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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - High hopes for organics

High hopes for organics

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Demand is growing for organic food in Cambodia, but supply is lagging and a certification system needs to be put in place

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SOVANN PHILONG

The Natural Agri-Product Marketing Project sells organic products from three stores in Phnom Penh.

We are not officially

organic ... We also have to use a small amount of pesticide to get rid of bugs.

Demand for organic food is on the rise in Cambodia, or so says Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC).

"There is a lot of interest in organic food among people living in urban areas within Cambodia, but people in rural villages are also becoming concerned about the use of pesticides," he told the Post.

Unfortunately, Cambodian farmers are not growing organic food in big enough quantities to meet the growing demand.

"The market is too limited," Yang Saing Koma. "Farmers in Cambodia tend to grow rice rather than vegetables, and this is often seasonal, especially for those farmers who grow rice along the riverside."

Cambodian farmers also employ subsistence techniques for their farming, meaning they tend to produce enough rice to feed their family but rarely think about the wider needs of the market, or the opportunities to increase their income. The solution, according to Yang Saing Koma, is to invest more money into ensuring that farmers have the potential to grow produce which is free from pesticides, as well as changing the attitudes of the farmers so that they become accustomed to growing a wide range of products.

In addition to rice farmers, CEDAC works with growers of organic vegetables, fruits, palm sugar and pepper, with chicken and pig farmers, and with fish paste producers.

Mission impossible

Yet many farmers in Cambodia still think that it is impossible to grow food without using pesticides. The lack of official certification also means that consumers in rural areas that want to eat organic have to rely on the word of local farmers.

CEDAC is attempting to implement its own basic standard of certification. Most notably, it is collaborating with Oxfam on the Natural Agri-Product Marketing Project (NAP), which aims to ensure that farmers can get higher prices for their organic products, and that consumers can get easier access to organic food.

"We have introduced an internal system to control what is termed as organic," Yang Saing Koma said. "More and more people want to sell organic food so we are beginning to meet the demand. As well as fruit, vegetables and herbs, we also stock more unusual products such as forest honey."

The government is also interested in promoting organic products, he said.

Growing demand

NAP operates three stores in Phnom Penh. San Sok Len, a cashier at one of the stores, said she has noticed an increasing number of customers wanting to buy organic food.

'This year, each day I sell natural products to around 30 to 35 customers on average. Last year I had between 10 and 15 customers a day,"she said.

"Our prices are a bit more expensive than the market price, but we still have many customers coming to buy our products.

She added that Cambodians tended to be suspicious about whether organic food really had any intrinsic value, but after trying the products, many remarked on the good quality.

"Even though it is more expensive, it is delicious and good for me," said Sok Thea, 26, who has been buying organic rice from San Sok Len's shop for three months. He said that he pays $5 for 5 kilograms of organic rice, whereas ordinary rice would cost him about 1,700 riels (around $0.41) per kilogram.

Other organisations have also sprung up to improve the quality of Cambodian produce. The Peri-Urban Agriculture Centre (PUAC) works to improve the living conditions of Cambodian farmers through the production of high-value vegetables that are free from chemical residues.  

Nake Tharenn, one of PUAC's directors, said it is difficult for farmers to completely cut out the use of pesticides.

"We are not officially organic because we have to import our seeds from Thailand or Vietnam, and we cannot be assured that they are pesticide-free,"he said. "We also have to use a small amount of pesticide to get rid of bugs. If we did not do this, the vegetables would not grow."

Small scale buyers

Although PUAC distributes to some of Phnom Penh's top hotels and restaurants, demand for pesticide-free produce has grown mostly amongst individual Cambodians, Nake Tharenn said.

"People who are cooking for themselves or their families are prepared to pay a bit more to buy goods that are pesticide free," he said. "Hotels and restaurants are often reluctant to buy organic products because they need large quantities of produce to cope with the demand for food. They also want food that has a nice appearance, and often the appearance of organic food cannot compete with shiny, chemically treated produce."

Srey Naren, the marketing manager at the Stung Sen Meanchey Organic Farmer Association, said 1,000 families consistently bought organic rice from the association's shop in Phnom Penh. Most were local with only a small minority of foreigners.

She said she only sold 5 tonnes of rice per month last year but this year was selling around 10 tonnes per month. "Our customers are increasing by the day,"she said. "They say that organic rice is nutritious, and as well as buying organic rice for themselves, they also buy it for their relatives and friends."

Like other organic vendors, the Stung Sen Meanchey Organic Farmer Association does not have enough produce to fully satisfy customer demand, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables.

Kith Seng, the under secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that in response to the demand from consumers, his ministry urged farmers to grow organic crops as much as possible. "Year after a year we see an increase in farmers growing organic produce," he said.

But when even those in the "organic movement" admit to using small amounts of pesticides to kill bugs, until a proper accreditation system is in place, organic consumers will have to buy on faith.

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