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Ministry produce plan comes up short

Vendors prepare stalls for selling fresh vegetables and fruits at Phnom Penh's Phsar Doeum Kor Market.
Vendors prepare stalls for selling fresh vegetables and fruits at Phnom Penh's Phsar Doeum Kor Market. Sahiba Chawdhary

Ministry produce plan comes up short

A $20 million Ministry of Agriculture programme has struggled to meet its goal of introducing 160 tonnes a day of high-quality locally produced vegetables to the market, with ministry officials saying that as a result of high production costs and pricing issues it was currently supplying less than a third of that amount.

The Boosting Food Production programme, a three-year initiative launched in mid-2016, had set a goal of supplying the local market with 160 tonnes a day of vegetables that meet international quality and safety standards.

Kean Sophea, deputy director of the Department of Horticulture and Subsidiary Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, said that while the programme had so far signed on 2,060 farmers and 260 rice cooperatives, disagreements between farmers and buyers over prices had led to its poor performance.

“Farmers are ready to farm and sell following our food safety standards, but buyers complain about the higher prices and consumers are not happy either,” he said.

“The main challenge is still between farmer, buyer and consumer and until that is solved we will only be able to supply 50 tonnes per day.”

The three-year programme was meant to reinvigorate vegetable farming following the Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) standards created by the Ministry of Agriculture that focus on 13 priority crops that include lettuce, chili, bok choy, tomato, cucumber and zucchini. It was also intended to reduce import dependence, with Sophea estimating that Cambodia imports between 500 to 600 tonnes of vegetables a day from neighbouring countries.

“We need support from buyers and consumers to make this plan a success,” he said. “They have to appreciate quality rather than being concerned over price while we still need to find a way to reduce the cost of production and promote food safety.”

He added that farmers that follow the GAP standards, which limit the amount of chemicals and fertiliser used in the field, claim their production costs are more than twice those of the farmers who produce the poorly regulated chemically rich imports.

The Boosting Food Production programme is one of a slew of projects that aim to develop the commercial viability of horticulture in rural Cambodia. USAID Cambodia launched its $17 million Feed the Future Cambodia Harvest II late last month, a five-year programme that uses a buyer-led approach to identify potential commercial opportunities in its four selected provinces of Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap and Kampong Thom. In August, New Zealand offered to provide a $6.5 million grant for a five-year commercial horticulture project aimed at helping organic fruit and vegetable farmers find local buyers.

In May, the government and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) launched a six-year joint project with $36 million to develop agricultural value chains and assist smallholder farmers in gaining access to markets.

IFAD country programme officer Meng Sakphouseth said yesterday that these programmes face similar challenges as they attempt to increase crop diversification while building an industry that allows domestic products to enter the supply chain.

“[The challenges] are really concerning, not only for farmers but also for consumers,” he said. “There is no trust in food safety standards and there is a complete lack of enforcement while consumers complain about higher prices for safe vegetables.”

“We need time to solve the problem and promote food safety awareness, while there needs to be government action that reduces vegetable imports in order for these plans to succeed,” he said.

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