Dedicating to fragrant rice
One day nearing the end of the year, engineer Ho Quang Cua was chatting with his visitors at his sweet tamarind garden in My Xuyen Town, My Xuyen District, Soc Trang Province, next to the eight-hectare rice breeding field he hired from local people nearby to breed fragrant rice varieties. This is the iconic "rendezvous" point for many domestic and foreign scientists who show their interest in seeding rice.
Unable to hide his passion for rice breeding, he immediately started his story. “More than 20 years ago, when Thailand announced that it had bred two non-photosensitive fragrant rice varieties, which they called "golden seeds", I thought about it lot. If they can do it, why can’t we? That question kept going back and forth in my head without a pause. I started to imagine about a fragrant rice variety for Vietnam." And at the beginning of the 21st century, his Soc Trang fragrant rice research group was formed, which still exists today.
The hybridisation of his aromatic rice hybrid group was conducted after they collected enough parent breeds on the basis of crossbreeding, selecting and reviewing to form new hybrid combinations. Parent breeds were collected from Taiwan (China), Bangladesh, Thailand, the International Rice Research Institute and Vietnam’s northern and southern provinces.
“Complex combinations including many parents. In 2001, I formed the fragrant rice variety coded ST3 and in the following year, it was recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development as part of the national rice variety system. In 2005, ST5 aromatic salt-tolerant rice was introduced into the rice-shrimp farming area in Ca Mau Peninsula, U Minh Thuong and U Minh Ha, signalling the start of a "recovering" period for the rice-growing areas, after farmers here had focused so much on shrimp farming while abandoning rice cultivation for many years,” Cua said.
In 2007, the ST Red breed was born, followed by the ST Violet in 2010, which were the first step to initiate the macrobiotic therapy. In 2009, the ST20 fragrant rice variety was successfully bred, once again playing a pioneering role for a breakthrough period of Vietnam's jasmine rice price, with export prices ranging from US$700-900 per tonne. At that time, ST20 also took the lead in prices in all Vietnam’s southwestern rice baskets, with VND20,000 a kg, surpassing all small aromatic rice imported from Cambodia and Thailand through unofficial channels.
Later on, when he got to grips with the limitations of the ST20 variety that has a high yield but is unstable in coping with unstable weather conditions, Cua and Dr. Tran Tan Phuong spared no efforts to create new ST20 fragrant rice variety, with a cultivation period of 100-105 days that can be planted anywhere in the Mekong Delta, despite various hydrological regimes.
Then from 2008, two new hybrid combinations were formed by the group, namely ST24 and ST25, and they were finalised in 2016 after stable pilots. In 2017, ST24 rice won the first prize in a rice contest held in Soc Trang, and by the end of that year, ST24 was honoured to be in the Top 3 of the World's Best Rice at the 9th The Rice Trader World Rice Conference held in Macau (China). In 2019, like ST24, ST25 was selected by the Vietnam Food Association to compete in the 11th The Rice Trader World Rice Conference in the Philippines. Both of them were among the world top rice varieties and the judges awarded ST25 first prize. ST24 and ST25 rice both belong to the ST aromatic rice line with many different varieties.
Vietnam’s ST25 rice honoured as best in the world at the Rice Trader World Rice Conference 2019. (Photo: VNA)
Imbued with original features
In nearly 20 years on long road researching fragrant rice with a persistent love for Vietnamese rice, Cua and his teammates’ success in being granted the world's best rice for ST25 has undergone an arduous journey. "It was a really difficult period for our team," Cua stopped for a moment, then contemplated: "We succeeded in breeding an aromatic rice variety but putting it into mass production was still a problem. Because it was too new, how to get the public have confidence in it? So there had to be additional funding for seed promotion. Since we had limited funding from our own money and a lack of investment, we were running out of money and were failing. For nearly ten years, the loan amounted to reach over VND1 billion. Ten years ago, it was a great fortune. But, fortunately, after all these troubles, each fragrant rice variety was continuously born and successfully piloted in the fields.”
Recalling his old days with so much sweat and tears pouring into the rice, Cua now expresses his pride when talking about ST25 born in his hometown. He said: “Soc Trang is not only a leading geographical indication of Vietnamese fragrant rice but has long been known to many foreign rice traders. Soc Trang’s rice was recorded more than 100 years ago, with Bai Xao rice [named after a well-known destination in Soc Trang], together with Go Cong rice, were famous in Hong Kong (China) – a transit destination to export rice to Europe.” Perhaps that is why ST25 rice won the world's best rice award not only for its typical characteristics and attractive sweet aroma, but also for being imbued with the special features of Soc Trang soil, as well as inheriting the qualities from ancient rice varieties in the Mekong Delta.
A whole life dedicating to rice grains, engineer Ho Quang Cua expressed his wish: “When I won the title for the best rice in the world, I wish ST25 to always retain the quality of being delicious rice. To do so, rice farmers as well as rice processing and exporting enterprises should join hands to preserve its quality. Let’s cultivate rice with your heart, and also the same in rice trading, too. We must always ensure quality of rice to consumers across the country and the world to build a sustainable trust among them for ST25.”
The prosperity of the rice production industry and the rice growers begins with such love and belief!