Agriculture and fishing

“Agrarian” or small-scale, household-based farming and “artisanal fishing,” characterized by its small scale and low technology, have been the cornerstones of the region’s largely rural economies for many centuries. That is now changing. As policy, the Lower Mekong countries are shifting toward industrialized agriculture with a focus on commercial cash crops for export. Even so, the population remains largely rural and the rice and fish production of small-holders continues to contribute significantly to local economies, not to mention household and community food security.

Mekong River fishing. Photo by Christine Andrada, Flickr, taken 29 October 2008. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Mekong River fishing. Photo by Christine Andrada, Flickr, taken 29 October 2008. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Key crops

Rice dominates production, at both commercial and household levels. The Lower Mekong countries produced more than 100 million tons of paddy rice in 2014, almost 15% of the world total.1 While a large percentage of this rice goes to local trade and remains within the countries, the region is also a significant exporter of rice to the world. In fact, Laos is the only Lower Mekong country not to rank in the top ten countries in the world for rice exports. 2 This is why the Mekong Basin has been called the “rice bowl of Asia”.

Other important export crops include corn (maize), sugar, soy beans, cassava, coffee and rubber. Rubber exports alone accounted for US$19.7 billion in 2011 for the region.3 Thailand was the world’s largest producer of rubber in 2013, and Vietnam was the third largest.4 In the last five years, rubber has expanded significantly in both Laos and Cambodia, with major investment by Vietnamese companies in southern Laos and Cambodia, and Chinese investment in northern Laos and Myanmar.

While coffee exports from number one global producer, Brazil, have been declining in recent years, Vietnam’s coffee exports have increased more than 9 percent between 2011 and 2015. Vietnam is second only to Brazil for coffee exports; also an important product in Laos, where it is the fifth largest export, though on a much smaller scale than Vietnam.5

Fisheries and aquaculture

The Mekong system is second only to the Amazon River in its biodiversity and it supports the world’s largest inland fishery. The people who live along its banks and within reach of its rich fisheries depend on it as a food source. Fish is estimated to supply 75% of people’s protein in some areas6. The annual harvest of 2.2 million tonnes of fish has an estimated retail market value between US$4.3 and US$7.8 billion.7

The region also has access to significant ocean fisheries in the Andaman Sea, Gulf of Thailand, and South China Sea. Thailand and Vietnam were the number three and four top global exporters of fish and fishery products respectively in 2012, based on value.8

Changing practices

The intensification of agriculture and fishing includes a push toward larger holdings, mechanized farming, large-scale commercial fishing and fisheries, increased regulation, and the transfer of land and resource rights to companies through both sales and expropriation. While these practices generally support  increased production for export, they also tend to disadvantage small holders, as they have in other parts of the world. A number of aid  programs are aimed at helping small-scale farmers and fishers adapt their practices to a market economy.

An Giang - Photo by William Foulke Collection Photo series, 'Raising An Giang's Living Standards' -- Photo #7: With his 31 year-old brother Tran Ngoc An, this progressive farmer, Tran Ngoc Diep, 30, (above) operates a six-hectare farm in An Giang's My Thoi village that has been so successful that farmers from kilometers around come to study its methods. The brothers have sold thousands of chickens like these to local farmers, to the provincial government to stock refugee resettlement farms, and to the supervised credit program's borrowers.

With his 31 year-old brother Tran Ngoc An, this progressive farmer, Tran Ngoc Diep 30 (above), operates a six-hectare farm in An Giang’s My Thoi village that has been so successful that other farmers come to study its methods. Photograph VA036048, No Date, William Foulke Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 19 March 2015. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The region has seen a trend towards value-added processing for agricultural and fish products, rather than selling raw materials. Thailand and Vietnam have been doing this for many years, especially with fermented and dried fish for use in the manufacture of products such as sauces and pastes. The Thai company Charoen Pokphand Foods (also known as CP) is the top agro-food company in Asia-Pacific, and the leading example of processed and value-added products in the region.9

Pesticides and other chemicals

The effects of increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in intensive farming of crops and aquaculture do not appear to have been systematically measured in the region. However, widespread use of a variety of chemicals, including ones banned in other parts of the world, has been recognized in a variety of reports and news stories, along with the observation that chemicals tend to be handled improperly and few to no precautions taken with their use. The fact that labeling and instructions are often in languages other than native ones, particularly in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, further exacerbates the situation.

