The often simple techniques used by many of the Kingdom’s farmers could pave the way for an organic farming revolution
By Bridget Di Certo
Your health, your society, your environment” is the motto of the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (Coraa), which boasted 25 members at the end of 2012.
Optimistic Cambodian agronomists believe that these three pillars could help foster a lucrative niche market in the Kingdom’s organic produce, which is in demand internationally.
The concept of chemical-free, or organic, farming in Cambodia is fairly new, but given that the majority of farming methods remain quite primitive it can be relatively straightforward to turn a farm into a chemical-free or organic producer, said Horm Kroesna, founder of chemical-free supplier Khmer Farm.
“Organic is difficult to grow; it takes a long time to make the land organic. For a chemical-free farm it can take six months to one year to make the land chemical free,” Kroesna said.
To achieve organic standards, a whole farm must exist on a sustainable organic farming system. No chemical fertilisers or any other chemical substances such as pesticides or fungicides can be used in the farming process and all fertilisation and crop protection measures must accord with organic standards. In Cambodia, after an average conversion period of about two years, a farm could be certified as organic.
Chemical-free standards offer a slightly lower threshold. To meet chemical-free requirements, no chemical fertilisers, pesticides or fungicides are applied to the crops, but it is not necessary for the soil to be certified as free of these chemicals.
Kroesna said Khmer Farm’s most popular chemical-free produce is European leafy vegetables and lettuces.
“Sometimes the price of chemical-free vegetables can seem high, but the advantage is that it is a stable price. For example, sometimes the chemical-free vegetables in Cambodia can be cheaper than imported chemically produced vegetables from Vietnam when the price rises,” he pointed out. “In the future I think organic and chemical-free agriculture will really take off to export, but now the farms are just small.”
Chemical-free produce tends to be smaller and less brightly coloured than chemically-assisted produce, Kroesna lamented. “But the taste is more delicious,” he said. Aside from the taste, many farmers believe there are added health benefits to eliminating chemicals from Cambodia’s soil and produce.
Kong Sinaluat, shop leader for the Phnom Penh Cedac (Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture) store, said there is a stigma attached to imported produce, particularly from Vietnam, where consumers suspect farmers use chemical-laden pesticides and other such farming measures.
“People understand that the products and vegetables we import from neighbouring countries like Vietnam have lots of chemicals,” Sinaluat said. “When we use chemicals on the rice it affects the insects and pests and then it spreads into the ground and affects the rivers and the fish and then people who are eating the fish and the crabs get affected. So chemical use on rice really does quickly get into the water. Sometimes these chemicals can make people vomit and become very sick. Many people complain of headaches when they eat the vegetable with the chemicals on it.”
Coraa has reported instances of Cambodian farmers using banned pesticides on produce, including rice. However, the organisation says that most Cambodian farmers are still cultivating rice in a traditional way. As a consequence, Coraa’s 2011 annual report concerning organic farming practices in Cambodia states rice yields are among the lowest in Asia – an outcome chiefly attributed to low soil fertility. Only about 15% of farms have access to irrigation and, compared to most Asian countries, Cambodian farmers use relatively few inputs – any substance used by a producer for pest control or soil fertility management – and a considerable number of rice farmers have never used farm chemicals. However, only a small portion of the produced rice has been certified as organic, Coraa states.
“As Cambodia is increasing its rice exports, the prospects of trading organic rice could improve as well. As a small rice producing country, Cambodia might benefit more, if it could utilise niche markets. The demand for organic rice is increasing in several Asian countries as well as in the USA and Europe. Cambodia can offer varieties and qualities for niche markets other producers may not cover,” Coraa’s report said.
“People care about their health and know that other rice uses lots of chemicals,” Sinaluat added. “The local community that produces organic rice has more than 1,000 farmers currently involved. But this is increasing day by day.”