COVID-19 lockdown highlights Cambodia’s dangerous reliance on imported food

Harrison White

Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia has now found itself effectively sealed off after the suspension last week of nearly all cross-border activities between Cambodia and Vietnam, followed by the closure of borders with Thailand and Laos.

Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia has now found itself effectively sealed off after the suspension last week of nearly all cross-border activities between Cambodia and Vietnam, followed by the closure of borders with Thailand and Laos.

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Lieutenant General Leang Phearom, the Ministry of Interiors border protection police department chief, said this week that the borders with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos are completely closed for travel by people through road, water or air, although, vital goods and products will still be allowed under strict guidelines. “All cross-border activities, including people movement, are affected but the exchange of goods at the international border checkpoints will be allowed after truck drivers are thoroughly screened for COVID-19,” Lt Gen Phearom said.

However, while officials stated the free movement of freight trucks will continue albeit under strict quarantine conditions, both the sudden and unexpected closures has shone a light on Cambodia’s serious over-reliance on imported products and produce from its two major trading partners of Thailand and Vietnam.

Panic buyers hoard shopping trolleys full of produce at Macro Market in Phnom Penh. Supplied

With the news resulting in scenes of scared shoppers panic buying and hoarding food across the Kingdoms convenience stores, supermarkets and food stalls this week. Causing the prices for some food staples to almost double, while the Ministry of Commerce has declared it is working to stop opportunistic food sellers price gouging.

The new restrictions have caused incidents of panic buying from the Kingdom’s convenience stores, supermarkets and markets this week. This in turn has caused prices for some food staples to almost double, while the Ministry of Commerce has declared it is working to stop opportunistic food sellers from exploiting the situation through unreasonable price hikes.

While the majority of panic buying and hoarding around the world as COVID-19 spreads is a disproportionate response fuelled by fear, for Cambodians effectively locked in their country, running out of food is a very real threat because Cambodian agricultural demand still far outweighs local supply for both fresh vegetables and meat.

But for Cambodian citizens now effectively locked in their country, running out of food is not an unreasonable fear considering that Cambodian agricultural demand still far outweighs local supply for both fresh vegetables and meat.

Cambodian – Thailand border crossing closed in Poi Pet as stranded tourists and traders wait. Supplied

A country blessed with resources

 

Many South-East Asian nati Many South-East Asian nations – including landlocked Laos, agriculturally land-poor Singapore and overpopulated Indonesia – can only dream of the rich abundance of resources that Cambodia enjoys. Home to 16 million people, the Kingdom is a country blessed with natural resources, including land and water, favourable climatic conditions and geographic position.

However, Cambodia is still required to import more than one million tonnes of vegetables (approximately 50 percent of overall consumption) and over 50,000 tonnes of livestock and meat (approximately 20 percent of overall consumption) to meet annual demand, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries respectively.

The Cambodian Government has previously recognised that this high reliance on imported food, especially for fresh vegetables, is a serious issue for the nation. Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently unveiled programmes designed to increase the local production of vegetables and livestock to supply domestic demand and reduce the reliance on imported products.

Chemical-free vegetable production is especially needed to supply locals and tourists, along with careful checks on commodities, particularly regarding quality supervision, inspection and any quarantine requirements to prevent diseases spreading. “[Officials] have to inspire our people to grow chemical-free vegetables and to reduce imports from abroad. We must boost domestic cultivation,” Mr Hun Sen said, adding local products are also in demand by visitors.

A Cambodian farmer bagging produce for local consumption under the “Boosting Food Projection 2017-2019” programme. Ministry of Agriculture

Implementing policies and programmes

 

The Ministry of Agriculture has already started moving towards this initiative. In 2016, the ministry launched its $20-million  “Boosting Food Projection 2017-2019” programme, designed to reinvigorate vegetable farming and follow the Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) standards also created by the Ministry of Agriculture. The programme focuses on 13 priority crops, including lettuce, chilli, bok choy, tomato, cucumber and zucchini. The programme’s overall aim is for Cambodia to produce an extra 60,000 tonnes of safe and quality vegetables annually.

A speech given before the launch of the programme by the incoming Minister of Agriculture Veng Sakhon, included a set of guidelines issued by the government for the nation’s farmers and producers.

“First, farming operations need to be modernised by introducing advanced techniques such as drip irrigation systems,” he said, adding that farmers needed to strive to abide by Good Agricultural Practice principles and urging firms to implement contract farming schemes. “Secondly, production lines need to be upgraded and producers need to consider improving packaging standards to increase the value of our products and make them more desirable abroad,” he added.

Fast-forward four years and the Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson, Srey Vuthy, told Capital Cambodia that the ministry regards the programme as a success. It has met its goals in increasing the amount of raw vegetables produced and in turn, reduced the need for importation. “The ‘Boosting Food Projection 2017-2019’ programme has met its set goals and the ministry has requested to extend the programme to continue increasing the production of locally made produce,” Srey explained.

In addition, the ministry has also stated they will be looking towards providing opportunities for local producers to increase both meat and vegetable yields through improved farming techniques and establishing conditions for the production and marketing of farmers produce. “We are working with the nation’s farmers to provide support for new farming technology to ensure good agriculture practices, along with implementing contract framing systems,” Srey added.

Police guard a cross-border bridge connecting Cambodia and
Vietnam. KT

A macro, not a micro problem

 

However, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, while the Ministry of Agriculture’s programmes to assist Cambodian farmers on a micro-level is an important step in the process, the Cambodian government needs to address food security at a macro-level too, if they hope to truly reduce the ratio deficit between import and consumption levels.

In their recent report, the organisation outlined several challenges that need to be addressed for increased productivity in the agricultural sector to allow the sector to live up to its full potential and provide food security for Cambodian citizens as well as be a contributor to equitable economic growth and poverty reduction. These include: low- levels of technology, poor farming skills, insufficient use of modern seed varieties and fertiliser, poor soil management, lack of, or limited infrastructure, in particular irrigation, weak commercialisation networks, limited access to extension services and rural credit, inadequate post-harvest process management, unsustainable management of natural resources, vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, poor social conditions linked to nutrition, health, safe drinking water and sanitation in rural areas and high levels of illiteracy.

Of course, hardly any of these problems can be fixed in a three-year $20 million programme, so it will be vital for Cambodian policymakers to start to see food security as an issue that is relevant to all areas of Cambodian policymakers and not just an agricultural problem.

In summary, over the next few months as Cambodia and the world addresses the global threat of COVID-19, it should hopefully provide the lessons needed for future Cambodian policymakers to understand that the panacea of “globalisation” cannot always be relied upon to provide a sustainable and affordable food supply. Hence, the development of a strong self-sufficient industry will prove to be vital to the future food security of the Kingdom and to larger extent, the education of its citizens, too.

world battles this one in a hundred-year event it should hopefully provide the lessons needed for future Cambodian policymakers to understand that the panacea of “globalisation” cannot always be relied upon to provide a sustainable and affordable food supply. Hence, the development of a strong self-sufficient industry will prove to be vital to the future food security of the Kingdom and to larger extent the education of its citizens too.

 

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