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Push to reduce chemical dependency

A farmer harvests his rice crop in a paddy field in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district in early 2015.
A farmer harvests his rice crop in a paddy field in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district in early 2015. Vireak Mai

Push to reduce chemical dependency

The Ministry of Agriculture is working to develop a procedural framework for the trade and use of biological control agents (BCAs) in agriculture in an effort to improve crop yields, protect consumer health and ensure continued access to key export markets. Regulation could also create opportunities for the import or local production of BCA products a possibility that has piqued the interest of foreign firms.

Speaking yesterday at a consultative meeting on regulations and national registration of biological control agents, Sam Chhom Sangha, deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Agriculture, said the use of BCAs could provide “holistic” support to Cambodia’s struggling agriculture sector, which he claimed had been damaged by the overuse of chemical agents.

“We need to find ways to boost agricultural productivity, encourage crop resilience and diversification and improve commercialisation,” he said.

“Our fields are under-producing and this is because the soil has been damaged by years of reckless use of chemicals.”

Biological control agents are an integral part of pest management programs that use natural mechanisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, algae or natural insect predators to protect crops from devastating plant diseases and insect infestations. While already in limited use in Cambodia, a regulatory framework on the trade and use of BCAs would facilitate the import of these products and provide solid footing for local production.

“BCAs can improve our yields once we finalise and implement their regulation, allowing our farmers to be less dependent on chemical pesticides,” explained Sangha.

The Ministry of Agriculture is working with regional experts to draft a national regulatory framework on biological control agents based on ASEAN guidelines.

Sangha said the government must speed up its adoption of regulations or risk challenges to its agricultural exports as countries tighten restrictions on the import of contaminated products.

In one recent example, the European Commission has given Cambodian producers of white rice until June and fragrant rice until December to eliminate the use of the fungicide Tricyclazole. Failure to comply could block rice export shipments to the European Union, the Kingdom’s largest market for milled rice.

Thomas Jaekel, a regional GIZ expert, said BCAs offers farmers an “economically and environmentally viable” way to increase yields by building crop resilience and improving soil quality. However, convincing Cambodian farmers to cut back on their chemical fertilisers and pesticides can be a challenge.

“BCAs are used to complement, not eradicate, the use of chemicals, but the problem is that Cambodian farmers and distributors of chemicals are convinced that the more you spray your crops the better they will be,” he said.

Jaekel noted that when Indonesia adopted ASEAN regulations in 2014 and set up the procedures for properly registering products, there was a massive uptake in applications for BCA products.

“A week after the BCA regulation was approved in Indonesia, they had already over 10 applications from foreign and local firms trying to register their products,” he said.According to GIZ data, the Indonesian government receives almost 200 applications annually.

Sarah Anderson, a Singapore-based research and development project manager for German industrial giant BASF, said that despite BCAs having a limited market in ASEAN, there was plenty of room to grow. She said BASF, which has an entire arm dedicated to research and development of BCA products, would consider exporting to Cambodia if clear regulations were put in place.

“The problem is that there is still a gap between government intentions and those of the traditional chemical distributors,” she said. “Easily 5 percent of the pesticide market in Cambodia could be replaced by bio-pesticides.”

However, she said the use of the products hinged on the government cutting red tape. “If the regulations are too strict or large companies see that costs are too high, they won’t enter the market,” she said.

Ieng Sotheara, founder of Entree Baitang Co Ltd, said local demand for BCAs was growing. His company has been distributing Trichoderma – a naturally occurring fungicide that also protects plants against pests and toxins for the last two harvest cycles.

Last year, the company sold 100 tonnes of compost impregnated with Trichoderma. This year it has orders for 500 tonnes.

Sotheara said he sells the locally-produced Trichoderma at $12 per kilo, or $400 per tonne when mixed with compost.

“Some of the rice farmers say that it has increased their yields by 20 percent,” he said.

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