With the exception of Myanmar, all Lower Mekong countries have approved the Rotterdam Convention on the trade and use of pesticides internationally,10 and have government representation for reporting and information sharing. Nonetheless, both pesticide and chemical fertilizer use are known to be high, as farmers often increase their use to try to maximize production. A number of aid agencies, such as FAO, as well as national extension services and academic institutions promote Integrated Pest Management and organic farming to curb the harmful use of chemicals across the region, particularly among small-scale farmers.


A child looks over a pump irrigating a rice field in Cambodia. Photo by Asian Development Bank, Flickr, taken 15 February 2011. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A child looks over a pump irrigating a rice field in Cambodia. Photo by Asian Development Bank, Flickr, taken 15 February 2011. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Population pressures are also putting strain on agrarian systems. Like other parts of Asia, agriculture continues to be characterized by smallholder farmers cultivating less than 2 hectares, and mostly dependent on household members for labor.11 Data on average smallholder farm size is difficult to find12, however, increasing family size and the sale or transfer of land to larger holdings, are both reducing the average size of smallholders’ land.

Agrarian communities are also losing access to forests and fallow fields, which have traditionally provided grazing areas for livestock and supplementary foods, such as wild herbs, fruits, honey, mushrooms, and even insects, and in some cases provided cash incomes, as in the case of resin collection.13 Also when farmers can no longer afford to leave their fields fallow on a rotational basis, this puts strain on soils and tends to decrease productivity.  All of these trends may negatively affect the food security of some households.

At the 2014 FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, representatives from the region committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme hunger by strengthening policy and reporting around food security. Agricultural reporting from countries across Asia had decreased in quality and quantity over the last decade, and this is seen as a first step towards better food security measures.14

Recent programs by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the UN have stated aims of addressing both food security and extreme poverty.15 Even so, agricultural policies in the region sometimes conflict, depending on whether they are being driven by concerns for poverty reduction and food security or for economic development. While economic development policies tend to emphasize large-scale agro-business to increase agricultural commodities production16, rural development programs continue to encourage small-scale agricultural holdings that are sometimes at odds with the goal to expand and intensify commercial production.

Last updated 5 April 2016


  • 1. Total 2014 paddy rice production of Lower Mekong countries: 104,641,000t; total global 2014 paddy rice production: 707,480,000 t. International Rice Research Institute. “World Rice Statistics.” Accessed 6 February 2015.
  • 2. US Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service. 2014. “Principle Rice Exporting Countries Worldwide in 2013 (in 1,000 metric tons of milled equivalent).” Accessed 6 February 2015.
  • 3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2015. “Download Data.” Search terms: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, 2011, Rubber, natural dry. Accessed 6 February 2015.
  • 4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2015. “Food and Agricultural Commodities Production / Countries by Commodity.” Accessed 17 June 2015.
  • 5. International Coffee Organization. “Total production by all exporting countries.” 2016. Accessed 11 March 2016.
  • 6. Hortle, K. G. 2007. Consumption and the Yield of Fish and Other Aquatic Animals from the Lower Mekong Basin. MRC Technical Paper No. 16. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission.
  • 7. Hortle, K.G. 2009. “Fisheries of the Mekong River Basin.” In The Mekong. Biophysical Environment of a Transboundary River, edited by I. C. Campbell. Netherlands: Elsevier.
  • 8. FAO. 2014. The State of World fisheries and Aquaculture: Opportunities and Challenges. Rome: 2014, 50. Accessed 6 February 2015. View this on Open Development Datahub
  • 9. Charoen Pokphand Foods PCL. “About Us.” Accessed 16 June 2015.
  • 10. Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention. “Status of Ratifications.” Accessed 8 April 2015.
  • 11. Thapa, Ganesh and Raghav Gaiha. 2011. Smallholder Farming in Asia and the Pacific: Challenges and Opportunities. Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development. Accessed 18 June 2015.
  • 12. FAO. “Agricultural Development Economics: Smallholder Dataportrait.” Accessed 19 June 2015.
  • 13. Prey Lang Community Network. 2015. Prey Lang Commune Research Report 2013-2014. Cambodia: Prey Lang Community Network. Accessed 18 June 2015. View this on Open Development Datahub
  • 14. FAO. “FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Strengthening Food and Nutritional Security.” Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 15. International Fund for Agricultural Development. “Laos: Southern Laos Food and Nutrition Security and Market Linkages Programme.” Accessed 16 June 2015.; “Farming First: Enhancing Sustainable Development Through Agriculture.” Accessed 16 June 2015.
  • 16. World Health Organization. “Food Security.” Accessed 16 June 2015.
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