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Greener rice

UN-backed Sustainable Rice Platform is helping Cambodian farmers reduce chemical use and improve quality. By Apinya Wipatayotin in Siem Reap

Drive northwest of Siem Reap for about 90 minutes and you will arrive at a large grassland conservation site in Kampong Thom province that is a paradise for bird lovers, who can see as many as 100 bird species there. Villages near the Northern Tonle Sap Protected Landscape benefit from birdwatching tourism organised by non-governmental organisations, which share some of their income with the communities to be used for conservation.

Bon Chi, a 47-year-old farmer in Chhouk Village, is among the local people who benefit from the conservation programme. But he has gained even more as one of 250 villagers taking part in the UN Environment Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), which has good ecosystem management at its core.

The project has been very beneficial for his family, he said, as he can sell rice at a guaranteed price that is higher than the market rate. After training by SRP staff, he has switched to using higher-quality seeds and improved farming practices with no chemicals and less water consumption.

"I have not changed my farming approach as usually my paddy field is pesticide-free. We don't use it because it is not good for our birds," said Bon Chi. "The project fits well with my usual practices. I am happy with the project as it has created a better income for my family."

UN Environment launched the SRP in 2011 to help farmers improve their skills and cultivate crops in a sustainable way. The programme has about 90 institutional stakeholders, including public and private-sector research and financial institutions and NGOs, promoting resource-use efficiency and climate change resilience in the rice sector.

William Wyn Ellis, the SRP consultant/coordinator, explained that the project offers incentives for farmers who would like to change their farming practice to make them more environment-friendly, produce premium products and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To keep the project sustainable, he believes it is very important to create a better understanding among consumers that buying products grown to SRP standards will not only help reduce climate change impacts, but also improve the livelihoods of small farmers who are keen to produce higher-quality rice.

The first SRP Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation (Version 1.0) was released for field testing in October 2015 and will expire by the end of this year. UN Environment has now introduced Version 2.0), which should be fully implemented by 2022. The standard assures customers that rice cultivation takes place in line with promoting sustainable farming with less pesticide use and reasonable prices for farmers who produce good quality.

The new version of the standard has 41 requirements under eight major themes: farm management, pre-planting, water use, nutrient management, integrated pest management, harvest and post-harvest, health and safety and labour rights. Scores are given by farmers and auditors. A score of at least 33 points out of 100 is regarded as "working toward sustainable rice cultivation". A score of 90 points or higher signifies "sustainably cultivated rice".

Cambodia joined the SRP last year and over the next three years, it is expected to benefit 9,000 smallholder farmers who will learn about sustainable farming practices, climate-smart agricultural technologies and financial literacy. Adoption of the SRP standard is expect to lead to a 20% increase in yields and a 25% boost in farmers' incomes by 2025.

Rice is a staple food for 3.5 billion people and provides livelihoods for 1.5 billion people worldwide. But it also contributes 9% of all agricultural sector greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Rice also uses 40% of the world's fresh water.

Bon Chi, a rice farmer in Chhouk Village in Kampong Thom province, is one of 250 local participants in the Sustainable Rice Platform. SUPPLIED

Ensuring that rice is produced sustainably is becoming a matter of greater concern, as the International Rice Research Institute estimates that production will have to increase by 25% over the next 25 years to meet global demand.

Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director-general of the Asia Pacific regional office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told a forum in Siem Reap that climate change impacts and farmers shifting to other opportunities have become a big challenge for sustainable rice development. Rice is more than just a crop, she said, it is a backbone of world food security.

She suggested that all stakeholders play a key role to build up rice sustainability development through active marketing mechanisms.

Dr Ngin Chhay, director-general of the Rice Crop Department of Cambodia, said the government recognised the importance of farmers, who represent 80% of the population, and has been increasing rice export promotion since 2010. In 2017 the country exported 630,000 tonnes of rice to the EU and Asean markets.

Cambodia produces around 10 million tonnes of rice per year. However, local rice earns low profit margins due to poor seed quality development, insufficient irrigation systems and poor soil quality due to heavy consumption on pesticide and chemicals.

"Sustainable rice cultivation is a very challenging issue that needs stronger cooperation from all stakeholders. We want to share the same mindset for achieving the goal. Education and training of farmers in proper use of chemicals is the way we want to go," said Dr Ngin Chhay.

However, small-scale farmers in the country are now facing a new problem after the European Union adopted "safeguard" measures to tax Cambodian rice, which has never been done before.

The EU said last month that tariffs would be imposed on Cambodian rice for three years as a result of a surge in imports deemed to have hurt European rice producers.

European officials insist the move has nothing to do with an ongoing review of other trade preferences granted to Cambodia in response to recent political developments in the country. Cambodia has effectively become a one-party state since last year after a campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen to eliminate any meaningful opposition.

In any case, all those involved in the rice supply chain will now face the cost of tougher EU rules, including innocent Cambodian farmers.

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