Unchecked rice exports to Vietnam and Thailand could put a serious strain on food supplies in the country’s northwestern and southeastern provinces, agricultural officials say.
Agriculture officials emphasized the need to maintain planning for food shortages. They said rice exports must be checked even in times of plenty, and officials must realize that a nationwide surplus does not occur equally in all provinces.
While Cambodia’s 1998-99 rice production season is reported to have a slight surplus, agriculture officials interviewed recently said, surplus or not, they are concerned the amount of rice that farmers have been exporting into Vietnam and Thailand has been increasing in the last couple of months.
“We are very concerned about rice exports,” said Has Sok, deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s agronomy department Thursday. If farmers keep selling rice to foreign countries, they may not have enough to eat in the near future, he said.
Meanwhile, Kith Seng, deputy director of the ministry’s planning and statistics department, had a pessimistic forecast for the next harvest. He said Thursday that surpluses in some provinces should be reallocated to those with food shortages.
A total of 18.6 million hectares were planted during the past wet season, exceeding last year’s figures by 53,000 hectares, according to Teng Lav, undersecretary of state for agriculture.
But Kith Seng predicted this year’s yields could be much lower because of poor rains. Low water levels in lakes and rivers would not be able to irrigate rice paddies sufficiently, he said.
According to Reuters, this year’s dry season crop, now under cultivation and due to be harvested in a couple of months, is projected to produce 722,687 tons of paddy, compared to 742,321 tons last year.
“In general, we don’t have any food shortage because many more rice paddies were cultivated compared to ,” Kith Seng said. But he emphasized not all provinces had surpluses.
“A surplus should be shared with any province with shortages,” he said.
One problem is that the government does not control rice exports along the borders, Teng Lav said. While cross-border sales of rice by individual farmers is not illegal, Teng Lav said he has recommended that the government thoroughly examine rice exports and take immediate measures to stop the activity.
On the other hand, Ken Noah Davies, acting country director of the UN World Food Program, said that while he believed rice exports should be tracked and taxed, the amount of exports is in general so small it had a negligible impact on the food supply.
“A very rough estimate is, you have 100,000 tons going out, and at other times 50,000 tons coming in, with a probable net loss of about 40,000 to 50,000 tons. With an annual crop of about 2 million tons, a net loss of 50,000 tons doesn’t make too much of a difference,” he said.
Ultimately, he added, the level of the Cambodian rice supply had only an indirect connection to providing rice to people in need.
“If you have 50,000, 100,000, even 300,000 more tons of rice in the market, the people too poor to buy rice will still be too poor to buy rice,” he said. “Hunger and malnutrition is not related to production. It’s related to access.”