Prime Minister Hun Sen scolded Cambodians for complaining about pesticides contaminating their vegetables during a one-hour speech in Siem Reap yesterday, stating that the solution is simply not to buy contaminated vegetables.
Speaking at the grand opening of the Sokha Hotel in Siem Reap, the premier said that people “choose vegetables that look good and then blame the government”.
“Sometimes I think it’s an extremist request,” he added. “You decide to buy [the vegetables] by yourself and to cook them by yourself – why blame the government?”
Pesticide-contaminated produce is a documented problem in Cambodia and many other Southeast Asian countries. In 2011, researchers from Hong Kong and China found high concentrations of harmful pesticides in vegetables and meat in Cambodia.
Cambodia also imports several hundred tonnes of cheap produce from Vietnam and Thailand every day, often under lax regulations, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Policy Studies.
“There are no controls or checks to determine whether that produce has chemicals or not,” said Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Kean Sophea, who is heading a $20 million project to boost organic farming in Cambodia.
According to a study released in March by the Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, just 0.2 percent of the total agricultural land in Cambodia is used to grow organic produce.
“We know that is difficult for people to avoid pesticides if they don’t have enough time,” Sophea said.
Claudius Bredehoeft, a Cambodia-based national project coordinator for German development agency GIZ, said the government needs to do more to educate Cambodian farmers about the health consequences of pesticide use.
A 2015 study by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture found that virtually all pesticide retailers surveyed were unaware about bans on certain pesticides, and Cambodian farmers often used them liberally without instruction or training.
“Sometimes, the labels are written in Vietnamese or Chinese, so the farmer cannot read the instructions even though Cambodian law requires full labelling in Khmer,” he said.
The premier’s comments drew scorn yesterday from some consumers, who said it isn’t easy to distinguish which vegetables are safe to eat.
“It’s not just me – other housewives are concerned about the same thing,” said 56-year-old Prak Somean, from Phnom Penh. “It’s not right that the government says it’s not their fault. It’s their responsibility to make sure before they allow imports from other countries.”
Additional reporting by Daphne Chen