Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cambodia's Rice is World's Best

Yes, it has happened.  This year, Cambodian jasmine rice was awarded for the third time in a row as the “world’s best rice.”  This happened yesterday during the 6th The Rice Trade (TRT) World Rice Conference in Phnom Penh.  The Conference is being hosted by the Kingdom of Cambodia, 18-20 November 2014, dovetailing Cambodia’s 2nd Rice Festival on the 18th held at the Hotel Sofitel.  Fingers were crossed until today that the award would go to Cambodia again as the World Rice Conference got underway.  Indeed, the Cambodian jasmine rice has received the prestigious award for the third time this year, the difference being that this year’s award is shared by Cambodia and Thailand.
In the last two years, Cambodian rice has won the title of “The World’s Best Rice,” during the World Rice Conferences in Bali, Indonesia in 2012 and in Hongkong in 2013.

The Cambodian jasmine (fragrant) rice variety,  Phka Rumduol, is a premium rice which means it has extra long grains, strong natural scent, soft texture, tender and fluffy when steamed and what millers and researchers refer to as “tantalizing” aroma.  The jasmine rice is also called Cambodia’s white gold for very significant reasons.  The name white gold means that rice is both economically and culturally significant to the country.   Cambodian rice being exported meets the very stringent international inspection and certification requirements .  This has enabled Cambodia to penetrate the rice markets in the European Union, China, and the United States.  In fact, more than 70 countries around the world import Cambodian jasmine rice today, through some 77 Cambodian rice traders.

New Dawn in Cambodian Rice Production

According to the Cambodian Organic Agricultural Association (COrAA), increasingly, Cambodian rice farmers are shifting to modern farming practices such as organic rice production.  This is an amazing feat because only about 15% of rice fields in the country have irrigation, and Cambodian rice farmers use little inputs.  Many farmers have not used farm chemicals, for example.

The fact is, the issues of food safety, human nutrition, and environmental conservation are always part of the public debate on food worldwide.  This has somehow pushed Cambodia to become more concerned about organic agriculture, hence the creation of COrAA.    The COrAA now has established Cambodia’s Standards for Organic Crop Production, whose aim is to “protect consumers against deception in the market place and unsubstantiated product claims.”   The tools that the COrAA uses in guaranteeing that what is sold in the market is authentic organic rice is the Association’s inspection and certification system.  Therefore, all rice products sold in the market today have been subjected to a “reliable certification system” and rules for labeling organically produced rice.  This, on top of the fact that the production of Cambodia’s jasmine rice has gone through strict processes from seed selection to cultivation and until milling.  This has been labeled by the International Financing Corporation as the “from farm to fork” process.

In Cambodia, like in any other rice producing or agriculture-oriented economy, more than half the population is dependent on rice.  The COrAA says about 60% of the country’s population depends on rice cultivation, and about three-fourth (75%) of Cambodia is arable land.  Emphasis in the production of Cambodian jasmine rice and producing rice through organic agriculture seem to be the direction toward which Cambodian rice farmers are headed.  It is clear also that the aim of the Kingdom in the area of rice production is to export rice to both the developing and developed countries of the world.

Role of Financial Assistance

Helping Cambodia in transforming its rice industry is the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group.  According to the IFC, it is helping Cambodia in three major areas of the rice industry: improving the quality of rice, improving milling efficiency, and boosting Cambodia’s rice exports.

The IFC’s role in improving the quality of rice in Cambodia has been impressive.  According to the IFC, it has worked through millers to introduce Phka Rumuduol to farmers and this has resulted in increased yields.  The IFC has also helped sustain a weekly radio broadcast that has continually educated farmers on key farming techniques as well as the benefits of producing improved high-value fragrant rice seeds.  In 2013, IFC pointed out that it had helped more than 30,000 farmers in eight provinces improve their knowledge and attitudes on farming techniques, helped some 8,000 farmers shift to planting fragrant rice seeds that has resulted in an increase in average rice yields by 20%, and increasing revenues by an additional USD1.5 million.

Improving milling efficiency is another area that IFC has focused its attention on in the process of helping improve rice production in Cambodia.  Its target is to enable at least 10 rice mills to receive international certification by June 2015.  Through IFC funding, hundreds of rice millers are undergoing training in the improvement of operational efficiency and milling quality.  What may have triggered this portion of the project is IFC’s observation that a large proportion of Cambodia’s rough rice production is “informally exported” to Thailand and Vietnam, where it is milled and further exported to other countries as long-grained jasmine rice.  This has resulted in “tremendous loss of opportunity for Cambodian rice millers and traders to add value and create employment,” according to the IFC.

In boosting Cambodia’s rice exports,, the IFC has been working directly with the country’s rice exporters and traders.  Among the techniques in improving rice exports include developing new niche markets especially those that are willing to purchase premium fragrant rice at premium costs.  The IFC has made sure that it collaborated with both the public and private sectors of the rice industry in its efforts to boost Cambodia’s rice export performance.  This has been influenced greatly by the issuance of Cambodia’s Standards, by Royal Decree, in 2013.  IFC says, this has resulted in “quality assurances that have led to international recognition and confidence from global buyers.” 

IFC also continues to promote Cambodian rice in the TRT World Rice Conferences, as well as in other avenues in North America and the European Union.  Other efforts by the IFC in improving Cambodia’s rice industry include, among other things, registration of Cambodia’s rice price quotations at the Live Rice Index, where global price indices are available on weekly basis, and publicly accessible.  It is also supporting the Cambodia Rice Federation to develop a national branding campaign for Cambodia rice.

Ultimately, one of the measures of the success of Cambodia’s rice production efforts is possibly its recognition worldwide through the “World’s Best Rice” award.  Today, Cambodia has received such award three years in a row.  This has potentially raised the bar of expectation in terms of increased exportation of Cambodia’s jasmine rice.

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