The agriculture ministry is pushing to modernise the agricultural sector with a focus on managing and preventing potential labour-related issues as the share of the labour force employed in agriculture dips to 35 per cent and is expected to decline further down the line.

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokesman Srey Vuthy said this at a press conference on the ministry’s results and achievements over the past five years, organised by the Government Spokesperson Unit and held at the Council of Ministers on July 19.

Vuthy said that the strategy of the agriculture ministry to ensure that the agricultural workforce remains sustainable is to modernise the agricultural sector so that it is less labour intensive.

“Ten years ago, the total labour force in agriculture was at more than 50 per cent, but now it’s only at 35 per cent, so it is going down. If your question is whether it will go back up or not, I can tell you the answer is that it will not.

“Agriculture labour numbers will continue to trend downwards and are expected to reach between 20 and 25 per cent by 2030. The number of Cambodians in the agricultural labour force is declining, as indeed it must,” he said.

He stated that in order to maintain agricultural output and productivity with a smaller labour force the management and the methods used in the agricultural sector must be modernised.

Vuthy said that today many young people migrate to work abroad, which leaves only the older people to continue farming. Older people cannot farm very easily or very well on their own if they can do so at all and they then must rely on external agricultural services, such as renting machinery and hiring its operators to plough their fields and harvest them, which is an increasing trend in Cambodia.

“Our strategy to keep our agricultural workforce afloat is to first modernise our agricultural sector,” he said.

He said younger farmers in Cambodia have begun to use the high-tech skills necessary to manage their increasingly modern agricultural enterprises.

He raised as one example the students at the Royal University of Agriculture who went to Israel to study agricultural methods directly on farms there for one or two years.

Vuthy said that through this study abroad programme the students were able to absorb the knowledge and skills about modern technology necessary to form and operate a modern agricultural enterprise in their localities.

“Those who go abroad and return have invested the time necessary to learn these skills as young farmers to use modern technology. Those young farmers who are so-called agricultural entrepreneurs are already doing things the modern way now and they will continue to do so and to refine their specific skills.

“The workforce in agriculture will not be as large, but the workforce that remains will become more skilled at doing things like controlling drones and using other modern technology to perform the labour-intensive tasks involved with agriculture. The modern agricultural sector will be growing day-by-day and its technology and methods will replace much of the labour force.

“So, regarding the labour issues in the agricultural sector, we think it’s going to be okay and we can solve it by modernising,” he said.

Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), said that about 10 years ago, the agricultural labour force in Cambodia was mostly adults who were engaged in subsistence farming, but as Cambodia developed further these energetic young peasants left the countryside for jobs in the cities and some migrated abroad.

“I observe that the challenge of labour shortages continues despite the Ministry of Agriculture wanting to modernise the agricultural sector and this is still leading to problems for the development of the agricultural sector in Cambodia,” he said.

He said that in order to solve this problem, the agriculture ministry and other relevant ministries should do their best to encourage young farmers in rural areas by providing both technical assistance and capital to invest in modernising as well as scholarships and increased opportunities for professional development in agriculture at the local level.

According to a report released by the agriculture ministry at the conference, the growth of the agricultural sector in the context of Covid-19 remained strong and was a benefit to Cambodia’s economic growth.

The agricultural sector’s total value increased from 18,999 billion riel in 2012 to 20,986 billion riel in 2017 and it continued its increase to 24,755 billion riel in 2021, for an annual increase of approximately 4 per cent per year.

By 2021, the sub-sector contribution of agriculture in GDP was 57.4 per cent in crops, 5.7 per cent in rubber, 11.4 per cent in animal production, 24.4 per cent in fisheries and 7.4 per cent in forestry, according to the same report.

In particular, rice production has grown at an average annual rate of about three per cent over the past 10 years. In 2021, the total area under rice cultivation nationwide reached 3.55 million hectares, or 4.41 per cent more than the previous year

The total rice yield in 2021 was 12.21 million tonnes or 11.6 per cent more compared to the previous year, and the rice surplus increased from 3.9 million tonnes in 2010 to 6.9 million tonnes in 2021.