.
In 2022, we introduced Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) practices to 619 new farmers, bringing the total to 2,319 across six cooperatives. During this period, 600 tonnes of environmentally sustainable rice were successfully sold in the market. The number of farmers has increased to 3,000 in 2023, driven by the proven benefits of reduced production costs, a key motivator for rice farmers.
Farmers aiming for the SRP "sustainably grown rice" are scored on a scale of 0 to 100. Those who achieve at least 90 points with essential performance levels are considered sustainable producers. While the transition to sustainable practices is gradual and does not happen in a single growing season, farmers are encouraged to increase their score and move up into the 33-90 range, in the "working towards sustainable rice production" category. By the end of 2022, 47 farmers (2% of total SRP adopters) had scored 90 or above. The remaining 98% improved their average SRP score to above 60, with encouraging results in water management (100% above the sustainable performance threshold) and stubble/straw management (80% above the sustainable performance threshold).
Rikolto facilitated connections between three cooperatives (Tan Binh, Binh Hoa, Binh Thanh) and two private companies for stable rice product purchases. By 2023, four market actors incorporated inclusive practices into their business models.
Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Rikolto and its partners, SRP has already been recognised by the government.
Rikolto aims to support 100,000 smallholder farmers in producing 100,000 tons of affordable, healthy, and nutritious rice sustainably, adhering to the SRP Standard, covering an area of 40,000 hectares. This initiative will provide access to this rice for 2,000,000 consumers across and in partnership with 20 medium and large cities.
Rikolto researched some climate-smart rice techniques for rice production such as an integrated rice-fish farming system, modelling of biochar production to reduce the carbon footprint of rice production, and ecosystem development. In particular, the Carbon Farm technology, which combines artificial intelligence and satellite data, is being tested to remotely quantify methane emission reductions. The carbon credits generated will finance and accelerate Vietnam's transition to sustainable rice production.
In 2018, Rikolto successfully piloted an integrated rice-fish farming system with 112 local farmers, mostly women and youth, in the An Giang region. This innovative approach involves growing fish or shrimp during the flood season on the same land used to grow rice during the dry season. This not only diversifies farmers' income, but also reduces their vulnerability to crop failure and climate change. In addition, the fish waste acts as an organic fertiliser, improving the soil for the following rice season.
Led by Carbon Farm and in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), we're piloting a model to reduce barriers to using carbon credits to finance and accelerate Vietnam's transition to sustainable rice.
We also acknowledge the contributions of previous donors who played a crucial role in our previous programme cycle: Misereor, DEI Japan, FAO, Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. Although they did not participate in the current programme, their past support has provided a strong foundation for our ongoing initiatives.