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Plant hoppers grassy stunt virus plagues harvest

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Farming continues, but the grassy stunt virus left over by brown planthoppers is threatening segment's of this year's harvest.

Despite spending nearly all his savings on insecticides and other chemicals, Suy

Rath, 35, has lost his entire rice crop. Behind his house, barren paddy fields stretch

as far as the eye can see, clear evidence that many other farmers in the village

of Tung Leang in Kampot province near the Vietnamese border are in the same worrisome

position as Rath.

A plague of brown planthoppers descended on Cambodia in June. The insects have now

left, but not before infecting large areas with grassy stunt virus (RGSV) - a highly

contagious virus that officials say poses a serious threat to the rice harvest this

year in Cambodia.

"I worry that I will not have any rice to eat next year," said Rath. "There

were insects that came and surrounded my paddies for a week. I bought chemicals to

spray on them, but they did not die. I spent all my savings on chemicals, but I could

not make the paddies survive."

The Ministry of Agriculture Forests and Fisheries (MAFF) in August encouraged farmers

to use mosquito nets to catch the planthoppers and to spray with Butyl and Bassan.

But MAFF's efforts were largely in vain. The ministry estimates the insects, whose

scientific name is Nilaparvata lugens, destroyed 1,000 hectares of rice paddy in

12 provinces and they are now very concerned about the legacy the insects left behind

- RGSV.

"The virus ruins rice paddies. It turns the rice yellow and makes it shrink,"

said Chan Sarun, Minister of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries. "If the virus

spreads it will seriously impact the harvest. Production will decrease."

According to the Universal Virus Database, RGSV causes severe stunting, "excessive

tillering" and "erect growth habit," and short, narrow pale green

leaves. It is transmitted by insects and prevents plants from bearing grain.

MAFF are attempting to control the spread of the virus by burning affected rice paddies,

not by using chemicals said Sarun.

"I think that we can control the situation," he said. "We are monitoring

it closely and we are working to rehabilitate the affected rice paddies."

Sarun said this year more than two million hectares of rice were planted, which is

about 95 percent of the annual target. So far 200,000 tons have been harvested.

"But in addition to planthoppers and RGSV we lost over 1,000 hectares in Kampong

Thom as a result of flooding," said Sarun. "We hope to be able to help

farmers plant more rice when the water level has dropped."

The infestation originated in Vietnam, said Keam Makarady, health and environment

section leader for the Cambodian Center for the Study and Development of Agriculture

(CEDAC).

In 2006, Vietnam suffered a widescale planthopper plague, which destroyed about two

million tons of paddy rice - the bulk of which was to be exported.

Sarun said that in order to meet their export commitments Vietnam has been buying

Cambodian rice, which has pushed up the price and raised fears that Cambodia will

face a domestic shortfall unless the cross border trade is brought under control,

said MAFF's Sarun.

For farmers like Rath, who have no rice left and have used up the savings they could

have used to buy more, the future looks bleak.

"I have lost all my rice plants. I lost all my money trying to save them and

all I have now is empty rice fields," he said.

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