Like most shrimp-producing countries, shrimp farming in Vietnam has been associated with negative environmental damage and consequences. Is it possible to farm shrimp with minimal environmental impact and with maximal traceability in Vietnam?
The world is hungry for farmed shrimp. Farmed shrimp is among the fastest-growing protein in aquaculture, with the majority produced in Southeast Asia. Global production of these tasty crustaceans is predicted to climb to 7 million metric tons by 2030 from 1.2 million metric tons in 2000.
Vietnam’s Shrimp Fever
Shrimp is one of the most important aquaculture export products in Vietnam. 970 thousand tons of shrimp were produced in 2021, of which around 400 thousand tons were consumed domestically. Shrimp export last year amounted to US$4.3 billion, and the country’s seafood export hit an inaugural US$10 billion. The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) has since boldly increased its original seafood export target of US$12 billion in 2030 to US$20 billion in the coming period.
Vietnam is also a top exporter of shrimp to the United States, Japan, and Europe; and the aquaculture industry supports more than 4.5 million jobs.
While the shrimp figures may be looking bullish, it is not all roses in Vietnam’s shrimp industry. Over the decades, the shrimp business has been messily entangled with mangrove destruction, salinization of groundwater, water pollution, and inappropriate antibiotic use that threatens both food and human safety. Shrimp producers are coming under intense scrutiny by regulators, retailers, environmentalists, and green consumers. Globally, brows are raised regarding the sustainability and traceability of the shrimp industry.
The Pressure of Rapid Expansion Has Resulted In Severe Land Degradation
Over 50% of all mangroves worldwide have been destroyed since 1940 and farmed shrimp production accounts for 30-50% of the total losses. Mangroves mitigate the effects of climate change as they stabilize coastlines and act as massive carbon sinks. Mangroves can sequester three to five times more carbon than rainforests. With the rapid loss of mangroves, carbon emissions, and greenhouse gases will increase, and climate change will worsen. Losing these natural land resources also means habitats and wildlife that depend on them will disappear.
Much of Vietnam’s aquaculture development has been unplanned and unregulated, leading to widespread wetland destruction. Many shrimp farms have been abandoned or left idle by Vietnamese farmers due to disease outbreaks and soil acidification. The government needs to intervene and limit such activities, restore abandoned ponds, and focus on boosting productivity from existing farms through intensification methods i.e. producing greater yields from the same area of existing ponds, and with less damage to coastal ecosystems.
Integrated mangrove-shrimp farming is emerging as a potential solution to minimize environmental impact, supporting local communities with income from shrimp farming and timber production while compensating for mangrove loss. By restoring mangroves in tandem with shrimp farming; carbon emissions, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and water salinization can be greatly reduced.
The Squeeze on Vietnamese Shrimp Farmers
Disease risks continue to plague Vietnamese farmers even as the government push for increased production to meet global demands. Aquaculture intensification has increased the use of antibiotics and violated food safety standards, resulting in several import bans on Vietnamese shrimp. Vietnamese farmers have long been using antibiotics to prevent and treat shrimp diseases, with no ill intention. Most of them possess little knowledge of the impacts of antibiotic use. Saving their shrimps (and livelihoods) is their main concern and they may, unfortunately, turn a blind eye to the perils of antibiotic overuse. Untreated wastewater, fecal wastes, chemicals, and antibiotics find their way to the groundwater and onto agricultural land, further damaging the ecosystem. With the majority of shrimp farming being carried out by small-scale farmers, these limited-resource household farmers are caught in a net around increasingly stringent food safety regulations and sustainability standards.
Consumer Demand For Traceability
As the world grows increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of shrimp farming, businesses, and end-consumers want more assurance about their seafood. They want to be able to trace where and more importantly, how their shrimps are being farmed.
Vietnam’s reexporting business makes product traceability an uphill task. Countries such as India and Ecuador export raw shrimp to Vietnam for processing and the processed products are reexported to major import markets. This results in product traceability problems for Vietnam and it also creates a dependency on other shrimp-producing countries for imports.
In addition, the shrimp industry in Vietnam is largely fragmented with little means of data collection and sharing. There is also an over-reliance on middlemen as small-scale farmers depend on them to market their shrimp. Middlemen control over 75% of the shrimp value chain. They connect farmers and processors by buying and reselling shrimp, and facilitate transactions between feed mills and hatcheries. However, middlemen mix and sort shrimp from various farms, and records on such operations are almost non-existent. Contaminated shrimp gets mixed with sustainably harvested shrimp, and full transparency on the shrimp’s origins is inhibited.
Major import markets such as the US, the EU, and China are enforcing strict regulations on food safety, and many retailers are looking beyond the traceability of shrimp origins. They are considering the raw ingredients that go into producing shrimp feed, the farm environment, chemicals or antibiotics used in the process, and unsustainable production methods.
What Can Be Done?
As the trend for sustainability and traceability rises, there is an opportunity for Vietnam to position itself as a strong competitor among shrimp-producing countries. But first, a paradigm change needs to be made in the value chain.
Vietnam needs to reduce its over-reliance on middlemen to provide accountability for traceable shrimp. Regulations need to be in place for middlemen to be transparent about their operations. Alternatively, middlemen should present quality assurance certifications as trusted facilitators for traceable shrimp transactions or risk being removed from the value chain. There is also an urgency for Vietnamese farmers to minimize their dependence on raw materials imports for the production of shrimp feed. Instead, they should look domestically to produce and supply these raw materials to reduce feed costs. Processors who have been relying on reexports can explore integrating vertically into farming or hatchery businesses to mitigate risks from market developments.
Intensification of shrimp production may require large capital investments beyond the reach of small family-run farms. Farmers, therefore, need to leverage economies of scale through cooperatives and speed up technology adoption to expand production capabilities. Technology is the key to increasing both productivity and environmental sustainability. Only then can farmers transition from traditional growth to sustainable expansion. RYNAN Technologies empowers shrimp farmers with digital know-how for cost-effective, sustainable, and traceable shrimp farming. Its TOMGOXY app combines IoT monitoring devices, AI, and cloud services to achieve optimal water quality for high-quality shrimps. Its farm design involves planting 20,000 mangroves around shrimp ponds to naturally remove organic waste, and excess nitrates and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This successful model consumes 75% less electricity than other intensive shrimp farming methods, reduces land needed for water treatment areas, and boosts shrimp yield by over 20 times.
Moving The Shrimp Industry Forward
If shrimp farming is to grow successfully and sustainably, producers need to utilize less natural resources such as land and energy, reduce their carbon footprint, minimize the use of chemicals and antibiotics, and improve traceability. Shrimp farmers and stakeholders must adopt transparent and sustainable practices. Responsible aquaculture in Vietnam requires concerted efforts by individuals, cooperatives, and the government. The onus is on the government to play a proactive role in facilitating incentive programs and initiatives such as the formulation of guidelines, and mandate compliance with sustainability/food safety/social compliance certifications. As a whole, the shrimp industry must embrace and harness the power of technologies to minimize the environmental impact and costs of shrimp production while pushing ahead with traceability.
Production intensification may be the only best possible way to achieve Vietnam’s ambitious export target, but it need not put pressure on the nation’s natural resources. What the shrimp industry needs is an innovative intensive farming model that will use resources efficiently, reduce production costs and pollution, prevent diseases, and be accountable and traceable.
And TOMGOXY by RYNAN Technologies might just be the solution.
Jillian Wong – RYNAN Technologies