Date released
11 December 2023

For thousands of years, freshwater Pangasius catfish have been a staple source of nutritious food for the people of the Mekong River Delta Region. As the industry has developed, the farming of catfish has helped to improve food security, build livelihoods and even establish significant export industries. In 2022, Vietnam’s catfish exports were valued at US$2.5 billion.

Now, new ACIAR-supported research is putting the catfish production and processing value chains under the microscope in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, with the aim of improving resource use and reducing waste in the system.

Value-chain analysis

Launched earlier this year, this project will analyse the entire value chain for Pangasius catfish and fingerling (young catfish) production in all 3 countries. It will identify the main bottlenecks that contribute to waste and food loss, investigate the causes and trial potential solutions.

Project leader is Dr Van Kien Nguyen, from Health and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (HAPRI) at the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Dr Nguyen said there are significant differences in how the catfish industry operates in the project’s 3 partner countries.

Vietnam has a highly developed aquaculture and processing industry, while Cambodia and Laos have smaller and mostly domestic aquaculture and wild-caught value chains.

The Vietnamese industry has introduced many innovations to reduce waste by using all parts of the fish while Laos and Cambodia currently use the waste products as fishmeal.

‘Vietnam has become very advanced in applying innovative technology to diversify products and use all parts of the fish to make medicines and food, instead of throwing the blood and guts back into the river,’ said Dr Nguyen. ‘There are a lot of innovations that can be shared with Cambodia and Laos.’

Despite this sophistication in Vietnam’s processing sector and the value of its export industry, Dr Nguyen noted there are still many losses that lead individual farmers to sell their land or go bankrupt.

‘We want to reduce losses and make sure the industry is sustainable for smallholder farmers growing catfish,’ said Dr Nguyen.

This project is the first in the region to focus on food loss and waste across the whole Pangasius value chain.

The research will be carried out in collaboration with HAPRI and An Giang University in Vietnam, the National University of Laos, the Royal University of Agriculture in Cambodia and the University of New England, Australia.

It will also partner with government and commercial stakeholders to help identify issues that lead to losses and create solutions.

Value-chain modelling and economic analysis, water quality analysis in fish transport and production, and gender analysis and capacity building in farming systems are all elements of the project.

workers processing catfish wearing blue uniforms and white hairnets
Catfish processing in Vietnam makes use of every part of the fish. Photo: ACIAR

Resource efficiency

Project co-leader in Cambodia, Dr Kimchhin Sok from the Royal University of Agriculture, said this project is a unique opportunity to gain better holistic data on the Pangasius value chain, as well as qualitative data from stakeholders, to better inform government on investment and policy decisions.

‘This is an exciting project because the Cambodian Government is currently implementing a lot of support for Pangasius catfish production for domestic consumption and export, and this research can produce significant evidence for government decisions,’ said Dr Sok.

‘Catfish is really valuable for Cambodia, we consider it one of our traditional fish species.

‘It also has a lot of economic value in Cambodia, particularly in aquaculture as it is a relatively easy fish to raise compared to other fish.’

While the project is in its early stages, 3 areas have been highlighted for improvement: aquaculture water quality, transportation and fingerling quality.

Cambodia and Laos import many of their catfish fingerlings from neighbouring countries, but significant numbers die during transportation.

Dr Sok said improving local production practices among smallholders, as well as larger commercial farmers, could reduce the need to import fingerlings, which in turn would reduce the waste that occurs in transportation.

ACIAR Research Program Manager, Agribusiness, Mr David Shearer said fingerlings represent a large input cost for producers, but current production processes were inefficient; with 30 to 60% of fingerlings dying in the production process.

‘Resources are being wasted, with such a large percentage of fingerling loss,’ said Mr Shearer.

Mr Shearer sees reducing fingerling loss and increasing resource efficiency as the main aspects of the project that will contribute to broader circular economy objectives.

‘Commercial catfish processing factories in Vietnam are very much part of the circular economy, they use every part of the fish,’ said Mr Shearer. ‘But I see the circular economy not just as re-use, but also resource efficiency. And that’s where this research can contribute to a more sustainable system.’

ACIAR Project: ‘Food loss in the Pangasius catfish value chain of the Mekong River Basin’ (CS/2020/209)