Fear of the adverse effects of chemically tainted food is seeing an increasing number of Cambodian people choose organic produce, despite its higher prices. The trend mimics that in major international markets such as the UK and US, as well as in Cambodia’s major trading partner China, which is now the world’s fourth largest market for organic produce with retail sales exceeding US$4 billion last year.
According to the Soil Association, the UKs main organic produce certifying body, sales of organic products rose last year by 4.9 per cent to almost $3 billion in the UK. In the U.S the organic market grew by 11.4 per cent last year to $43.3 billion, while in Denmark, the country with the highest organic produce market-share worldwide, organic produce used in food and beverages rose to 7.6 per cent in 2015.
While organic Cambodia rice is already carving a reputation for itself in international markets the lack of certification is holding Cambodia’s fledgling organic produce sector back from tapping into the increasing international demand for clean and green produce.
All this is set to change and soon a wider range of organically certified Cambodia produce could be gracing the kitchens of discerning restaurants and the plates of health-conscious diners globally.
Seeing the “huge potential” for the Cambodia organic produce sector GIZ Asean-SAS, the local office of Germany’s official overseas aid provider, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH., is ramping up assistance to help organic producers get their produce certified.
In a deal with local organic food retailer Khmer Organic Cooperative (KAC), which currently produces about 300kg (about 660lbs) of non-certified organic produce each week for its stores in Phnom Penh, GIZ will provide technical support to develop better organic vegetable production and assist the firm in obtaining certification for its products. The assistance programme will cover two farms, covering a total of 23 hectares (57 acres).
This is not the first programme run by GIZ to boost the quality and yield of organic produce in Cambodia. Claudius Bredehöeft, project coordinator of GIZ Asean-SAS, told the Phnom Penh Post that its existing certification programme for organic rice run in conjunction with the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (Cedac), had been expanded from three to six provinces, with more than 1,200 farmers trained in organic production techniques.
Having an institution guarantee that products meet recognised organic standards is essential to the marketing success of Cambodia’s organic produce sector. Certification will help farmers get more return for their products, with farmers globally finding that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for certified organic produce, Mr Bredehöeft said.
The misuse of chemicals and fertilizers in the Cambodia agriculture sector is a rampant problem. Many chemicals are imported from neighbouring Vietnam or China, often with no Khmer or English translation on correct usage or handling methods. The result is farm produce that contains high residual levels of chemicals, and fields that under produce due to chemical over use.
Cambodia Organic Rice Output Growing
A draft law on food safety in Cambodia that would address the entire supply chain from farm to table is still waiting to be approved by parliament, more than two years after the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) started assisting with its development.
Speaking with The Phnom Penh Post, Leng Sotheara, KAC’s founder said: “Certification is important to build the confidence of consumers as it proves that fruits and vegetables are really organic”. Additionally, “We cannot export our organic vegetables, if they are not certified as organically grown”.
According to Keam Makardy, field operation program manager for Cedac, organic produce not only provides farmers with a good income, but also higher yields than chemically-grown crops. One hectare (2.47 acres) of land cultivated using organic methods can yield up to 66 per cent more than crops farmed using traditional fertilizers and chemicals he told The Phnom Penh Post.
The poor state of Cambodia’s agricultural sector is no secret. Vongsey Vissoth, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MoEF), recently told the Khmer Times that agricultural yield in Cambodia is so inefficient that about $200 million a year in produce is imported into the kingdom.
These claims have been verified by the UK-based think tank the Center for Policy Studies’ (CPS), whose own study found that up to 400 tons of vegetables and produce are imported daily from nearby countries, putting the total value of imports at up to $250 million annually.
While 60 per cent of Cambodia’s organic rice harvest is shipped abroad where it commands a premium price, the balance is sold locally according to Mr Makardy. Despite prices for organic produce being up to 30 per cent higher than their non-organic counterpart demand is increasing, he said.
Mr Makardy said it is hoped certified organic Cambodia rice output will come in at between 1,000 and 1,500 tons this year. Last year certified Cambodia organic rice producers doubled output from 400 tons in 2014 to more than 800 tons, he said.
It’s not only yield rates that are up for those farmers choosing organic. In a separate interview with The Phnom Penh Post Yang Phirom, CEO of Organic Farm Enterprise (COFE), the primary distribution arm for Cedac said that Cambodia farmers growing organic rice are guaranteed of earning KHR 1,650 (about $0.41) per kilogram (2.20lbs), about double the current market price for unmilled.
With help from Germany’s GIZ, Cambodia’s fledgling organic produce sector could soon be garnering a much bigger name for itself internationally, while also providing a much needed boost to the earning capacity of Cambodia’s rural sector.