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Rice industry caught in flux

Labourers pour rice onto a mat for drying
Labourers pour rice onto a mat for drying at a farm in Kandal’s Muk Kampoul district in March. Hong Menea

Rice industry caught in flux

The rice industry's quest for greater quality at lower cost reached a dead end yesterday at a conference in Phnom Penh, with exporters and farmers polarised on how to achieve greater returns for the industry.

The workshop, titled "Improving Rice Value Chain and Enhancing Farmers’ Livelihoods", was attended by more than 70 farmer representatives, businesses and government officials. On one side exporters want farmers to provide a better-quality rice grain, but on the other, farmers cannot afford the premium to pay for the higher-quality seed.

Hun Lak, president of rice exporter Mekong Oryaza Trade, urged farmers to be more selective when choosing their seeds to produce better-quality rice.

“Good-quality rice can be sold at a higher price,” he said. “Quality rice can also help [rice exporters] to find markets easier and also help us to compete in the market.”

Fellow exporters and rice millers supported Lak’s view, including Vong Bunheng, president of Heng Heng Rice Miller, who said millers cannot continue to pay farmers for poor-quality rice.

“Buyers only want the long and less chalky rice. Currently only 30 per cent of stock is salable as premium grade. Where can I sell the remaining 60 per cent?” he said.

Kan Vesna, a farmers representative from Battambang province, rebutted the millers concerns, saying millers systematically reducing prices across the industry created little incentive for farmers to improve their crops.

“Using quality seed and proper farming techniques means higher production costs, and if they are going to sell their paddy at the same price as other farmers, why should they do it?” he argued.

Ly Eng, another farmers representative from Battambang, said a lack of funds to afford good seeds meant standards would remain the same.

“Good selection seeds are expensive, and most of the farmers’ knowledge with farming technique is still very limited,” he said.

Eng called on rice millers to lift their buying price.

“When you give higher prices, farmers can use the money to improve their farming. Farmers will be able to cease practising outdated, traditional farming techniques,” he added.

Hean Vanhorn, the deputy director for the General Department of Agriculture, said the farming community should come together and stock quality seed for future harvests.

“It starts with a strong rice-farmer community. [The government] will be able to provide help to train farmers on farming techniques,” he said, adding that the government wouldn’t subsidise seed.

“I have listened to the comments of the speakers here. They are all very good, but to answer our question on how to get farmers to use quality seed – after the discussion this morning, it is not still answered yet,” said farmers representative Eng at the close of the debate.

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