Majken Schmidt Søgaard

Research underlines potential of rice-fish farming in Myanmar

Research by FISH and partners shows that farming rice and fish together can increase rice yields, double profits and boost consumption of fish by poor households, providing a means to reduce poverty and achieve national nutrition targets.

In Papat village in rural Myanmar, the rice field of Kyi Kyi Than and her husband Aung Kyaw looks the same as those of their neighbors, except for one difference: they grow fish as well.

“I don’t need to buy vegetables and fish any longer, because I grow my own vegetables. And if my family wants to eat fish, I just go and get the fish from the farm,” says Kyi Kyi Than of their integrated rice field and fish pond.

“Before, if we had to buy the vegetables and fish in the market, we would only eat it ten times per month. But now our six-person family can eat them more than 20 times per month.”

Kyi Kyi Than planting rice.

Aung Kyaw and Kyi Kyi Than began rice-fish farming as part of the Development of Rice Fish Systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta research project (2017–2021) funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). 

The project, which follows on from an ACIAR-funded small-scale rice-fish pilot in 2016, aims to develop and implement diversified and productive rice-fish systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta. 

The Ayeyarwady Delta is a priority fish production area in Myanmar because of the thousands of waterbodies and river systems connected to floodplain fisheries.

The research is led by FISH in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Myanmar Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation (MoALI). Parallel work on water availability is sponsored by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a FISH managing partner.

Supporting the transformation of paddy to pond

In Myanmar, rice farming covers approximately 8 million hectares (ha) and involves more than 5 million households, most of them in rural areas. Since  Myanmar's independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, successive governments have focused on achieving rice self-sufficiency. 

This has led to strict agricultural policies that discourage farmers from integrating other crops into their rice fields or converting a proportion for fish farming. To do so, they have to get permission from MoALI, which is typically reluctant to allow the transformation of paddy to pond. 

“Rice-fish systems are not new in Southeast Asia—it is something that has been ongoing for millennia. However, in Myanmar the concept of more formalized rice-fish production in rice plots is relatively new,” says Michael Akester, Project Leader and Country Director of WorldFish Myanmar. 

A rice-fish system is a rice field with a fish refuge area (between 10 and 15 percent of the total plot size) with water ten times the depth of the rice-growing zone (1.5 meters versus 0.15 meters). Fish fingerlings, often rohu carp and silver barb, are added to the refuge area. In addition, wild fish are encouraged and many of these are self-recruiting species that breed in the rice-field environment. Here, both stocked and wild fish grow bigger. The wild fish breed and establish a small rice-fish ecosystem. The fish swim into the rice production area, eat pests and fertilize the soil with their feces.

Aung Kyaw fishing in his pond.

“The concern for the Myanmar Government is that rice yields will be lost if large areas are transformed into water,” Akester says. “But our research shows that rice yield in integrated systems might even increase.”

Joint WorldFish, IRRI and MoALI research has shown that when reducing the rice cultivation area by 13 percent to accommodate a fish refuge area, rice production increases by 6 percent (4.7 metric tons per hectare benchmark compared with 5 metric tons per hectare with 13 percent less rice land). Net profit also increases 132 percent because of the fish factor. 

These results, from small experimental plots, are likewise found in full-size commercial systems with integrated agriculture systems. Using better management practices for rice, fish and water are shown to increase rice yield, profitability, employment options for youth and women, and family nutrition because of greater fish consumption.

Recognizing these benefits, MoALI Minister Dr. Aung Thut instructed the director generals of MoALI departments to promote rice-fish systems as part of the Naypitaw Agreement developed after the rice-fish symposium hosted by the project in August 2018. 

“Capture fisheries are in decline and aquaculture is becoming more important daily to help provide fish to a population that derives over 60 percent of its animal protein from fish,” said Dr. Thut at the symposium.

Policy change would encourage adoption of rice-fish farming

Recently, the Myanmar Government approved the Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS), which aims to modernize the agriculture sector. Article 42 states that ‘rather than an excessive focus on rice, there is a need to think in terms of rice-based farming systems that will encompass a range of non-paddy options depending on location’.

To realize its vision, the ADS calls for greater inter-departmental cooperation within MoALI.

“This project will be able to demonstrate to the irrigation and land use departments that there is an urgent need to enact article 42,” says Akester, noting that the project has also encouraged relationships with the fisheries, agriculture and agriculture research departments within MoALI.

“We hope to see policy changes that enable more people to adopt rice-fish farming without fearing that they’re breaking the law. This would contribute to the government’s overarching policy goals of poverty reduction, addressing undernutrition and rural development.”

Aung Kyaw with fish from his pond.

Fish as a source of vital micronutrients

Myanmar has some of the highest rates of undernutrition or malnutrition in Southeast Asia. This takes different forms, such as stunting and micronutrient deficiencies.

“Micronutrients are very important for infant development and particularly in the first 1000 days of life,” says Jessica Scott, Research Fellow Gender and Nutrition, WorldFish Myanmar.

“If there are not enough micronutrients while the fetus and the child is developing, it can lead to ongoing diseases and have lasting effects for the rest of that child’s life. That’s why fish is important, because it contains both protein and vital micronutrients,” she explains. 

For Myanmar’s poor, fish on the plate is a rare luxury. Poor families are estimated to consume 7 kilogram/per person/per year, compared to up to 50 kilograms/per person/per year for the richest families. 

A women preparing fish for sun drying  in Ayeyarwadi  delta, Myanmar. Photo by Jharendu Pant, 2012.

Project research shows that rice-fish systems enable families to grow enough fish to consume weekly, positively impacting household nutrition, particularly for children.

Another benefit is that small but highly nutritious wild fish species, for example mola, find their way into the rice-fish systems from neighboring habitats. When eaten whole, mola are an excellent source of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12 as well as fatty acids and animal protein.

“Now we always have fish for our family,” says Kyi Kyi Than, adding that her family’s consumption of fish has doubled. 

“I hope it will become easier to get permission to develop rice-fish systems,” says Aung Kyaw. “I think that almost all farmers in my community would practice and adopt this kind of fruitful system.”

This story was adapted from an article written by Majken Schmidt Søgaard for ACIAR. Republished with permission. All photos except the last one taken by Majken Schmidt Søgaard.