Chemical cocktails (1)

Once an extravagance, king prawns are now a western staple -- but at what price? In a two-part article, Alex Renton looks at some alarming practices in Vietnam.

There's no lack of building materials around the prawn ponds of the Mekong delta. Walls are constructed of the empty plastic sacks of pesticides and prawn feed. It's cheap, but sweaty.

Southern Vietnam is hot and sticky at any time. and the humid air inside the Huong family's one-room hut, perched on a prawn-pond dyke, is rank with chemicals: we cough and sneeze when we enter. There's an acrid dust all over the mud floor, which makes you worry for little Huong Thi Mai, who is seven years old, a patient little girl sitting on the low bed near the door watching her parents work. I glance at her bare shins for signs of the skin infections that are common among prawn-farm workers, but she looks OK.

Her father is proud: “This is a very modern prawn-farming business,” he says. And, with luck and four months' hard labour, it is going to make Huong and his family quite rich. After they've paid their debts, the Huongs hope to buy a moped and their first refrigerator. Thi Mai might go to a new school. “We can have a better life,” says her mother.

But until the tiger prawns are ready for harvest, and shipped off to Europe or the United States, the family must live here, keeping a 24-hour watch beside the sour-smelling pond. They've borrowed nearly US$8,000 — a huge sum — to invest in prawn larvae, feed and medicines, and they need to keep alert in case anyone steals the growing crustaceans.

Modernity, for Huong, appears to be chiefly measured in chemicals. I count 13 different pots, jars and sacks of these in the hut, and he eagerly talks me through them. He's particularly keen on a compound called “Super Star” — the Vietnamese print on the label says it “intensifies the metabolism to help prawns grow fat”. He learned about this additive on a government-run course at the local fishery training centre. “We're not allowed to use much — only 10 bottles per crop,” he says.
There are other glossy labels, most of them for products made in Thailand, the centre of the world's prawn-farming industry. Huong mixes up a feed in a big white basin while we talk. The basic feed, he says, is soya, broken rice and fish and prawn parts. But in it goes a large dose of “Amino-Pro”.

“It will help the shrimp taste better,” he says. The label has familiar words from stock-cube packets: aspartic acid, glutamic acid and taurine, which is the key element of the energy drink Red Bull. Then there is Vitamix, “'to make prawns grow faster”; Calphorax, “to help the shell thicken and give better colour”; and Vin Superclear ,“to kill pest, virus and smell”. And on top is a seasoning of antibiotic.

Prawn farming is an ancient activity in tropical countries. Coastal peoples in Indonesia and Vietnam have trapped young marine prawns in brackish ponds for at least 500 years, feeding them up with fish scraps and household waste, to eat or sell. The prawns, properly farmed, are sweet and juicy: it's a lucrative business. The larvae can reach marketable size, as long as your hand, in as little as four months.

But the trade has changed utterly since black tiger prawns (known as “shrimp” in most countries) and bamboo prawns became a routine luxury in the rich world in the 1990s. The ancient cottage industry was swiftly industrialised. Around the tropical belt, from Ecuador to Indonesia, coastal farmers punched holes in the sea defences and let salt water into their paddy fields.

As with salmon, coffee and a host of other once-rare and expensive foods, the demand from rich countries brought more and more producers into the market. Fifty tropical countries are exporting large farmed prawn now. Tiger or “king” prawns and their siblings have become a staple of supermarket fish counters. The result — it's so familiar, it is almost a law of economics — has been ever-falling prices, increasing use of chemicals and declining quality. And, of course, scares.

Shipments of prawn from the tropics are regularly refused by governmental testers in Europe and the United States. The chemicals used in a production system that packs 20 of these wild animals into one square metre of foul, endlessly recycled water have been shown again and again to harm the workers, the environment and possibly the consumers. What's surprising, perhaps, is that we are still in love with them.

And we do eat a lot of them. “King prawns to overtake burgers as barbecue food,” ran a news story in August. Tropical farmed prawns are now Britain's fifth-most-popular form of seafood. Sales were up 14% last year — and we now spend nearly US$340 million a year on them, four times as much as we spend on frozen burgers. At one supermarket that has seen a 20% increase in sales, a spokesperson told me that tropical prawns are “so fashionable” because they are “a light and healthy option”. Enthusiastic endorsement from celebrity chefs has boosted the boom. […]

Light and healthy? I think about this as we follow Huong through a litter of silicate sacks and empty prawn-feed bags to the pond. It measures 400 square metres, about the size of two tennis courts. It was once the family's ancestral rice paddy, and at this time of year the growing seedlings should be turning the landscape a brilliant yellow-green. But the pond, and all the others nearby, is now a viscous grey, like old washing water.

