International Labor Organization monitoring of the garment industry helped Cambodia develop a niche market with foreign buyers wanting to work with sweatshop-free suppliers.
The Commerce Ministry is now studying ways to capitalize on the European Union’s aversion to genetically-modified foods to the advantage of Cambodian farmers.
But their enthusiasm may be premature, an independent analyst said, because Cambodia still needs to invest in basic agricultural infrastructure before niche organic products are ready for export.
“We are pushing for organic farming…to compete with neighboring countries that now already are involved in genetically modified organisms,” Commerce Secretary of State Sok Siphana said Tuesday. “If we export organic products to the EU, we will receive higher prices than by exporting chemical-produced foods to other countries.”
GMOs are, for the most part, plants containing genes that have been modified by scientists in order to resist disease or insects.
Last year the EU ended a six-year ban on all new GMO imports into its estimated $1 trillion food market, but a complex and costly approval process awaits any producers of genetically modified crops hoping to sell to the EU.
Currently no GMO rice has been approved for import in the EU, and recent surveys indicate that between 70 percent and 80 percent of Europeans oppose the introduction of GMO food into their markets. Europeans fear allergies and unknown diseases from crop seed that may contaminate the fields of native farmers.
Sok Siphana said the EU has committed itself to no tax or quotas for organic food products by 2009. To be certified as organic, a product must also be produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
Independent economist Kang Chandararot, director of the Cambodia Institute for Development Study, said, “Cambodian agriculture has no choice and no chance to compete with neighboring countries, because they have modernized agriculture, but with…chemicals. The Cambodian government sees that the only way to compete in…agriculture is through organic products.”
But basic infrastructure is still missing, he said.
“The government has to do many things,” Chandararot said. “The price of electricity and other costs have to be lowered in order to reduce the operation costs. Without the irrigation system in place, [an] organic product campaign will not work.”
But agriculture Secretary of State Chan Tong Yves said Cambodia has been “familiar with organic farming for many years…
and now the world’s consumers are back looking for natural food products.”
The government is beginning campaigns to promote chemical-free farming, and several provinces are ready to produce organic products using compost and cow dung, he said.
Birgitt Boor, a German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) expert helping the government draw up a national organic farming action plan, said this week that GMOs make no sense for Cambodian farmers.
“GMO seeds are more expensive…. GMO may be optimal for high-tech industrialized farming but not for small farming,” she said.
She said that some EU countries may in the future ban all imports of certain Cambodian products if GMO seeds are used at all here.
According to Sok Siphana only one company currently exports agricultural products to the EU—Angkor Rice of Kandal Province began shipping to the EU last year.
Local NGO Chamroeun Cheat Khmer began an organic farming program 3 years ago with 83 families in Takeo province. Director Um Sokhun said this week he plains to expand the program to 11 more villages. He also said that organic techniques are more productive.
“With compost fertilizer, farmers increased their yield from 2.5 tons per hectare to 4.5 tons per hectare,” he said.
Hong Long, whose self-named company announced an $80 million farming joint venture in Battambang in January, said that while Chinese experts will introduce high-yield rice seed into his plantation, the seeds will be GMO-free.
“Cambodia does not need pesticide to protect the crop because we have frogs, snakes and birds,” he said.