CAN THO, Vietnam — The skies are gray and heavy, sure signs that Vietnam's rainy season has begun. It is the kind of weather that pleases farmer Pham Van Hoa.
Ankle deep in muddy water, he sloshes back and forth across a vast field, scattering fertilizer onto millions of slim young plants. In a few months, their tips will be fat with rice, the staple food for almost half of the world's 6.7-billion people.
From disastrous times when it struggled to feed itself, Vietnam has become the world's second-largest exporter of rice, after Thailand. Hoa will keep just 20 percent of his crop; 80 percent will go to market, and some of that rice will find its way to countries like Egypt and Yemen, where record high prices and fears of shortages have sparked deadly riots.
But even Vietnam — with its abundance of rice — is not immune from the current crisis. The government recently limited exports in what one official called "an act of self-defense." Soaring costs of fertilizer combined with panic buying and a staggering 25 percent inflation rate have driven up the price of rice in stores — consumers now pay 12,000 Vietnamese dong (75 cents) for a two-pound bag, three times what they did a year ago.
That is a burdensome increase in a country where the per capita income is less than $800 and the sun never sets without a bellyful of rice.
"Normally, every Vietnamese eats rice at least two times a day — at lunch and dinner," says Nguyen Ngoc De. "And sometimes in the morning we also eat rice."
Driven by starvation
De doesn't just eat rice — he lives and breathes it as one of the world's experts on rice and its hundreds of varieties, many of them found in the rich delta soil of the Mekong River.
The Mekong Delta is Vietnam's rice bowl, a huge region south of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where the river and its tributaries cut through a landscape so flat and emerald green it looks as if it were carpeted in AstroTurf.
After the French began to colonize Vietnam in the mid 1800s, they encouraged rice production and export to fund an enormous bureaucracy. The first irrigation canals were dug, an advance that eventually led to as many as three rice crops a year and turned the Mekong Delta into Vietnam's top agricultural region.
But during the Japanese occupation in World War II, as many as 2-million Vietnamese starved when their country was forced to send much of its rice to Japan. Vietnam also faced critical shortages after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when the new Communist government banned most private business and collectivized rice fields in the south.
"There was no incentive to cultivate," De says. Rice shortages were aggravated by a 1978 flood and an insect invasion that destroyed thousands of fields.
In 1986, realizing collectivization had failed, the government allowed farmers to grow and sell their rice. "One year later, we not only fed all the people in the country, but became one of the biggest rice exporters," De says.
Safe from disaster
De comes from a rice-farming family in the Mekong Delta. Watching how hard his parents worked for such little profit, he studied agriculture and devoted himself to improving rice quality and yields.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are swollen with transplants from the countryside, but 80 percent of Vietnam's 86-million people still live in rural areas, and 80 percent of those grow rice.
"We don't worry abut food security for Vietnam's people," De says. "We worry about the distribution system. There are some things that could be improved."
This year, Vietnam is expected to grow 36.5-million tons of rice, according to the Vietnam Food Association, and export as much as 4.5-million tons. Farmers can sell their crop to private or government companies, both of which tend to be more interested in stockpiling rice for profitable export than assuring affordable local supplies.
Vietnam's rice industry also faces continued threats from pests, flooding and other climate extremes. Historically, though, the Mekong Delta has not been as vulnerable to disastrous tropical storms as the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar, another top rice producing area whose fields were swamped last month by a catastrophic cyclone.
As rice farming becomes more mechanized, De and colleagues are preserving traditional wooden farm tools as well as older strains of rice. Among his favorites of the 1,600-plus varieties of the delta is "floating'' rice — its several-foot-long stems keep it above rising floodwaters.
"Old rice varieties still have strong characteristics,'' De says. "They can grow in acid sulfate and saline soil and submerged areas. They are tasty and have a popular flavor that should be preserved for cross breeding."
As urban sprawl gobbles up agricultural land in Vietnam and other Asian countries, researchers strive to develop rice that grows faster and produces higher yields. De works closely with scientists from the renowned International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, a country whose own rice farming has suffered because of poor soil and other factors.
While the Philippines is forced to import most of its rice, Vietnam "has very good conditions for rice production,'' De says. "We are thinking that one day Vietnam will be the rice producer to feed the world.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.