Pepper industry insiders are eager for general improvements in the quality and quantity of locally-grown peppercorn sold to overseas markets, following a call from agricultural authorities to owners of plantations as well as processing and packaging plants, along with cooperatives, to apply for approval to export the commodity to mainland China.

The “Protocol of Phytosanitary Requirements for Export of Peppercorns from Cambodia to China” was signed on November 9 between Chinese Customs and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, marking a major step towards the official export of domestically-produced peppercorn to the Chinese market.

The ministry’s General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA) issued the call in a December 12 statement, saying that officials will review the plantations and facilities of applicants for compliance with the protocol.

Before the first batches of peppercorn leave Cambodian shores, the GDA must send a list of approved plantations and facilities to Chinese authorities for additional review, which it plans to do in early January, according to the statement.

Cambodian Pepper and Spices Federation (CPSF) president Mak Ny speculated that the agriculture ministry could put “experts and Chinese buyers” in direct contact with applicants “for the export process”.

He told The Post on December 14 that Cambodia currently exports peppercorn to markets such as Vietnam, Europe, the US, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Middle East, affirming that some of the product shipped to Vietnam tends to make its way into mainland China.

“This marks the next step towards market access to China for Cambodian pepper, taking into account that Cambodia has historically been heavily reliant on Vietnam for export to China,” he said.

However, a continuing downtrend in pepper prices over recent years has led to increased negligence in cultivation, maintenance and investment planning, Ny rued.

High production costs have also made it prohibitively difficult to compete with neighbouring countries on the global market, he added.

“I’d like to ask the agriculture ministry to help create a blueprint for farmers to produce peppercorn at lower costs and … make a profit,” Ny said, noting that prices in the past “two or three years” have been particularly low.

He said that the average per-kg going-rate for regular-grade black pepper is now 10,000-11,000 riel ($2.44-2.69), as opposed to 16,000-17,000 riel in the year-ago period.

Pepper vines usually reach fruit-bearing age 18 months after planting and remain productive in fruiting for up to 20 years, he shared.

Among the varieties cultivated in the Kingdom, Kampot pepper is the most highly-prized, grown in the namesake coastal province, and remains the sole cultivar protected under national geographical indication (GI). The Kampot Pepper Promotion Association (KPPA) is in charge of managing this GI.

KPPA president Nguon Lay doesn’t see the Kampot pepper industry significantly profiting from the mainland Chinese market, given the spice’s higher price tag compared to regular-grade product, as well as strong demand from existing markets, especially Europe, the US, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The per-kilogramme prices for Kampot peppercorn have remained the same for several years, at $15 for black, $25 for red and $28 for white, he noted.

He explained that Kampot pepper is usually harvested each year between the beginning of January and end-July, adding that production in 2022 reached the typical amount of “more than 100 tonnes”, some 80 tonnes of which had been exported as of December 14.

“At any rate, I’d like to encourage anyone wishing to export to the Chinese market to register as soon as possible, to boost exports,” Lay said.

The agriculture ministry reported that overall peppercorn exports reached 7,704.25 tonnes in the January-October period, marking a 72.12 per cent year-on-year decline from 27,633.77 tonnes, with Vietnam buying the lion’s share at 6,645.78 tonnes or 86.26 per cent, followed by Germany, the US, Taiwan and France.