A recent push to grow sustainable rice in Cambodia has benefited producers, communities and landscapes, as well as created demand at home and abroad for environmentally-friendly products.
Editor’s Note: Across East and Southeast Asia, civil society, NGOs and agribusiness leaders have piloted integrated landscape management initiatives in key commodity markets. Below, the co-founder of Lotus Foods shares her experience in building momentum and institutional support for an integrated management approach to producing rice in Cambodia. Her account sheds light on the landscape approach as it pertains to developing key partnerships, creating a market for sustainably grown products and collaborating with producers to create agricultural products that benefit the environment and the communities of production landscapes.
From one container to a movement, key partnerships catalyzed the uptake of agroecological techniques for growing rice
In 2009, Lotus Foods began to import traditional Phka malis jasmine rice grown by Cambodian farmers using System of Rice Intensification (SRI) practices, starting with one container (18 tons) of finished rice. SRI is an agro-ecological methodology, developed by Cornell, for increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water, and nutrients. Our partner in Cambodia is the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or CEDAC, a NGO that focuses on improving the livelihoods of marginalized and food-insecure smallholder farmers. As a result of its training activities, about 200,000 farmers now apply SRI methods. Over the past decade, with support especially from the German Agency for Cooperation (GIZ), CEDAC has spearheaded the capacity building and organization of a national network of organic rice producer groups in five provinces with the intention of creating market incentives for these pioneering low-income farmers. These farmers are simultaneously preserving rice biodiversity, increasing the local rice supply, growing rice organically, and growing it with improved water efficiency.
As a company that is primarily targeting the natural foods sector in North America, organic certification was a must, but we also went further and offered a fair trade premium. As of 2015, we are importing 20 containers of organic and fair trade certified SRI-grown jasmine rice, an impressive increase over just 5-6 years. Major buyers in the US food industry such as Whole Foods Market and Safeway, as well as consumers, have shown that they are willing to pay more for products that integrate the sustainable use of natural resources and a better quality of life for producers.
Benefits of sustainable rice to producing families
According to a survey conducted by CEDAC in 2012, farmers participating in CEDAC’s organic rice program earned on average a net annual income of around US$750 in 2012. The report also concluded that conventional farmers, who were not a part of CEDAC’s efforts, incurred a loss of around US$7 per year from their rice cultivation due to higher input costs, lower yields and lower market prices. Conversely, a community that participated in CEDAC’s program received US$9,673 as their fair trade social development premium. We learned several months ago that in the Kampong Chhnang province the social development premium was used to build a community hall that promotes open dialogue and collective decision-making.
A key SRI practice is to maintain paddy soils under aerobic conditions rather than keeping them constantly covered with water. Together with the increased use of organic fertilizer, soil quality and water retention are improved. This practice significantly reduces the water farmers use for irrigation of paddies, diminishing fossil fuels and methane gas emissions. The rice sector in Cambodia is not only the primary source of water consumption, but also is the main source of methane emissions. In a 2013 survey, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) interviewed rural households on their water uses. It was found that 80% of rural households experienced a shortage of water resources for use in agricultural enterprises, while more than half experienced a shortage in water to provide for personal uses. In addition, a 2010 CEDAC survey indicated an increase of 85% in the use of organic fertilizers, accompanied by a 72% drop in the use of chemical fertilizer. Thus, SRI offers an important and viable alternative to conventional intensification strategies that rely on high inputs of water, new seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and the money to pay for these inputs.
With increased rice productivity from SRI, many rice farmers have discovered the value of agricultural diversity and multifunctional farming and prioritize a part of their rice land for other uses. These diversified land uses include the introduction of fruits, vegetables and the creation of ponds for fish and water catchment. CEDAC provides training on multipurpose farming, which not only enhances incomes and diets but also promotes greater biodiversity in farming systems. Furthermore, in face of a changing climate, diversification of land use provides some protection against the increasingly unpredictability of weather. The system builds on positive interactions and nutrient transfers between crop and livestock/fish systems. A limitation to multipurpose farming can be access to funds or credit to invest in multipurpose farming; generating higher incomes through organic farming can make these investments more feasible.
Future outlook for sustainable rice in Cambodia
Another development we observed during our most recent trip to Cambodia to meet with CEDAC and SRI farmers, is the establishment of community rice mill cooperatives. While the project is still being piloted, community rice mills offer exciting potential for rural communities. A small biogasifier runs the mill on rice husks and the resulting bioslurry can be used as organic fertilizer. Valuable by-products of the milling process, like broken grains and bran, remain in the villages and can be used for food and fodder. The rice does not have to be trucked long distances and cooperative members, rather than large mill owners, profit. This further concentrates labor and capital in rural areas for a more inclusive food system. We hope to see this model scale over time as demand for organic rice increases, both domestically and for export.