Aus-Viet partnership to benefit rice supply chain

Emma Alsop, November 4, 2022

Australian Assistant Minister for Trade Tim Ayres officially launched the project at Vietnam last month. Photo: Tim Ayres

FROM rice breeding to its production and marketing, the new private-public partnership between Australian and Vietnamese organisations will bring scientific and economic benefits for both countries across the entire supply chain.

Officially launched earlier this month, the Australia Vietnam Mekong Delta Sustainable Rice Value Chain Project will combine the expertise of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), SunRice Group, University of Queensland (UQ), An Giang University, Can Tho University and Cuu Long Rice Research Institute (CLRRI).

The multi-faceted four-year project will connect Vietnamese smallholder rice-growing communities to high-value markets as well as seeing UQ scientists undertake novel pre-breeding research with an aim to develop a disease-resistant variety ideal for tropical conditions.

It is hoped that techniques created during this research could be applied to plant-breeding activities at the Vietnamese institutions and help to expand the rice -growing industry in North Queensland.

The progress made with Mekong Delta rice-production systems will also enable Australia’s SunRice Group to diversify its supply of high-quality rice to meet growing global demand for its branded products.

The project will also establish a Centre of Excellence in Milling and Post-Harvest Processes at the Lap Vo Mill where in the first instance, staff and students from the participating institutions will develop collaborative learning opportunities within the mill environment.

The rice-quality laboratory which will be established as part of the project will enable quantification of quality parameters key to the value chain.

ACIAR chief executive officer Andrew Campbell said the partnership with SunRice will improve adoption of more sustainable rice-growing practices in the lower Mekong, a hotspot for the impact of climate change on food security.

He said it is focused on establishing a highly productive, sustainable, traceable and quality-assured value chain for tropical medium-grain rice production in the Mekong Delta.

ACIAR CEO Andrew Campbell

“Farmers are part of a wider business system,” Professor Campbell said.

“Improving incomes and livelihoods is the best way to encourage smallholder farmers to switch to more sustainable farming systems.

“Sustainability isn’t just about the environment.

“It’s about the entire model of producing food.

“If it can’t be viably maintained, then it’s not sustainable.”

Professor Campbell said by partnering with the private sector, the project will have commercial adoption pathways, which will deliver higher returns to farmers.

SunRice Group chief executive officer Rob Gordon said partnering with ACIAR was an ideal way to improve agricultural sustainability in the Mekong and enhance economic returns for rural communities, while further strengthening the reputation of Vietnam rice in SunRice’s global markets.

“We source rice from 11 different countries to supply these markets and have been sourcing rice from Vietnam for close to 15 years,” Mr Gordon said in a statement.

“We are excited to be a part of this project, which brings together the best research, government and rice industry minds from Vietnam and Australia focused on a set of common goals around improving the rice value chain of the Mekong Delta.

“Vietnam has a great rice-growing culture.

“It stood out as an ideal opportunity to partner with Vietnamese rice-growers, introduce some of the technology we have gained from around the world to the Mekong Delta and work with growers to supply our offshore markets.

“We will be focused through this project on all aspects of the rice value chain, including a rice-breeding program to develop a short-grain higher value Japonica-style rice which achieves high grain yield in the Mekong Delta, while also meeting premium quality requirements for customers in our international markets.”

Australian rice to benefit

On top of expected improvements to the rice supply chain, Vietnamese and Australian researchers will be conducting breeding work run in tandem, but with different outcome goals.

In Vietnam, the CLRRI will work to develop a short-grain Japonica rice to achieve high grain yield, tolerate the abiotic and biotic stress conditions in the Mekong Delta and meet premium quality requirements of the international SunRice market.

UQ researchers, led by Jaquie Mitchell, have already commenced novel genetic pre-breeding approaches with the aim of developing a rice variety which is resistant to diseases commonly seen in tropical environments.

UQ Dr Jaquie Mitchell

“Our project is looking at introducing some genetic material from International Rice Research Institute and/or other genetic material that might be available and then back-crossing that or using marker assisted selection to improve the disease resistance of our elite Australian bred material,” Dr Mitchell said.

“There have been publications that have identified the genes or genetic regions that are driving and delivering that resistance.

“We are now trying to look at the Australian genetic material that is already available and make the selected crosses based on that.

“Also, if we don’t have that genetic material available already to the breeding program, we will try and bring that in so there are new sources of disease resistance.”

It is hoped that the research activities will create a proof of concept to improve breeding efficiencies for disease resistance in rice, the results of which will be shared with the Vietnamese breeding program.

Professor Mitchell said this is on top of anticipated gains for the rice industry in North Queensland.

She said there has been little genetic research on improving disease resistance in rice – mainly to blast, brown spot and rhizoctonia – as the dominant growing region, New South Wales’ Riverina, has not been impacted by these issues.

She said if North Queensland and other tropical regions are to develop a sustainable rice-growing industry, combatting disease is one of the main roadblocks that it needs to overcome.

Rice is a key crop for Vietnam. Photo: ACIAR

Rice integral to Vietnam

Vietnam is the world’s third-largest rice exporter, with 53 per cent of rice grown in the Mekong Delta region on the country’s southern coastline.

In 2016, 4.5 million tonnes of rice worth US$2 billion was exported by Vietnam, making rice production one of the most important agricultural sectors in the Mekong Delta.

With the upsurge in production, the Vietnamese Government has recognised that agricultural practices needed a more sustainable approach to decrease soil degradation, environmental pollution and a decline in seed purity and rice quality and it implemented policy changes in 2017.

These changes encourage a reduction in total rice production with a shift to a more sustainable and resilient model, focusing on exporting high-quality rice to premium markets.

ACIAR has been working closely with Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development since 2018 to connect Australia’s rice-growing knowledge with Vietnam’s industry.

The $5 million project consists of an investment totalling $2.4 million (50pc in kind, 50pc in cash) from the SunRice Group and $2.6 million in cash from ACIAR.

SunRice is a major Australian investor in Vietnam, and owns a rice-processing facility at Lap Vo in the Mekong Delta, which it acquired in 2018 to strengthen its global supply chains and support its ability to meet demand in the approximately 50 markets it services worldwide.

ACIAR is the Australian Government’s specialist agricultural research-for-development agency in the foreign affairs and trade portfolio.

ACIAR invests in projects that achieve productive and sustainable agriculture and bring food, nutrition and income to smallholder famers and their families in the Indo-Pacific region.

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