TBONG KHMUM DISTRICT, Tbong Khmum province – Nuon Ry, a farmer in rural Chirou village, stripped the husk off a cob of corn on Sunday to reveal a perfect set of bulging seeds and tossed it onto the golden pile of identical cobs behind her.
Ms. Ry, who has been farming corn for four years, said her remarkably uniform crop is the fruit of hybrid seeds sold by Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand (CP).
The alternative, using seeds that are openly pollinated, is not nearly as alluring.
“This is what we get with regular seeds,” Ms. Ry said, holding up an anemic, patchy cob.
“We can’t remain competitive with produce like that. The buyers are not interested.”
Although hybrid corn seeds, which produce greater uniformity and disease resistance in crops, are nothing new in Cambodia, the market for them has been steadily expanding and has now almost fully engulfed the country’s corn industry.
Ms. Ry is one of the many farmers in this corn-producing province who in recent years has turned to using the products of seed giants CP and Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont.
But corn grown from hybrid seeds does not produce seeds that can be used for high-quality crops the next season, so new seeds must be purchased for each planting. And as seed prices increase each year while corn prices fall, farmers are finding it tough to turn a profit.
Ms. Ry said that despite the gradual decline of corn prices—to about $0.19 per kg for this year’s harvest—farmers have little option but to use the seeds that are rising in cost by about $0.25 per kg per year. Many farmers, she said, have given up and left the area for construction and fishing jobs in Thailand.
“The people don’t want to grow corn anymore,” she said. “And if the price goes down to 600 riel [about $0.15] per kg we will have no choice but to seek work in Thailand also.”
A report by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) in 2012 said that hybrid seeds dominate about 90 to 95 percent of maize grown in Cambodia. CP, which was the first company to introduce hybrid seeds to the country, has the lion’s share of the market with 70 to 80 percent while the remainder of the market is divided up between Pioneer and a number of Vietnamese companies, according to ACIAR.
“I think most of the seeds are hybrid. Now there is no conventional seed availability on the market,” said Claudius Bredehoft, a project coordinator at the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).
Hybrid seeds, which are engineered through the fertilization of one variety of a plant with the pollen from another, also produce significantly higher yields than non-hybrid seeds.
“Due to high use of hybrid seeds, average yields of maize grown in Cambodia are about 4.0-4.5 tons/hectare, close to yields in Thailand and Vietnam,” according to an ACIAR report.
However, there are also significant drawbacks.
“Negative aspects [of hybrid seeds] are that farmers must buy seed for every crop. They cannot save the seed or it will not grow true to type and instead revert to the diverse parent lines that have been bred into the hybrid,” said Iean Russell, project manager at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Scott Kinear, director of the Safe Food Foundation, an Australia-based advocacy group, said hybrid seeds also present a significant threat to food security in the country.
“Hybrid seeds by themselves are a threat to food sovereignty more than the environment,” he said. “People are forced to buy seed rather than save and develop their own seed lines adapted to their locale.”
Beholden largely to Vietnamese and Thai buyers, who demand the quality and consistency of hybrid plants, farmers have little option but to keep buying from the hybrid seed suppliers each year. For most farmers, growing open-pollinated (OP) plants is simply not an option.
“Another point that doesn’t usually get discussed is that it is not possible to grow an OP and keep pure seed if the neighbors are growing hybrids or different OPs. So OPs are not a realistic option unless the whole community agrees to grow the same variety,” said Bob Martin, a farmer and agriculture expert living in Cambodia.
But even hybrid seeds do not always deliver on their promised yields. And high-tech companies like Pioneer are starting to gain a larger market share.
Morm Leang Hai, who has a 2-hectare plot of farmland in Tbong Khmum district, has been using a variety of hybrid seeds since she started farming 10 years ago but has had to switch to different varieties as the promise of each brand wore off.
“When I started using CP seed type 888, I had high yields, but now they’ve dwindled so I’ve changed to using Pioneer seeds,” she said. Ms. Hai was reaping about 10 tons of corn in two harvests each year, but that figure had fallen to 8 tons until she switched two years ago. With Pioneer’s 30k95 seeds, she can harvest about 14 tons a year. But not without a price.
If she buys the Pioneer seeds from one of three local distributors before planting, she pays 18,000 riel, or $4.50, per kg. If she pays post-harvest, the price is 20,000 riel, or $5. She needs around 100 kg of seeds per year.
“The price of the seeds is very high, but what can I do?”
Pioneer, the agriculture arm of U.S. chemicals giant DuPont, launched its products in Cambodia in 2009 and is aggressively marketing its corn seeds.
“Hybrid adoption is increasingly gaining acceptance in Cambodia as farmers realize its benefits over open pollinated varieties (OPVs),” said Cookie Lo, DuPont Pioneer communications manager for Southeast Asia.
Both CP and Pioneer have promoted their seeds through on-farm field demonstrations, and trees throughout Tbong Khmum and neighboring Kompong Cham province are plastered with promotional posters for the different seeds on offer. Once a year, Pioneer even sponsors a party at the homes of its distributors where they screen a promotional video, according to farmers in the area.
Kuong Chhean, a local distributer in Tbong Khmum district, said he began selling CP seeds in 1998 and added Pioneer to his inventory in 2010, soon after they entered the market. Up until 2012, he was selling about 2 to 3 tons of seeds per season but in the past two years, he has been selling 5 tons, driven by fierce promotion by the companies.
“As a reward for reaching sales of 5 tons I was given a brand new TV,” he said. “I don’t know why.”