Agriculture experts say there is significant untapped potential in the Kingdom’s agricultural sector due to favourable geography and a large labour force, while noting that it used to be the first priority sector for the national economy and remains its foundation.

According to experts who argue for further government intervention on behalf of the sector, though the domestic and foreign supply markets for food production are broad and undersupplied, Cambodia lacks proper policy planning and does not provide enough assistance to farmers while also suffering from weak irrigation systems and a lack of market access for smallholder farms.

Agriculture expert Yang Saing Koma says there is great potential in Cambodia’s monsoon-soaked landscape for growth in the sector. The land is very favourable for agriculture and Cambodia has the advantage of an already present domestic agricultural labour force, including over a million migrant workers who might prefer to stay near home to work if given agriculture jobs.

He noted that overall Cambodia has millions of farmers to serve this sector if its output is increased to provide them with jobs, and that market demands are very wide, both domestically and abroad, as food security becomes a more urgent issue each year with climate change and other shocks.

Meas Ny, a social development researcher, said agriculture used to be a priority sector for national development and to this day it remains the main sector aside from the textile-related industry.

Theng Savoeun, director of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), agrees that Cambodia has great potential for agriculture, especially in rice and animal husbandry, which are both important sources of food and for the livelihoods of many people.

“Further development would contribute to boosting Cambodia’s economy and it’s a safe bet that will pay off because nobody can live without food,” he said.

He added that the sector has been facing many problems lately such as water resources and a lack of irrigation, processing and packaging of products for export markets and access to those markets, coupled with a lack of capital for farmers or small enterprises to grow their businesses. He called for an increase in low-interest loans from the government.

Saing Koma said the majority of Cambodian people are farmers and therefore any problem in this sector requires intervention by experts, but currently cooperation with experts, relevant ministries and farmers remains limited.

“The government seems to have gone too far in taking to heart the mantras of western ‘free market’ capitalism, leaving our farmers struggling by themselves,” he said.

Ny agrees that the biggest problem for the sector is the low prices on agricultural products and the weaknesses of the market system.

He said the problems that exist need to be tackled by several government entities beyond the agriculture ministry. To make the work go smoothly, they should also involve the ministries of Commerce; Industry, Science and Innovation; and Economy and Finance.

“When there is the problem with the agricultural markets, the agriculture minister is often blamed. But we forget about the commerce ministry, which has the role of finding agricultural markets, and the industry ministry, which has the role of developing the means for processing the agricultural products,” he said.