October 9, 2017

Ho Puthea on agriculture, chemical-free vegetables and imports

Khmer Times’ Sok Chan discusses the country’s agricultural policy with Ho Puthea, the director of horticulture and subsidiary crops at the Ministry of Agriculture’s General Directorate of Agriculture.

KT: What is the government’s official policy on horticulture and subsidiary crops, particularly for vegetables?

Mr Puthea: Our department has prepared a master plan for the development of horticulture in the country, and, as we are all aware, Cambodia currently lacks the capacity to meet local demand. The aim is to boost vegetable production. We are striving to adhere to good agricultural practices (GAP) and working on the introduction of organic farming principles.

We are working on a project titled “Boosting Food Project 2016-2019”, which aims to increase the production of fragrant rice and vegetables. The government has allocated $6 million for this project over a period of three years.

The project will target three areas. In Phnom Penh, it will centre around Neak Meas Market and Deum Kor Market. In Tboung Khmum province, it will be Suong Market. Finally, we will also be working in Siem Reap.

Vegetables for Phnom Penh come from Kandal, Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Speu provinces, while those for Suong Market are from Prey Veng, Tboung Khmum and Kampong Cham provinces. The markets in Siem Reap are supplied with produce from Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces.

We have advised all farmers to follow the GAPs to ensure consumer safety and health.

KT: What’s the general feeling on chemical-free farming?

Mr Puthea: Nowadays our people are well-informed and aware of the risks posed by chemical substances in food, and most of them choose fresh vegetables. Now is the time to attract more consumers and grow the local market. Producers will be able to increase profits if farmers adhere to GAP principles.

We can clearly see a trend now: people are eating more vegetables and the general awareness of the importance of a vegetable-rich diet is spreading. At the same time, the number of malls where producers can sell their produce is also on the rise, while the growing middle-class is also shopping for quality, healthy produce.

KT: The country now imports more vegetables than it produces. What is the key to reducing our dependency on imports and boosting local production?

Mr Puthea: We are working on this. Not just the government, but also the private sector, NGOs and the public. My hope is that we do not blame each other, but instead work together to reach solutions. The government is preparing policies and strategies that local governments and developments partners need to follow. If our partners can implement our policies, we can all focus on meeting market demand.

KT: Price pays a huge role in consumers’ decisions to choose local or imported products. In this regard, what is your strategy to make local produce more attractive?

Mr Puthea: This is an area that involves multiple parties and sectors. It’s all about productivity. We are trying to reduce the price of production to increase our competitiveness. To reduce the price of production, agricultural materials, such as fertilizers, need to be cheaper, so that producers and farmers can sell lower. Farmer and producers, likewise, must strive to adhere to GAPs to ensure food safety and attract consumers’ attention.

Ho Puthea, the director of horticulture and subsidiary crops. Supplied

KT: As the country continues its assimilation into the global market, and protective measures become harder to implement, what is the government’s strategy to reduce the number of vegetables imported from abroad and increase consumption of local products?

Mr Puthea: This is a key issue, particularly as an Asean nation. Asean is a free-trade area, a single market, and we cannot just impose tariffs, or other restrictions, on products from neighbouring countries. But we do have certain tools at our disposal, like sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. Based on these measures, we can ban certain products that contain too many chemicals and are
not safe for consumption.

The standard across the region has been harmonised. If products do not meet those standards, they can be banned. We check on a case-by-case basis, paying special attention to products that are also grown here in Cambodia.

KT: What are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges for vegetable production in Cambodia, now and in the future?

Mr Puthea: There are a lot of challenges, actually. A lack of land is one of them. We are growing vegetables on a very small amount of land. Only 1.8 percent of arable land is used to grow vegetables and it is hard to increase that share because these crops are competing with rice.

Droughts are also a big challenge. During the dry season, many farmers don’t have enough water to grow their crops, and many of them stop growing their vegetables altogether. Some of them can only grow small quantities during the rainy season.

Production costs are high because the production chain is not as developed as we would like it to be, and there is not enough cooperation between producers, transportation companies, wholesalers and retailers to make the prices more stable.

Finally, some farmers who borrow from microfinance institutions (MFIs) find themselves in debt because they are being charged high interest rates. The market is also lacking young labour.

KT: How are Cambodian products performing in the region?

Mr Puthea: We export herbs and vegetables to the European market. Trade across our borders is also on the rise, as our neighbours – particularly Vietnam and Thailand – believe that our products are safe and our land is not polluted as we use less chemicals. They are glad to buy our products and send their products to Cambodia.

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