Hybrid Rice Could Revolutionize Farming

Farmer Phun Khet of Kandal province has heard reports of a new hybrid rice seed that can produce 10 times more rice than traditional seeds. And she is skeptical. She harvests her rice after six months and it produces about      2 tons per hectare.

“Unless they test it for us to see,” she said, “I won’t believe it.”

But Ted Ngoy, who brought the hybrid seed developed by Chinese agriculturists to Cambo­dia, is assuring farmers and government ministers alike that the reports about the hybrid are true.

The seed, available in three varieties, can produce 8 tons to 12 tons of rice per hectare every 90 to 100 days, said Ngoy, director of a nonprofit organization charged with developing Cambodia’s rice markets.

Seeds commonly used by Cam­­bodian farmers require a six-month harvest and yield an average of 1.9 tons per hectare.

Ngoy said the seed will yield enough rice to make Cambodia a high-volume rice exporter like neighboring Thailand and Viet­nam. He delivered his sales pitch for the hybrid recently at the of­fices of the Federation for Ad­vanced Agriculture Develop­ment of Cambodia, of which Ngoy is chairman.

Some 130 people, including ambassadors from Thailand, Malaysia and China, sat under a brightly colored tent and listened to Ngoy before sampling rice produced from the hybrid seed.

“It’s a new product but make no mistake: once you have some you will want to eat more,” Ngoy said.

His high-energy pitch was not enough to convince everyone that hybrids will bring prosperity to Cambodia’s long-suffering rice farmers, who have had to eke out a living using poor soil and poor quality seeds.

Farmers have been especially hard hit since the last year’s floods washed away their crops.

Some say a hybrid may boost a farmer’s yield by about 20 percent—not enough to yield 12 tons per hectare—and that weather and paddy conditions play a larger role in productivity.

“I don’t know about producing a 12-ton crop in Cambodia,” said Harry Nesbitt, project adviser for the International Rice Research Institute. He said Cambodian soil holds few nutrients in many places, and that high-yielding crops are only possible in some locations in Cambodia.

“I have seen 8 tons; the 8-ton crops are under irrigation,” he said. But just 10 percent of Cam­bodia’s rice crop is grown in irrigated paddies, Nesbitt said.

Lam Phun, 65, chief of Ang village where Phun Khet lives, said 50 of the 70 families in his village work in the rice fields. Most of them rely on rainwater, not irrigation, to grow their crops.

“I heard recently about the [hybrid] seed on the radio. I have only my wife who is old, so we can’t try it,” he said.

A rapid-growing seed was introduced to the village 10 years ago by Untac, he said. Some of the villagers tried it, at a cost of about $0.03 to $0.05 per kilogram, but they had to spend a lot of money pumping water into their paddies to grow rice from the seed, he said, and eventually dropped it.

Ngoy said skeptics will be convinced when large crops grown from the Chinese hybrid appear later this year.

His organization plans to sell the hybrid seed to Cambodian farmers, at $2.50 to $3 per kilogram of seed. (Rice farmers typically grow their own seed at little cost to themselves, but may pay up to $1 per kilogram for traditional rice seed to start a new paddy.)

Ngoy said the hybrid will do so well, in fact, that he’s concerned about finding markets for Cam­bodian rice. If farmers take to the hybrid seed and grow as much rice as he says is possible, they could quickly overwhelm domestic markets unless foreign buyers are found.

Demonstrating the temperamental nature of Southeast Asia’s rice market, prices dropped last week as farmers in the region harvested their wet-season crops.

Rice sold for about $89 a ton earlier this month, but fell to about $78 a ton this week, according to a Reuters report.

The hybrid seed was developed by Chinese agricultural experts in the Yunnan and Hunan provinces. The seeds will be grown there and exported to Cambodia, where farmers will have to buy new seeds for each crop.

Ngoy said the high yield of the hybrid seed has already been proven at Chinese rice farms and at experimental rice farms in several Cambodian provinces that he helped establish. The plan to develop a market for hybrid seeds in Cambodia began two years ago, Ngoy said.

The Federation for Advanced Agriculture Development of Cam­bodia has 10 branch offices throughout those provinces to teach farmers how to harvest the hybrid rice.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said he plans to invest $2,000 of his own money in an experimental 8-hectare paddy in Siem Reap to test the new hybrid.

“I believe in it already because I tasted it and its very good,” he said. If the rice yields as much as Ngoy claims, the $2,000 investment should return a crop worth $10,000, he said.

Ngam Chheuv, a farmer in Ang village, is ready to take the gamble. He said he has relied on a special rice seed he has grown for nearly 20 years. He can grow 5 tons of rice per hectare in 110 days, he said. He first got the special breed of rice from another farmer.

Ngam Chheuv said he would try the new hybrid next year and has already been approached by someone who offered to buy his hybrid crops for about $0.25 a kilogram, more than twice his usual per-kilogram return.

As for the $3 per kilogram cost of the hybrid seed, Ngam Chheuv said he would have to ask for a loan.



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