As the rice industry in Cambodia begins to take off, two German agricultural experts funded by the German government are working to develop a niche market for Cambodian organic rice.
The experts say rice is easier to grow if you do it the natural way, using organic technology, can offer a better financial return for farmers and be a healthier experience, free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Agriculturalist Winfried Scheewe, who advises COrAA, and Claudius Bredehoeft, an adviser to CEDAC, are both working to support Cambod-ian farmers in developing an organic rice industry, which they say will make farmers healthier and wealthier because they won’t have to buy chemical fertiliser and pesticides and will get a higher price for their product.
Both work for GIZ, an agency of the German government under the BMZ, Germany’s federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Scheewe serves as an adviser to the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA), a nation-wide, private-sector organisation working for the promotion of organic agriculture in Cambodia, with 17 members.
COrAA, founded in 2006 with support from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Commerce, includes companies, farmers’ co-operatives, NGOs and individual members who are active in organic agriculture.
“We have four main focuses: assisting organic producers; providing certification; raising awareness among consumers; and involving the government,” Scheewe said.
CEDAC was founded in 1997 with the support of a French NGO as Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien, which means Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture. As of August this year, there were nearly 300 people working for CEDAC
in 21 provinces of Cambodia.
Bredehoeft serves as senior adviser to CEDAC for the organic rice value chain.
“The goal is to promote org-anically produced rice and to assure its quality,’’ he says.
“With the help of GIZ, we implemented an internal control system where the farmer has to document that it is really organic, which means no contamination of pesticides or chemicals.
“This allows them to export the rice to the United States.”
Bredehoeft says CEDAC has a social-enterprise component, which runs 12 CEDAC shops in Phnom Penh and sells to outlets including Lucky Markets.
“At CEDAC, the main purpose is agriculture development, rural development and the main tool is providing knowledge, teaching on different levels and in organic techniques in agriculture.
“It is funded by JICA, the EU, from the German organisation DWHH and the EED of the Lutheran Church of Germany.
“Internationally, Cambodia is still a small player.
“The impact and the chance in this rice export business is that you can get 30 or 40 per cent more money per tonne for organic rice. There is an extra value you can put on.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s goal is to export one million tonnes in 2015.
“Here we have the possibil-ity to put more value into this export goal and also to focus on the national market, because a lot of milled rice is still imported from Vietnam and Thailand.”
Scheewe, who spent time in the Philippines experimenting with organic rice, says the method is easy and dovetails nicely with SRI technology (System of Rice Intensification) of the type supp-orted by Oxfam and other development agencies.
“Rice can be grown without much trouble organically,” Scheewe says.
“The trick is that you have to get your soil into good shape somehow. The soil supplies the nutrients to the rice, and then it is less susceptible to pests.
“Cambodia still has to invest a lot to make rice farming more efficient.
“The SRI method gets the plants to develop deeper roots, and the trick is to transplant early and give it enough space to develop those deep roots to get the nutrients. Then they can survive during dry spells.”
Although only 0.2 per cent of the rice grown in Cambodia is organic, Scheewe and Bredehoeft see a big benefit for growers: not having to spend money on fertilisers or pesticides which, from an organic point of view, create a vicious cycle.
“Farmers apply chemical fertiliser, the plant grows well, but the weeds too grow well, insects come, that creates the need to use pesticides and in the end people get sick,” Scheewe says.
Scheewe and Bredehoeft promote the use of cattle urine mixed with selected leaves, which acts as a natural pesticide and strengthens the plants.
“Insects also don’t like it, and farmers are being taught to use their own resources.” Scheewe says.
The System of Rice Inten-sification (SRI) and organic growing are strongly connected, according to Scheewe.
“One thing is that SRI says you have to grow your rice in rows, so this enables you to work it mechanically for weeding so you don’t have to use herbicides.”
Bredehoeft says that if you take the case of Germany, the farmers who grow according to organic principles have a voice in government – something he would like to see take hold in Cambodia.
“If you look at the production side in Cambodia, if you go organic and there is only one field surrounded by other non-organic fields where they are applying pesticides, it may be impossible due to the likely pollution.
“In Germany and other European countries, the governments support the organic sector. This is missing in Cambodia. There is a chance here, and talks with the government have started.Bredehoeft, an agricultural economist who formerly worked in potato-seed production and as a sales manager for German seed com-pany Solana, hopes the Cambodian government will adopt a set of organic standards that will help farmers who want to grow organic So far, CEDAC has obtained certification for organic rice to be exported from an international certifier.
“COrAA is representing Cambodia in the discussion for an Asia-wide organic standard,’’ Bredehoeft says.
“We hope the government will join future meetings, because a common organic standard would be of great help for all exporters of organic products.”
One problem with pesticides in Cambodia is that they are often misused by farmers because the labels and instructions are often printed in Thai or Vietnamese but not in Khmer.
“We have a decree that the labels have to be in Khmer,” Scheewe says.
“In organic farming we promote that you fertilise the soil, not the plant, and the soil is able to apply to the plant.”
Farmers have fewer health problems when they grow by organic methods, Bredehoeft says.
“We have a market approach from which the farmers benefit indirectly; CEDAC will buy your paddy and will pay 10 per cent more than market price.”
CEDAC has a contract with two rice mills.
“The challenge, I think, in Cambodia if you think of organic agriculture and the rice mills, is that you need a strict management so that organic rice is not mixed with conventional produce. The organic value chain requires documentation on all levels,” Bredehoeft says.
Scheewe sees a huge potential for organic production because many farmers are still using very little inputs.
“There is a figure that says 20 per cent of rain-fed rice fields do not see any fertiliser, but this kind of rice product-ion is not sustainable.
“If the farmers could learn a little more how to manage the land better, productivity could increase. Cambodia has the potential to supply 20 per cent of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s target as organic rice.”
Scheewe says that, as organic rice promoters, they fully support the idea that Cambodia needs to invest more in rice infrastructure and keep as much as possible in the country to add value in this country and to provide sufficient employment.
“My recommendation to the government is to look at the opportunities of organic production. It’s a niche market, but the advantage of organic is that you don’t get in trouble with other parts of the environment.
“For the sake of the producers’ and consumers’ health, let’s hope we can find more markets abroad for Cambod-ian organic rice.”
Scheewe adds that he hopes to meet importers from other countries who have an eye for organics at the Cambodia Rice Forum.
Bredehoeft says the org-anic challenge for Cambodia is to enable the certification of organic rice and to organise the whole market.
“In Germany, organic is about six per cent of the whole production. If you assume one million tonnes in 2015, 10 per cent is 100,000 tonnes at $300 more a tonne.
“That means there is the possibility of an extra $30 million a year coming into the Cambodian economy.”
Most pesticides and fertilisers have to be imported, and the energy to produce fertilisers is costly, and there’s no control of importation, org-anic proponents say, adding that organic rice contributes less to greenhouse gases.
Provinces with organic rice potential include Takeo, Kampot, Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Pursat and even Battambang, from which about 3,000 tonnes a year of Cambodian certified organic rice are already produced.