In mid-March, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific convened in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with representatives from over 40 member nations, including Cambodia. Held every two years, this year’s conference built upon a now familiar but important theme: the need for agricultural systems across the region to ramp up innovation in the face of worsening climate change and the ongoing impacts of Covid-19.
In Cambodia, agricultural innovation is emerging in a variety of ways — but there is still a long way to go. The extent to which farmers are supported to adapt and take up more effective and sustainable practices will have significant ramifications not only for their livelihoods, but the broader food security of communities, the environment and the country’s economy.
Cambodia’s agricultural sector remains a key source of employment, and accounted for around a quarter of the country’s GDP in 2021. But some of the challenges are clear, including the impact of severe droughts and floods, which increasingly threaten yields and incomes each year. According to the Global Climate Risk Index for 2000-2019, Cambodia ranked 14th in the world for countries most affected by climate-related extreme weather events.
There are other hurdles too. In northwest Cambodia, where I have conducted research since 2016, small-scale rice farmers face high costs of fertilizer and pesticide, a lack of access to irrigation infrastructure, low incomes, low quality seeds and labor shortages, as more people move from rural to urban areas in search of opportunities. There is also insufficient access to agricultural technologies, such as mechanized seeders, which hampers the adoption of more effective farming practices.
For example, while combine harvester machines are widely utilized to harvest rice, planting is mostly done by hand. This is risky — as birds and rats can readily pick the seeds off — labor-intensive and time-consuming. It also has a snowball effect, as farmers are pushed to plant more seeds to combat losses — a practice that can actually lead to lower yields, as the plants are crowded out.
Machine planting, by contrast, sows seeds deeper into the ground and helps control seeding rates. This kind of mechanization is also important to offset the labor shortages affecting many farming communities. The Cambodian-invented Eli seeder, a machine that uses air pressure to shoot seeds into the ground, is one such model that has been embraced by some farmer groups and cooperatives and could be rolled out more widely.
Another promising innovation is the use of drones to spray pesticides, which is both labor-saving and can improve safety. Many farmers currently spray by hand, with little or no protective equipment, exposing them to potentially dangerous chemicals. The application of drones, which are increasingly being utilized in countries such as Thailand, may be part of the solution. This can be coupled with digital tools such as phone apps to help farmers identify and effectively respond to weeds and insects.
However, the use of innovative technology such as drones and other machines will require funding from public and private sources if it is to gain wider adoption. It also requires meaningful engagement with farmers themselves. Rather than simply push these technologies onto farming communities, development NGOs and others should first listen to what farmers need, learn what practices could be improved, and determine what barriers may be impeding the adoption of more effective and sustainable ways of farming.
In my experience working with smallholder rice farmers in the Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces of northwest Cambodia, a key way to encourage the spread of innovation is to first learn where farmers get their information from. In other words, who are the key influencers that form part of farmers’ social networks and influence their decisions, knowledge, and practices?
In the case of farmers in the country’s northwest, their key sources of information were often leading farmers in their village, as well as the suppliers from whom they purchase fertilizers, equipment and other farming goods. Very few obtained their information from government sources.
Once these key influencers have been identified, they can be engaged in targeted training and demonstrations and then spread that knowledge to other farmers in their network. Ultimately, therefore, farmers themselves spread the information that is relevant to them among their communities, who can pick and choose what technology to adopt.
Farmers’ Hubs, established to provide multiple services to smallholder farming communities, may be another key target of engagement to help farming communities access the information and innovations they may need.
Cambodia’s farmers face no shortage of challenges in a world of accelerated climate change and ongoing economic upheaval associated with the pandemic. But with the right targeted support, the country’s resilient farmers, combining their own deep generational knowledge of cultivation with technological innovation, will be better placed to lead more secure lives.
Daniel Tan is a professor at the University of Sydney and a member of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. He led a research project from 2016-21 on the sustainable intensification and diversification of rice systems in Northwest Cambodia, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.