Huong paddles off in a little flat boat, scattering the feed we saw him mix up earlier. A system of paddle wheels, driven by a diesel engine, lies ready to stir up the water and bring oxygen to the shellfish packed beneath. There are 80,000 of them below the surface. Back on the dyke, he dips a flat net into the opaque water, and pulls up a few of the animals to weigh them and inspect them for deformities. They are two months old, about the size of my index finger. The translucent beige creatures wriggle and jump like busy grasshoppers.

The Huongs, like all their neighbours, opened the dykes and turned to prawn farming because of the fantastic profits available. A field that would have once provided enough rice for the family to eat, and a little extra to sell for essentials, suddenly has become an asset with the potential to change their lives. If this crop is successful, the Huongs will sell the grown prawns for nearly US$16,000 — if prices hold up — after only four months.

This is an enormous amount in a country where many rural people still survive on less than US$2 a day. As a result, many of the rice farmers of Tra Vinh now have become chemists, experts in the complex biology of intensively farmed crustaceans. Across the dykes, we see men and women in their conical hats dipping test tubes in the water, checking acidity levels, examining prawns in the test nets for signals of disease: reddening shells, misshapen bodies, white spots on their legs. They are trained and encouraged by the Vietnamese government, which, through promoting cash crops like this one, has been uniquely successful in Asia at increasing the country's exports and reducing poverty.

But there are calamities that can't be sorted out with science. If anything goes wrong, the family will lose all their investment, and they won't have any rice to eat, either. If they borrowed the money for the prawn larvae, they'll lose their land, too. Things happen here. This coastline along the South China Sea is prone to typhoons, which can destroy all the farmers' work in a night. The coastal mangrove forests, which once offered some protection to the people of these marginal lands, have been uprooted in many prawn-farming areas across the tropics. The bandwagon of the shellfish gold rush has destroyed even these crucial natural barricades to the ocean.

The prawns, packed in the ponds, are terribly prone to illness. The last batch of prawn larvae all died after one month. The Huongs don't know why. White-spot virus almost killed off the industry in Vietnam two years ago. And, having gambled everything on prawns, people will do anything to protect their investment. That includes using any chemicals that may seem to help.

“Often we get consignments of antibiotics for human use, which are past the date they can be used by,” a village headman told me. It is well known that use of antibiotics can stimulate growth.

This is a temporary land, on loan from the ocean. It's tidy, almost Dutch, with its network of carefully constructed dykes and endless bridges, the South China Sea a pressing presence behind a row of raggedy fir trees. The mangrove forests have been replanted, after education work with the local communities, by Oxfam and the Vietnamese authorities.

On the main road there's a sign, as big as an advertising billboard. Under a vivid picture of jars and bottles and dead prawns, it lists all the chemicals that prawn farmers must not use: 51 of them. They include many human antibiotics, penicillins and some names I recognise from the bad days of the European fish-farming industry — nitrofuran, chloramphenicol and organophosphate pesticides.

It's impressive and it shows the real efforts that the Vietnamese government has been taking to educate farmers, reduce use of dangerous chemicals and improve quality. After all, export of farmed fish is worth US$3.6 billion annually to the country. One government official said to me: “We know Western people are suspicious of our seafood. There were scandals in 2002 that nearly destroyed our markets. So it is in our interest to keep quality high and reduce the use of chemicals.”

And prawn farming has changed the face of Tra Vinh province. So much richer has the boom made this isolated corner of the Mekong's great delta that the development agency Oxfam will shortly end its long-standing poverty-reduction programmes.

“Shrimp has made this province rich,” the official said. And you can see it. Houses have televisions and mopeds outside them. School enrolment rates have soared. Five years after the scandals that nearly turned Europe away from warm-water prawns, Vietnam's exports of the shellfish increased by 32% last year. In Britain, we're eating three times as many tropical prawns as we were five years ago — and the price of them has halved.

Homepage photo by shapeshift's photostream

NEXT: Chemicals, disease and economic pressures

Copyright Guardian News and Media Ltd., 2008