The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on August 13 released a selection of reassuring results of nearly a decade and a half of research on a hybrid rice variety found to be more resilient to climate change and produce significantly better yields than conventional cultivars.
Named after the captivating aromatic pearly-white tropical flower of the hardy gardenia evergreen shrub – also known by its botanical name Gardenia jasminoides, the “Phka Mealadei” cultivar has been a roaring success in its 10 years of experimental trials on farmers’ fields across the Kingdom.
Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Cardi) director Lor Bunna told The Post that Phka Mealadei is a seasonal, medium-term hybrid rice strain derived from a cross of the fragrant Phka Romduol – serving as the female line – and the Cambodian Rice 3 (CAR3) as the male line. Both parent varieties take medium duration to maturity as well.
Phka Mealadei has been tested on varied agroecosystems for 14 years, and the promising results being achieved prompted Cardi to release the seed to farmers in early 2018 for commercial use, he said.
When asked what motivated this hybridisation project, Bunna noted that the institute was keen to invest huge amounts of time if it meant developing a new, sturdy cultivar of the Asian staple that has a relatively high tolerance of water shortages and other climate change-associated stresses.
The wide adoption of Phka Mealadei could lead to a marked improvement in rice yields nationwide to feed Cambodia’s burgeoning population, as well as improve rural livelihoods and quality of life.
This would dovetail with the government’s greater efforts to build a supportive financial and market infrastructure for domestic agricultural products, in its drive to unlock the potential of the sector and develop it into a sustainable growth engine, as a major linchpin of the Kingdom’s economy.
Bunna added: “Broadly speaking, it’s for the market, owing to this type of rice’s hallmarks of magnificence, splendour, softness and delectability, and on top of that, its resilience to climate change shocks such as irregular rain patterns or regional water deficits – this variety is hardy.”
But large-scale hybrid rice seed production still requires refinement and a deeper understanding of market needs, and by and large remains priced out of reach for smallholder farmers.
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon noted in a Facebook post that this push for the adoption of Phka Mealadei has led to the creation of 220 demonstration farms that use the cultivar, as well as 12 registered seed producers and 11 other venues that exhibit the seeds.
These are all in the six target provinces of Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kampong Thom, Oddar Meanchey, Battambang and Pursat, the minister said.
The Australian government has given a major impetus to the initiative, pitching in funds since end-2018 through its Cambodia-Australia Agricultural Value Chain Program to fast-track the diffusion of the hybrid rice strain, he said, indicating that a total of 40 tonnes of seed have been produced thenceforth.
"According to the results from the 220 demonstration farms, the Phka Mealadei rice variety grows well. It increased yields around 14-27 per cent higher than long-term dry season cultivars,” he said, adding that 231 farmers have become direct beneficiaries of the project, either by obtaining genetically-pure first-generation hybrid seeds or the method to produce them.
For reference, the latest dry season crop reached about 2.93 million tonnes on a total cultivated area of 646,530ha, or an average of over 4.5 tonnes per hectare, according to General Directorate of Agriculture chief Ngin Chhay.
The minister claimed that 284 additional people have embraced the cultivar and are eager to work towards advancing its cultivation, processing, promotion and marketing come next season. This includes growers – mostly neighbours of farmers already cultivating the hybrid variety – traders, rice mill owners and agricultural extension officers, Sakhon said.
Bunna called on growers nationwide to consider delving into Phka Mealadei and diffusing the crop to other farmers, and to seek guidance from specialist officials each step of the way.
A number of rice associations have purchased first-generation seeds at around $3.50 per kg with intent to export, he said, noting that offspring grains grown by farmers fetch far lower rates.