Can the global or­ganic farm­ing phe­nom­e­non catch on in Cam­bo­dia?

Or­ganic farm­ing can bring huge ben­e­fits to both pro­ducer and con­sumer, but it’s a hard sell in Cam­bo­dia, where swathes of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion are prov­ing re­sis­tant to change

Southeast Asia Globe - - Healthcare Special - By Euan Black

Dot­ted with cafés and bars that wouldn’t look out of place in Mel­bourne or Ber­lin, the BKK 1 neigh­bour­hood in cen­tral Ph­nom Penh re­mains a bour­geois bub­ble even in Cam­bo­dia’s quickly gen­tri­fy­ing cap­i­tal. So the fact that four or­ganic su­per­mar­kets can be found in as many blocks here does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that the or­ganic in­dus­try in Cam­bo­dia is boom­ing. How­ever, ris­ing in­comes and grow­ing di­etary aware­ness are point­ing the way to­ward a more nu­tri­tious fu­ture.

“Af­ter the Pol Pot regime, peo­ple did not have the money to spend on high-qual­ity food, but now it’s dif­fer­ent. Thanks to so­cial me­dia, more peo­ple un­der­stand what healthy food is and they now have the bud­get to spend on or­ganic pro­duce,” said Ieng Sot­heara, founder of Kh­mer Or­ganic Co­op­er­a­tive. Sot­heara hopes the com­pany’s farm will soon be­come the coun­try’s first to re­ceive in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the in­de­pen­dent global cer­ti­fi­ca­tion firm Con­trol Union.

Buy­ing or­ganic pro­duce of­fers ob­vi­ous health ben­e­fits to the con­sumer, es­pe­cially in Cam­bo­dia, where, Sot­heara says, “farm­ers use ex­ces­sive amounts of pes­ti­cides”.

Switch­ing to or­ganic farm­ing also of­fers myr­iad ben­e­fits to the farm­ers them­selves. Cam­bo­dia lacks the ca­pac­ity to man­u­fac­ture its own pes­ti­cides and is re­liant on for­eign im­ports from China, Thai­land and Viet­nam. The la­bels aren’t in Kh­mer, which means most farm­ers spray the chem­i­cals with­out know­ing how much should ac­tu­ally be used – an is­sue that was first brought to the pub­lic eye by a group of Dan­ish re­searchers in 2011.

Adopt­ing or­ganic farm­ing meth­ods

Most of the farm­ers stick to chem­i­cals be­cause they’ve used them for a long time. We need to work a lot to prove to them that or­ganic farm­ing has a lot of ben­e­fits and that the cost of pro­duc­tion can of­ten be much lower”

would also make sense eco­nom­i­cally. While chem­i­cals can in­crease a farmer’s short-term yield and profitabil­ity, or­ganic pro­duce fetches a 15% pre­mium in Ph­nom Penh, ac­cord­ing to the Cam­bo­dian Cen­tre for Study and De­vel­op­ment in Agri­cul­ture. Com­bined with lower pro­duc­tion costs due to the use of fewer in­puts, the higher prices as­so­ci­ated with or­ganic pro­duce can lead to much higher prof­its, a trend that is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in the or­ganic rice sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to Claudius Bre­de­hoeft, the na­tional project co­or­di­na­tor of the Asean Sus­tain­able Agri­food Sys­tems project.

“If you look at the rice sec­tor right now in Cam­bo­dia it’s suf­fer­ing from low prices. But the or­ganic mar­ket pro­vides sta­ble and high prices and, even though it is a niche mar­ket, the de­mand for or­ganic rice from Cam­bo­dia is still higher than the sup­ply,” he said.

But, de­spite the ben­e­fits, most farm­ers are un­will­ing to take a leap of faith, with only 0.2% of Cam­bo­dia’s to­tal agri­cul­tural land farmed or­gan­i­cally in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 World of Or­ganic Agri­cul­ture: Sta­tis­tics & Emerg­ing Trends re­port.

“Most of the farm­ers stick to chem­i­cals be­cause they’ve used them for a long time,” Sot­heara said. “We need to work a lot to prove to the farm­ers that or­ganic farm­ing has a lot of ben­e­fits and that the cost of pro­duc­tion can of­ten be much lower than con­ven­tional farm­ing.”

Bre­de­hoeft added, how­ever, that such re­sis­tance to change is un­der­stand­able given that it can take up to three years for farm­ers to reap these ben­e­fits and that many of Cam­bo­dia’s ru­ral ma­jor­ity are tee­ter­ing on the precipice of poverty. “If you are a farmer and your liveli­hood is re­ly­ing on the next har­vest then it’s un­der­stand­able that you want to pro­tect your har­vest and spray your crop with chem­i­cals,” he said.

Lim­ited ed­u­ca­tion means many Cam­bo­dian farm­ers are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to the sales tech­niques em­ployed by pes­ti­cide ven­dors, with a re­port in March’s Sci­ence of

the To­tal En­vi­ron­ment jour­nal stat­ing that “pes­ti­cide use was 251% higher when the [Cam­bo­dian] farmer sought ad­vice from pes­ti­cide shop­keep­ers”.

While the 2011 Law on the Man­age­ment of Pes­ti­cides and Fer­tilis­ers pro­hibits the use of par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals, the space be­tween the let­ter of the law and its im­ple­men­ta­tion re­mains sig­nif­i­cant, ac­cord­ing to Van Touch, a Cam­bo­dian post­doc­toral fel­low at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s Fac­ulty of Agri­cul­ture and En­vi­ron­ment.

“I think there is a large gap be­tween pol­icy and real prac­tice,” he said. “The gov­ern­ment is work­ing on for­mu­lat­ing more reg­u­la­tions and im­ple­ment­ing biose­cu­rity and san­i­tary and phy­tosan­i­tary mea­sures. But how ef­fec­tive they are in prac­tice, I don’t know.”

Bre­de­hoeft, how­ever, was op­ti­mistic that things were mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, with the gov­ern­ment ramp­ing up its ef­forts to pro­mote or­ganic agri­cul­ture as a way of boost­ing ex­ports and the Kh­mer Or­ganic Co­op­er­a­tive and agri­cul­tural NGOs work­ing to dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion about or­ganic farm­ing to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. “In a nut­shell, it’s about ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness. And it will take time,” he said. “Or­ganic farm­ing is about a longterm vision.”

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