Khmer Times’ Sok Chan recently spoke to Alexandre Huynh, representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cambodia, and covered issues ranging from food safety to organic food and FAO’s pro-poor policies to ensure sustainable development.
KT: Food safety is one of the main concerns among the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries. What has FAO done to help Cambodia comply with international food safety standards?
Mr Huynh: FAO has provided technical assistance to Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce to help develop the Food Safety Law that aims to prevent, control and eliminate hazards throughout the food-chain. The law also ensures fair trade practices in relation to food.
The Food Safety Law will be an important landmark for food safety in Cambodia. However, some investments need to be made to strengthen technical capacity and also for the country to be equipped with appropriate infrastructure, like, for example, laboratory facilities for testing samples to determine contamination.
We also support Integrated Pest Management or IPM – an approach for agriculture that promotes the use of less chemical fertiliser, pesticides, and the use of other pest control techniques, either mechanical or biological.
We can compare IPM to preventive medicine – keep your body healthy and strong and you will be more resistant to some diseases. It is the same with plants, if they are well adapted to local conditions and are healthy and well cared for, they are less likely to require pesticide treatment. In the end IPM aims at protecting food safety, improving the quality of products for public health and for the health of farmers, and promoting more sustainable practices.
We also supported the development of the Livestock Law, another important milestone, with a primary impact on production and trade activities and also on food safety.
The law provides foundation for rules governing the import and export of livestock and meat, veterinary practices to ensure animal health, enforcement of sanitation standards at slaughterhouses, and regulation of chemical alterations to meat products. Considering the rapid economic growth of the country, meat production and consumption have been on the rise and putting in place this legal framework is an important step taken to support the development of the sector as much as to protect consumers.
KT: Organic food production is an important first step to address the future challenges of food safety. FAO is helping the Ministry of Agriculture pioneer the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) to addresses certification and marketing issues. Could you briefly tell us how the PGS works?
Mr Huynh: In terms of organic products, the issue is for the consumer to make a difference between what is organic and what is not. Meanwhile, now there is more demand for organic products than ever.
In response, we have been supporting the Participatory Guarantee System or PGS, which is a verification system based on the participation of several actors – from farmers, producers to consumers, local authorities and verificators. It is a quality insurance system with a bottom-up approach, applicable internationally and a low-cost one, which is well adapted to small producers in Cambodia.
This system was developed to help the farmers link their products to markets and to the consumer as it allows them to sell their products under an organic label. The Ministry of Agriculture has been piloting the approach since 2015 with FAO’s support. We hope that it will be scaled up soon, since PGS has been quite successful so far with a growing of number of organic producers who are now able to sell their produce at a premium price.
KT: Does the PGS apply only in Cambodia or other countries as well?
Mr Huynh: PGS is in numerous countries – India, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, France, Italy, Spain, and also in South American nations. In comparison to other certification systems, the PGS is user-friendly and not too expensive for small farmers.
KT: The Ministry of Agriculture is about to adopt the National Organic Standards for organic food and announced that it would not be responsible for certification by third parties. What are your comments?
Mr Huynh: On the part of FAO, we are happy to see the government develop the National Organic Standards. It is important for the country to have reference points for producers and consumers.
As the market for organic products is relatively new, this is a timely move. The national standards will set minimum requirements. Certifications by third parties can exist together with national standards, as long as they don’t compete.
In the end, it is up to each country to decide how it will regulate the organic food sector in order to support farmers – ensuring food safety and a healthy functioning market, at the same time.
KT: Recent research done by the Center for Policy Studies’ programme shows that 200 to 400 tonnes of vegetables are imported daily from neighboring countries. The research also found that between $150 million and $250 million is spent annually on vegetable imports from Vietnam, Thailand and China. What are your comments about these findings?
Mr Huynh: Indeed, we know that the volume of imports of vegetables from neighboring countries is very important.
I have to say that when I arrived in Cambodia a year ago, I was surprised. As you can see, Cambodia can easily grow vegetables and fruits. So one wonders why so little is produced locally. I discussed this with my counterparts in the Ministry of Agriculture and they, too, were concerned.
In partnership with the ministry, we have tried to develop several strategies to address this issue. One important project involves supporting the production of vegetable seeds. In Cambodia, there is a gap between the demand and supply of quality seeds.
But this is only one aspect in the whole conundrum.
Farmers also need better access to extension services, provided by the authorities, and also to technology. They also need better water management to improve productivity.
Also the cost of logistics, notably transport, bears its weight on the final price and makes it difficult for locally grown vegetables to be competitive.
But the saving grace is that the market for Cambodian vegetables is good as demand remains higher than supply and there is ample opportunity for the country to improve its position.
KT: The government seems keen to invest in large corporate farmers, rather than small-scale farmers, to boost production. Is this a healthy trend?
Mr Huynh: This is something that FAO understands. FAO’s main goal is to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, while managing natural resources in a sustainable manner. Small holder farmers and poor rural households are our clients and we work for them.
However, we also know that if you want to introduce some new technologies, sometimes you cannot always directly aim for the poorest, but you can often link them into the project. To develop some types of production farmers need to have minimum technical knowledge to be successful.
Thus, our position is simple, the poorest are our priority target and we work to improve their livelihoods. As you know, the Sustainable Development Goal has a motto: “leave no-one behind”. This is not only because it is right to do so but also because it is the more sustainable approach to development.
We also provide considerable support in terms of policy-making and support a pro-poor approach to economic growth. At the same time, to develop agriculture, some important investments are needed and it is also important for governments to maintain a constructive dialogue with businesses and well-off farmers. Again, it is all about balance and all components of Cambodian rural life have their space in the development of the country.
KT: What is your recommendation to farmers and the government?
Mr Huynh: Cambodia has a great potential for further growth and with continued efforts to manage the current transition of agriculture, the country could maximise benefits for its population. Cambodia is already well known abroad for its fragrant rice and for its Kampot pepper. In my view, the country could aim for this type of growth, based on quality products, fetching better and more stable prices. In the long-run, considering its size, its geographic location, and the unique diversity of its agricultural products, Cambodia could become a champion for quality products abroad.