In search of fertile ground

 Cambodia could transform its physical and economic health at a stroke by improving its vegetable production

Charlie Lancaster
September 10, 2009

 Cambodia could transform its physical and economic health at a stroke by improving its vegetable production

Considering that Cambodia’s vegetable consumption is among the lowest in Asia, it’s not surprising that its malnutrition rate is among the highest. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, 44% of Cambodian under-five-year-olds and about 30% of women are malnourished. The problem is not only about the availability of food but also a lack of knowledge about the benefits offered by a diverse diet.Waste of energy: a farmer irrigates (Charlie Lancaster)

Vegetables are the answer, believes Mark Hickey, industry leader for New South Wales’s department of primary industries. “The focus is now on crop diversification,” he says. “While Cambodians may have all the rice they need, insufficient vegetable consumption means that many lack the necessary vitamin and mineral intake.”

Rice comprises more than 75% of an average Cambodian’s daily calorie intake according to scientists at the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Cardi) but, Hickey stresses, since attaining a rice surplus in 1999 Cambodia has only just reached a position where efforts can move away from food security and start considering nutritional security.

The UN raised the alarm in 2005 when it said that the majority of under-fives and women in Cambodia suffered from iron deficiency or anaemia. Lack of iron is believed to cause the death during childbirth of about 2,000 Khmer women every year. A lack of vitamin A makes people more vulnerable to infection and various diseases, including blindness.

“Boosting Cambodia’s vegetable industry is the key to providing nutritious fresh food for everyone,” Hickey says.

Cardi scientists conservatively estimate that 40% of the vegetables sold in Cambodia are imported. “Strengthening the industry will inevitably diversify the Khmer diet, improve household nutritional levels, enable farmers to improve their income and replace imports with local produce,” says Hickey. There is little doubt that Cambodians would opt for local produce if it could match its neighbours in price and quality.

This would be a relatively simple task if the Cambodian vegetable industry wasn’t in such a state of disarray, says Chuong Sophal, dean of the faculty of agronomy at the Royal University of Agriculture. “It is underdeveloped, poorly managed, unreliable and prone to the effects of seasonal climate variability, so frequent supply shortages are compensated for with cheap imports from neighbouring countries.”

The industry faces many challenges.Cambodia’s soil quality is generally low and land is often waterlogged during the rainy season, technology is inadequate if it exists at all, seeds are often of the lowest quality, processing procedures are inefficient and management techniques are often nonexistent. The result is the production of less vegetables – and of a lower quality – than its regional competitors.

“Vietnam and Thailand have better production and processing techniques, which allows them to export huge quantities of vegetables to Cambodia,” says Hong Soutra, marketing officer from Peri Urban Agricultural Centre (Puac), a co-operative in Kompong Speu, who estimates that 120m kilos of vegetables are imported every year. “Better climate, farming techniques, electricity supply and water management as well as larger farms and cheaper transportation costs make the Vietnamese and Thai vegetable sectors more efficient.”

The key to replacing imports with local produce is improving farming techniques and post-harvest management systems, says Adrian Bolliger, agronomy faculty development adviser for the Royal University of Agriculture. He estimates that at least 25% to 40% of vegetables are damaged in Cambodia after harvesting and there is very little in the way of processing, storage and refrigeration.

Eng Chantha uses imported Vietnamese seeds to produce tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salads
Eng Chantha uses imported Vietnamese seeds to produce tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salads

More than 80% of vegetables are transported by motorcycle. “There is no point increasing productivity if the vegetables are damaged or have perished en route,” he says. “To improve quality, farmers must minimise damage. It is important to track the supply chain to see where improvements can be made.”

While educating farmers on better techniques is important, improved vegetable varieties are integral to developing a better industry, says Hickey. “The shortage of well-adapted varieties of vegetables and the lack of a seed industry means Cambodian farmers are reliant on imported seeds, which are often of inferior quality and not suited to the Cambodian climate and soils,” he says.

A recent report by the AusAID-funded agricultural quality improvement project found that poor seed and production technologies ruined 10% to 40% of all vegetables grown in Cambodia.

Unsuitable imported seed with unreadable foreign instructions compound the problem. “Seeds from Vietnam and Thailand are usually five times more expensive than those in Europe,” Soutra says. Puac farmers cultivate more than 40 different kinds of produce including leaf and root vegetables, aromatic herbs and fruit from imported seeds. “We need to develop hybrid Cambodian seeds that are more pest and heat resistant,” he adds.

Pesticides and fertilisers are not used correctly and “their quality is poor” according to Hickey, who adds: “Farmers lack the skill to correctly identify the problem or judge when and how much fertiliser should be applied.”

Besides initiating a nationwide health drive, improved vegetable production will also lift the countryside out of poverty, he believes. “Vegetable production is labour intensive, with the potential to increase rural employment and the livelihoods of local farmers.”

“More farmers are beginning to realise vegetables are more profitable than rice,” Soutra adds.

Rice occupies 90% of all agricultural land yet it contributes only 9% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a 2004 report by the Economic Institute of Cambodia. “Efficient farms can earn four times more by growing vegetables rather than rice,” says Soutra.

The agricultural sector has all the attributes needed to help economic growth in the medium term, not only because it employs two-thirds of the working population but also because other recent growth sectors, including the garment industry, construction and tourism, have contracted,

says Lim Sokundarun, programme officer for the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture. Sokundarun believes one way forward is to go organic. He estimates that by taking such a route local farmers can earn 20% more. “Demand for organic food is on the rise overseas and in Cambodia. Local farmers also have the potential to supply larger volumes of organic products such as leaf vegetables to Cambodians.”

An infrastructure that can better support large-scale enterprises is the key to such growth, believes Bolliger. “To become competitive, farmers need access to cheap reliable electricity, and cheaper fuel,” he says.

“The nutrition of the typical Cambodian will improve with better diversification of diet and education on health choices,” says Hickey. “If the country can replace imports with readily available, high-quality local produce, nutritional levels will undoubtedly rise.”

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