For Cambodian organic farmer Por Koung, the journey to Bangkok was more than just a chance to exhibit his products at an international expo, it was an opportunity to glean some experience from fellow organic farmers in Thailand, a country that is spearheading the region’s commercialisation of organic agriculture.
Koung, CEO of Orchel Organic Farm, which produces organic pepper on an 80-hectare farm in Mondulkiri province, said Cambodia’s nascent organic agriculture sector has a lot to learn from Thailand’s better developed and regulated industry.
“In Thailand, organic cultivation and processing industries have grown together and are under strict government control, while in our country we’re still trying to set a basic standard for organic production,” he said.
Thailand’s organic agricultural sector is growing at about 7 percent a year. Last year, the country produced $80 million of organic food products, generating about a third of this revenue from exports. Cambodia, by comparison, produced less than $4 million in nominally organic food products last year excluding rice, with only two organic-certified products – Kampot pepper and Kampong Speu palm sugar – accounting for nearly all exports.
Although Thailand ranks as a top producer in Asean, its organic agricultural sector is just a drop in the bucket at the world level. The global organic food market is valued at over $80 billion, with organic sales in the US alone topping $47 billion last year.
Koung, whose products were on display last week at his small booth in the Organic and Natural Expo (ONE) 2017 in Bangkok, hopes to one day see his products on supermarket shelves in Europe and the US. And for that, he is watching closely how Thailand has built up its organic food sector.
He said Thailand’s farmers and investors had recognised the value and growing market opportunities of organic production, but most Cambodian farmers simply had not grasped the potential. Moreover, government officials were not much further along, offering little guidance and nothing in the way of a national standard.
“We have a lot of potential resources for organic farming, but we’re only selling the raw produce [and not value-added products],” he said. “We not only have a lack of government technical support, the capacity of our human resources is low, we face capital shortages, and the growth of processing industries is limited due to a lack of investor interest.”
Officials from Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce said during the ONE event that the country was implementing a strategy to raise the total organic farm area to nearly 100,000 hectares, and the number of organic farmers to 30,000, by 2021.
They said the government’s National Organic Agriculture Development Strategy 2017-2021, aims to “install Thailand as the internationally recognised and sustainable hub of organic manufacturing, consumption, trading and services in the Asean region”.
To achieve this, the ministry is establishing “organic villages”, where at least half of the local families are engaged in organic farming, consuming the products they produce and selling the surplus. Four organic villages have already been set up under the project, and the ministry plans to add another four every year.
Nong Bua Daeng Natural Dye Colours, an organic farming cooperative with 160 members and 80 hectares in Thailand’s Chaiyaphum province, was one among the first four organic villages to be established. Its director, Sasikul Onchavieng, said the government has offered full support in finding markets for the cooperative’s products and members were comforted knowing that the demand far outstrips supply.
However, quality control presents a challenge.“We are a model for an organic village so we need to comply with organic regulations and must follow up with our members to ensure compliance with the IFOAM standard,” she explained.
The IFOAM standard, though not strictly speaking a true accreditation scheme, is a global platform for organic standards that can be used to obtain certification and assure consumers of organic food quality.
Sasikul said the cooperative pays $600 to $900 every year for an IFOAM audit, but if even one farmer fails the inspection the entire cooperative fails. This would result in losing the non-refundable fee, but even more damaging would be the loss of consumer confidence.
So far, that has never happened. Wuttipong Krobbuaban, managing director of Phuchiangta Herbland Co Ltd, which cultivates various organic fruits and vegetables on a 10-hectare farm in Chaiyaphum province, said certification was essential for building the confidence of consumers. However, each export market has its own certification requirements, and the cost of the inspection visits can quickly add up.
“Since we adopted organic standards we have been able to add value to our products and worry less about finding a market for our products,” he said. “But every organic standard is different, and as a farmer and producer we must comply with all of them.”
Altogether, he estimated the certification inspections amount to about $2,400 a year.
That is relatively cheap compared to what Cambodian organic farmers are paying. Ochel’s Koung said he paid about twice that amount last year to get EU market certification from Ceres South East Asia Co Ltd. Moreover, in the absence of a national standard it has been entirely up to local organic farmers to select and adopt a certification scheme.
That could soon change, according to Kean Sophea, deputy director of the Horticulture Department at Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, who said the government was preparing to issue a national standard for organic agriculture.
“Our national organic agriculture standard will be adopted by the end of the year,” he said, adding that it “will build the trust of consumers and protect the interests of organic farmers.”