Finding an alternative to chemical-intensive farming is crucial for the survival of families, and for the land.

PHNOM PENH – The skyrocketing fertilizer prices could provide an opportunity for farmers to adopt more sustainable, less chemical-intensive methods that would prolong soil quality and reduce costs.

One program aimed at fostering this transition is run by World Vision Cambodia and supported by Australian Aid. The program aims to help about 5,000 households in Takeo and Kandal provinces shift from using chemical fertilizers to organic farming, and to help them find markets for their products.

World Vision program manager Im Thano said the project does not require farmers to go 100% organic, but it starts a dialogue on the standard use of chemicals and increases the farmers’ ability to find alternatives.   

“Our project helps them understand and reflect on the production costs and profits they can generate. Of course, they have the willingness to continue only when they can make profits,” Thano said, pointing out that farmers could increase profits by only 30% by using chemicals, while using organic fertilizer or compost allows them to expand profits by up to 80%.

“If they keep using chemicals, they may end up making no profit, or just a little.”   

As the price of chemicals rises sharply, the head of World Vision Cambodia’s program argued that it can be a good opportunity to push for a change in perception among farmers.  

“Farmers I have met also expressed satisfaction after trying to reduce their dependence on chemicals because they can save more money. Some start to produce organic fertilizers to supply others,” Thano added.

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Compost from organic waste 

Compost is only one alternative to chemicals for fertilizing and improving soil quality, but its potential has not been widely utilized in Cambodia.

The Environmental Education and Recycling Organization (COMPOSTED) in Ek Phnom district in Battambang province is one local organization working on producing this important product.

Sam Phalla, the director of COMPOSTED, said the organization takes waste from markets and separates organic waste from plastics. The operation started in Battambang in 2009 after the organization recognized that organic waste from markets presented an opportunity.

“This mixed waste is brought to us from markets by waste collection companies. However, our workers have to separate organic waste from plastic waste before it can be turned into compost,” Phalla explained.  

A landfill site in Battambang’s Ek Phnom district where organic waste is sourced for compost production. PHOTO: Touch Sovandy / Cambodianess

With generous funding from Germany, his organization can sell compost to farmers at a cheaper price than chemicals – with the main goal of helping farmers transition to organic farming.         

“This compost can be used to fertilize all kinds of crops, and it costs only $US120 per ton, which is much cheaper than our production costs, so we want to make it more accessible to more farmers,” Phalla said, pointing out that his organization can produce between 60 and 80 tons of compost per year.

Asked whether production could be scaled up, Phalla said it would be possible by identifying areas where high volumes of waste are generated daily, singling out Phnom Penh as the most viable location, with more than 3,000 tons of waste generated daily. 

But the rising use of plastic in Cambodia has undermined Phalla’s efforts to address waste management issues.

“In the past when we started the project, organic waste accounted for up to 75% of all waste we got from the market. But all of this changed now – the amount of organic waste declined to around 50%, while plastics are more prevalent,” Phalla said, “Therefore, addressing issues in waste sorting is the key now.” 

The earthworm solution

Another initiative is Junlen, or earthworms – a business that aims to produce earthworm waste to provide another alternative to chemical fertilizer. Run by 28-year-old entrepreneur Sok Sothearath, Junlen started in late 2018 with production focused on rural communities in Kampong Chhnang province.  

Graduating with a degree in Agronomy, Sothearath said her main goal was to introduce farmers to more innovative means of improving the quality of their farmland.

“The business provides local farmers with some financial subsidies, equipment and technical training. Through this model, farmers agree to raise earthworms and produce feces, and I help them find markets,” Sothearath explained.

She added that her business covers a community-based project consisting of five households in Kampong Chhnang province, which collectively produce about 10 tons of worm castings each month.

“I also tried to run this project in other areas, but they have not developed into a community-led project yet,” she said, adding:

“When it becomes community-based, farmers can make use of the shared resources wisely, cooperatively collecting organic waste and sharing ideas with one another as a community.”

“This is what I want because it is the core concept of sustainable business which reduces expenses and production costs,” said Sothearath. She added that only a small number of farmers were interested in this project. Many were stuck in their ways and unwilling to adapt to a changing environment, she said.

“When I meet with farmers who like my idea, it gives me the courage to keep going. That’s why I have been trying to offer them knowledge as well as helping them increase their incomes,” she explained.

Tackling production chains

The rising price of chemicals may serve as a new driving force for transitioning to more sustainable practices and the growing production of alternatives to agricultural chemicals may appear promising.

But experts warn that the vicious cycle of over-reliance on chemicals won’t end if the systematic problem in Cambodia’s agricultural production chain isn’t tackled.  

“Our farmers may return to their old habits of using chemicals once the price of fertilizer gets backs to a pre-pandemic levels,” said Leng Vira, technical officer and agriculture researcher at the Department of Agricultural Land Resource Management, the General Directorate of Agriculture.

To tackle this, in addition to supporting farmers making their own organic fertilizer, the agronomist explained that the main focus should be on restoring agricultural ecosystems. 

Red Than, a farmer in Siem Reap’s Pongsat commune, stands close to a pile of organic fertilizer produced by herself. PHOTO: Touch Sovandy / Cambodianess

“The focus should be on landscape restoration. Farmers should plant cover trees as they can shield against wind and rain, as well as provide shelter for birds. Moreover, they can grow seasonal crops so they can maintain the landscape,” he suggested. 

“They need to maintain crop biomass by ending the stubble burning practice following each year’s harvest. Our farmers like burning the remaining waste on their farmland after harvesting, but it’s like burning their own money,” Vira added.

As there is a shift in agricultural labor, farmers no longer practice more sustainable “crop transplanting,” but instead choose to do “direct seeding” as it’s faster and requires less labor.

“This practice allows weeds to grow alongside with or even compete with crops. This is the reason that compels farmers to keep using chemical weed killers,” Vira pointed out.

A growing number of Cambodian farmers now rely on tractors, as this cuts down the costs of labor, but this also creates a phenomenon known as soil compaction. 

From an economic perspective, Vira agreed that farmers have to be further incentivized so they will be willing to abandon unsustainable practices.  

“If they give up on chemicals, but only make the same profits as those who rely on chemicals, why do they need to care and change?” Vira asked.  

The key issue is not the solution, but the combination of solutions designed to alter the entire production chain – which include farmers, processors, sellers, consumers and policymakers.    

“The change needs to emerge from farms to policies. Innovative approaches are required to make this happen. If change doesn’t take place in everyone, it is impossible to see a [reduction in chemical farming],” he stressed.  

Thano of World Vision Cambodia concurred that perception change is the only truly sustainable solution, but acknowledged it will take time. 

“Knowledge of consumers on safe vegetables is important. Once more of them start to consume safe vegetables, it creates bigger markets for safe agriculture, eventually encouraging farmers to change their practice,” Thano said.

This was the main reason why his project mainly focuses on helping farmers get market access and generate a better income.  

Although rocketing chemical fertilizer prices may add to farmers’ burdens, this doesn’t change things. It indicates that only holistic approaches and systematic change taken by all stakeholders in Cambodia will prevent farmers from facing a much grimmer future.

This story is supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in the Cambodianess, and English news outlet spreaheaded by young journalists and run under Thmey Thmey Media.

About the writer

Sao Phal Niseiy

Sao Phal Niseiy is a Cambodian journalist currently working with Cambodianess, English version of Thmey Thmey Media. He has a deep interest in the climate crisis and foreign affairs. Follow him on Twitter @saophalniseiy