Growing the World’s Best Rice

As I continue to travel on the reverse trade mission to the United States, it is exciting to see that people and businesses across America are taking an interest in Cambodia.  To take advantage of this interest, Cambodia must project an image that attracts foreign investment, technology, and human resources.  Today, Cambodia’s image is affected by the draft NGO law and other legislation under discussion, such as the cybercrime law and the pending trade union law.  As the Cambodian government considers the next steps, it is important to realize that the world is watching.  This week, the Community of Democracies – an intergovernmental coalition whose leadership council includes the United States, Japan, South Korea, and 24 other countries – issued a “call to action” to the international community to urge the Cambodian government to release a copy of the proposed NGO law and conduct meaningful consultations.  I join this call to action, and I wholeheartedly agree with the recent comment by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers that an open civil society is “key for prosperity as well as human rights.”

The world also watched this week as His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni celebrated his 62nd birthday with the people of Cambodia.  I was delighted to see the King in good health and presiding over the Royal Plowing Ceremony in Battambang Province last week.  Several of my readers asked me this week what I think about the ceremony, which marks the beginning of the rice growing season.

The Royal Plowing Ceremony is a beautiful tradition that recognizes the fundamental importance of agriculture to Cambodia.  Many Cambodians raise their families and earn a living from their farms, so it is easy to understand why this annual event is such an important part of the culture.  This year, the oxen selected the corn and beans, indicating a terrific harvest for both crops.  All other crops – including rice – were ignored, leading many farmers to worry about their output for the year.  However, as we have seen in the past, the predictions of the oxen are not always right.  Some of the factors that affect rice production are out of our control, such as weather, but with sound agricultural policies and investments in technology and infrastructure, Cambodia’s hard-working rice farmers have an excellent chance at having another good harvest.

Rice has been a vital part of the Cambodian economy for centuries, not only as a staple food but also as a commercial crop.  Today, 92 percent of the agricultural land in the country is used for the cultivation and harvesting of rice.  Three decades ago, Cambodia was a food deficit country that relied on rice imports; now, it produces a surplus of unmilled rice.  Many factors have contributed to this output, including improved irrigation, access to higher quality seeds and fertilizers, and advanced growing techniques.  Another example of Cambodia’s success is Phka Romduol, an aromatic rice that is popular among farmers due to its higher yield and superb grain quality.  Phka Romduol rice sells at higher prices on both national and international markets and for three consecutive years, it has won the distinction of the “World’s Best Rice.”  While this is a terrific accomplishment, much of the Cambodia rice sector’s potential remains untapped.

Cambodia is the fifth-largest exporter of rice in the world and the second-biggest exporter of premium jasmine rice.  According to data from the Secretariat of One Window Service for Rice Export Formality, Cambodia exported 201,183 tons of rice in the first four months of 2015, a 67.2 percent increase over the same period last year.  In 2014, a total of 387,061 tons of rice were exported compared with 378,856 tons in 2013.  According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for 9 percent of the growth of Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP); with rice representing over half of the crop production, it has a significant impact on the Cambodian economy.  Furthermore, studies show that 63 percent of the poverty that was reduced in Cambodia between 2004 and 2011 was related, in part, to rice.  Results from increases in rice production, the price of rice, revenues for non-farm businesses, wages for farmers, and salaries for urban workers all have contributed to the impressive gains in poverty reduction.

But if Cambodia is to reach its stated goal of exporting one million tons of milled rice in 2015, it will have to address a number of challenges.  One of the primary constraints to increased productivity and profitability stems from the limited use of the modern farming technology, equipment, improved seed, and inputs that are now available.  Many farmers continue to rely heavily on fragile rain-fed systems.  This and other poor farming practices, along with issues with quality control and poor infrastructure, have led to Cambodia experiencing the lowest rice yields per hectare in the region.  Additionally, Cambodia is highly vulnerable to climate change.  This global phenomenon could potentially lead to increased temperatures, a longer and warmer dry season, and a later, briefer and more intense wet season – severely affecting the cultivation of rice and other crops.

I commend the Prime Minister for making agriculture a priority of the Rectangular Strategy, following a successful effort to lead the Cambodian economy out of the most recent global financial crisis and economic downturn.  Moving forward, several experts have suggested that the Cambodian government focus on an even more strategic development of the agricultural sector.  One recommendation is the diversification of rice exports to destinations outside of the European Union (EU), the primary destination for Cambodian rice.  With 62 percent of rice exported to the EU in 2013 and 78 percent exported during seven months in 2014, increased rice exports to the EU could trigger a safeguard under the Everything but Arms (EBA) scheme that would end the tariff reductions that Cambodia receives.  Another recommendation focuses on the exportation of both aromatic and non-aromatic rice.  Jasmine rice is a niche market focused on high-income countries; thus, the small size of this current market makes it difficult for Cambodia to meet its one million ton goal focusing exclusively on aromatic rice.  Other suggestions for Cambodia include a reduction in logistic costs to improve competitiveness, increasing farmer prices, and becoming a more reliable trading partner.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has a robust agriculture development program that is helping to introduce new varieties of rice and supply technology to Cambodian farmers.  With the use of short-cycle drought and flood tolerant rice varieties, farmers are more equipped to adapt to climate related risks.  Under the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, rice that is being produced with assistance from USAID is expected to increase from 2.2 million metric tons in 2010 to 2.9 million metric tons in 2016.  Even those not receiving direct assistance from USAID are benefiting, as 50 percent of farmers living next to USAID clients have adopted new technologies and seen increases in their rice production.  This adoption earned farmers net profits of $64 million out of a total of $304 million in profit from all rice farming households in the Feed the Future focus area.

Another aspect of rice production that deserves discussion is nutrition.  In Cambodia, the word for rice is synonymous for food and is the staple of the diet. But too much or too little rice contributes to poor nutrition.  Overall, nutrition is improving in Cambodia, as the number of stunted children reduced from 45 percent in 2005 to 32 percent in 2014.  However, more work needs to be done to diversify the Cambodian diet and promote better practices improve nutrition.  The United States is a proud partner in this effort.

Even as Cambodia develops into a lower-middle income country, agriculture will always be a fundamental part of the country’s society, economy, and culture, just as it is for the United States.  Cambodia is blessed with great farmland and hard-working people.  With the help of smart agricultural policies and investments, I am hopeful that there are many good harvests to come.

I would like to again thank you for reading my column this and every week.  Feel free to send me questions in English or Khmer at AskAMBToddPP@state.gov.

William E. Todd is U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.