For five years now, Yin Narong has used a new method to plant rice. Instead of planting from the seeds of the previous year’s harvest, he buys new seeds from a local company.
The difference, he said in an interview, has been a boost in yield of 200 kilograms of rice each harvest on one-fifth a hectare.
“Now with pure seeds we get up to 900 kilograms,” the 52-year-old farmer in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district said. He also uses less seeds, about 15 kilograms with the new method compared to 20 kilograms with the old.
A relatively low number of farmers like Yin Narong are using the new-seed method. But traditional habits persist, preventing the country from reaching its rice potential, agricultural economists say.
Many farmers still use rice seeds from the previous harvest to replant their paddies, instead of buying prime, new seeds from companies. Agricultural experts say the use of “pure” seeds can boost yields up to 20 percent.
“It is a challenge for Cambodia as the farmers still use their seeds saved for generations,” Nov Seiha, research manager for the Economic Institute of Cambodia, said. “Sometimes, the genes of the seeds have already died out.”
The old practice means that Cambodians harvest less rice per hectare than their regional neighbors.
A typical Cambodia harvest yields 2.6 tons per hectares, compared to 2.8 tons in Thailand, 3.5 tons in Laos and 4.9 tons in Vietnam, according to government statistics.
With more than 2.7 million hectares of cultivatable land, agriculture experts hope new methods and seeds can help the country reach a goal of 1 million tons of annual rice export by 2015.
The rice seed industry, however, remains in a nascent stage. Cambodia has only one seed company. By comparison, Thailand has 85.
Cambodia’s company, Aquip Seed Co., Ltd., sells 2,600 tons or rice seeds annually to about 160,000 households, according to research by the Cambodian Economic Institute. In a report, the institute criticized the domestic seed sector as “backward” and “afraid to modernize.”
The Ministry of Agriculture, which is charged in part with improving the sector, owns 49 percent of the company.
But company officials insist they are not interested in a monopoly.
“We need newcomers to boost demand in our country,” said Kong Vitank, chief executive of the company. “Then it also opens equal competition in the seed business.”
Ouk Makara, director of the ministry’s Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, said the ministry has “no authority” to maintain a monopoly.
“Our farmers have small plots of land, so they are not very interested in the company’s seeds,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government continues its efforts to improve the rice trade. It has introduced 10 varieties of rice paddy for farmers to grow this season, including rice that is popular in foreign markets.
Yong Saingkoma, resident of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said if farmers do not want to buy new seeds each season, they can use their own seeds more effectively by choosing the right ones to plant.
“The starting point is to make sure farmers across the country know how to purify their seeds for the next growing seasons,” he said