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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Flood-hit farmers stuck with unplantable seed

Flood-hit farmers stuck with unplantable seed

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Blooming lucky: A healthy field of rice in Kandal that was not planted with low quality donated seed rice.

H

undreds of thousands of flood-hit rice farmers face an uncertain harvest after government

relief efforts left them with more than a million dollars worth of unplantable Vietnamese

rice seed.

A large part of 8000 tons of dry season rice seed valued at $1.12 million ($140/t))

supplied to the government by a company owned by CPP Senator Men Sarun has been deemed

useless for planting due to its low germination rate.

While dry season rice seed is normally expected to have an 80+% germination rate,

the seed supplied by Sarun to the Ministry of Agriculture has been giving farmers

hit by September's floods a germination rate as little as half that.

Seang Chhoeurth, Vice-Director of the Department of Agriculture in Battambang, said

the problem had become apparent after his staff tested the first deliveries of seed

in September. He said the seed came to them from the Vietnamese province of Kieng

Nyang via the department in Phnom Penh.

"[The rice seed] is not so good really. 50% germination rate for seed rice is

not enough for the farmer to use in planting," he said.

Chhoeurth and his staff had been able to swap most of the 150 tons of poor quality

seed rice they received for better seed from local farmers, but he said the substandard

relief seed had complicated efforts to help farmers to plant new crops.

Un On, 51, a rice farmer from Poumongkol Village in Kandal's Ponhea Leu District

had to dig up the relief rice seed he was given in December when it failed to germinate.

"None of the seed I was given last month germinated," he said.

On was able to dry the useless seed and swap it with a neighbor for good quality

rice seed.

Director of the Department of Agriculture in Takao, Ith Sarun, said his department

also tested the rice seed and found it had a germination rate of less than 30%. He

said it was black in color and damp.

When he became aware of the problem of the substandard rice seed Sarun confronted

the supplier of the seed, Men Sarun Import Export Co. Ltd, owned by CPP Senator Men

Sarun.

"[Men Sarun] told me to tell the farmers to exchange the seed to get better

[seed] from their neighbors and grow this instead," Ith said.

In a telephone interview with the Post , Sarun confirmed he had instructed officials

to tell farmers to turn to their neighbors to replace the substandard seed his company

had supplied.

However, Sarun said the rice seed Men Sarun Import Export Co. Ltd. supplied had been

bought on the basis of technical expertise from the government.

"I have no knowledge of rice seed but before I bought the rice from Vietnam,

the Ministry of Agriculture provided experts to check the rice seed and analyze it,"

he said.

Sarun emphasized this was the first time his company had bought rice seed and was

given the contract because the government had no money to buy the seed. He said his

company was a guarantor for the deal and had not yet been paid for its services.

When questioned on the quality of seed his company had provided, Sarun said his company

had not been the government's only source of rice seed and that the Ministry of Agriculture

had also bought rice elsewhere.

That account of Sarun's role in the matter is contradicted by Pith Seng from the

Department of Planning and International Co-operation, the government agency responsible

for distributing the Ministry of Agriculture's flood relief rice seed.

Seng said Men Sarun's company had been the primary supplier of the relief seed including

up to 10,000 tons of dry season rice seed. He said 8000 tons of that had been delivered,

of which 5600 tons had been distributed to farmers and more than 2000 tons were still

in reserve.

"Of course we required the rice to pass a germination test of over 90% - because

it's rice for planting but we cannot [conduct such tests] ourselves adequately. So

we sent the message to all the provinces [where the rice was going] and requested

all the provinces [to do tests]," he said.

Seng says he believes these tests were carried out and though he had not yet received

full reports back from the provinces, none had suggested there was any problems with

the quality of the seed.

Jean-Claude Levasser from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FOA)

said he had also heard of reports of poor quality rice being supplied by the Ministry

of Agriculture. He said he believes it was only a small amount and limited to only

the initial seed provided by government.

"The situation was urgent and it was necessary to do it [supply rice seed to

the farmers] quickly. This is why old rice seed was given out," he said.

"I would have done the same thing [in the same situation] but now the crisis

is over I believe the rice [seed] they have brought in is better."

Levasser was careful to distinguish the rice seed given out by the government from

that seed and eating rice provided by other aid organizations and NGOs. He said the

bulk of the rice distributed for the FOA by World Vision, Partners for Development,

CARE and Concern International was bought on the local market and would be expected

to have more than an 80% germination rate.

Sakhan Sophany, a seed product specialist at the Cambodia Agricultural Research and

Development Institute (CARDI) said the IR66 variety of rice Men Sarun bought in Vietnam

was not considered to have a very high germination rate, but the 20-30% reported

by farmers is extremely poor.

"Of course you can use it, you can eat it - but if the government thought it

was buying good germinating seed it has lost a lot of money," she said.

Sophany said CARDI had been asked by the Department of Agriculture to send an expert

to Vietnam to test the seed before it was bought. She said they had verified the

quality of only 700 of the 8000 tons, and suspects the poor quality seed distributed

to farmers was untested.

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