Organic has been a buzz word bandied around the West for decades, and now the trend has spread its green fingers to Cambodia as more farmers become equipped to cater to the increasing global need. By Marissa Carruthers
As the organic movement continues to grow internationally, Cambodia is stepping up its game in a bid to compete on the global market. An increasing number of farmers are going organic with their production, attracting higher prices from exports to Europe, the US and Asia.
“When we first started selling organic produce, people laughed at us,” says Sam Vitou, executive director of the Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC), which launched in 1997 to provide farmers with training in organic standards and farming.
In 2003, it opened its first organic store selling vegetables after spending six years training and working with farmers to produce organic food. Today, it operates eight stores across Phnom Penh, also selling fish, chicken, rice and other organic meat and local produce.
“ The domestic organic movement has grown very fast, and that is to do with the growing middle class and awareness,” adds Vitou, who has watched CEDAC spread from working with 28 farmers in two villages in 1999 to 160,000 farmers in 7,000 Cambodian villages today.
The organisation, along with Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA), also helps farmers to export goods, setting globally recognised certi cations and carrying out rigorous inspections to ensure they meet global standards to export to the US, Europe and other Asian countries, such as Vietnam and China.
“ The organic movement started globally in the 1960s and 1970s with the hippies,” says Talmage Payne, a board member of COrAA and co-owner of Discovery Farms and Farm to Table. “But there is the common misconception that it’s a health thing.”
Although providing healthier produce can be a ripple effect of organic farming, the core principles are concerned with the ecology of production, improved soils, no pesticides or chemicals, and keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum.
Before organic farming can begin, the soil must be chemical-free for three to four years (EU and US standards respectively), with organic farming starting the following year. Organic farmers must also use green manure, where crops are planted to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and guarantee there is no cross contamination from neighbouring farms and other non-or- ganic crops. Planting, harvesting, processing, transporting and marketing must also conform to set standards.
If all of these criteria are met, then goods can be classified organic by CEDAC or COrAA, with standards based on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. is involves independent auditors performing scheduled and on-the-spot site visits to ascertain conformity to organic standards by inspecting the land for banned substances, analysing the presence of insects, reviewing pest control, soil fertility and contamination risks, as well as looking at producers’ understanding of farming techniques.
Despite the growing market, with the number of hectares dedicated to organic agriculture in Cambodia rising from 8,084 in 2010 to 9,889 in 2013, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), there remain challenges.
The lack of incentives to produce organic food for the local market remains the highest. While exporting organic goods can command higher prices, the domestic market is unprepared to pay a premium for produce. “Farmers have to fork out money to get their produce certified,” says Payne. “They have to put in a lot of effort into conforming to standards and making changes to their techniques, and then their goods command the same price as non-organic produce in local markets. There is no real incentive.”
To encourage farmers to go organic, CEDAC pays higher prices for produce. For example, on average one tonne of rice will fetch between $200 and $250, while CEDAC buy from members for about $400 per tonne.
Another challenge sits in the quality of produce, with many organic farmers “cheating”, according to Vitou. Chemical and synthetic materials are often used to fertilise, and for pest control on vegetables grown in Cambodia and imported from Vietnam. A 2010 study of pesticide residues in Cambodian market vegetables by Doug Graber Neufeld, biology professor at Eastern Mennonite University in the US, confirmed that consumers are regularly exposed to traces, although levels vary depending on the vegetable, farm condition and pesticide used.
However, as attitudes change in the Kingdom and more people start to understand the bene ts organic produce brings, the tide is turning. “More Cambodians are starting to understand exactly what organic is,” says Vitou, who also runs a programme through CEDAC to work with consumers who can visit organic farms and learn about the process. “ is also helps farmers to understand the needs of consumers.”
High fuel prices, a lack of governmental support implementing irrigation schemes, especially in the current drought conditions, and competing with countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, which boast 37,490 and 33,840 hectares, as of 2013, respectively, have also proved problematic.
“ There is strong growth and potential for organics in Asia, and I think Cambodia is uniquely positioned to respond to this niche,” says Payne. “Until the problems of transparency in the local market are fixed, Cambodia organics will primarily be an export market.”
In September, Confirel’s Kampot pepper plantations were certified organic by international organisation Ecocert SA in compliance with European, Japanese and American standards. “Organic agriculture is the best way to promote the products of the Cambodian countryside on the global market and to improve the incomes of our peasants,” says Dr Hay Ly Eang, Confirel founder and chair.
The Confirel pepper plantations are the first to get a certification from the EU, Japan and the US. e organic pepper certification is in addition to the company’s organic sugar palm from Kampong Speu, and other products, which take in sugar palm sweets, wine, vinegar and spirits. Other organic moves in the Kingdom see eco-friendly Ibis rice currently undergoing the process to be certi ed organic for the international market.
“ This is important for the Cambodian agriculture in its whole because that gives a strong opportunity to promote Cambodian products on the global market,” Eang adds. “What is good for our products is good for our peasants and, nally, for our country. Ultimately that is what we want.”
What is Organic?
Contrary to common belief that organic produce equals healthier food, with no scientific evidence to prove this, organic farming in fact refers to the process from before planting to distributing
the final product. while standards vary across the globe, organic agriculture generally features biological and mechanical practices that promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers are not allowed, and, as a general rule, organic food is not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or synthetic food additives. additional elements include cutting down on the carbon footprint during distribution and going green with marketing campaigns and packaging.