Sustainable Rice Farming Is Empowering Women in Cambodia

Achieving higher yields at lower costs could help reduce poverty, hunger, and other social ills.
Women farmers in a rice field in Kampong Speu province. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)
Mar 17, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In Cambodia, rice paddies account for more than 80 percent of cultivated land, and women tend many of them. Mom Thany, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, recently acknowledged women’s important role in the sector—but said they should “try harder” to “learn new farming techniques, how to adapt to climate change, and so on,” according to Voice of America.

It’s not so easy, however, to escape the limitations of smallholder farming—which Rick Bates, a professor of horticulture at Penn State University, notes are often called ”very resilient poverty traps.” That’s why he and a team of researchers launched a project early this year designed to improve nutrition and empower Cambodian women in the four provinces around Tonlé Sap Lake in the northern part of the country, where the poverty rate tops 45 percent in some areas and there are high concentrations of stunting and malnutrition.

The $1 million project will work directly with 250 women farmers and will run until September 2019. It’s funded by the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab at Kansas State University, which currently funds similar projects in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso focused on using a farming practice called sustainable intensification, or S.I., to address the food and nutritional security of smallholder farmers.

“Basically, SI involves growing more food, on existing land, using less resources and in an ecologically friendly manner,” Bates wrote in an email to TakePart. Unlike the System of Rice Intensification, farming practices being promoted in Cambodia include co-planting rice with other vegetables, rotating crops, mulching, composting, and generally focusing on improving soil health over the long term.

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Significant financial, ecological, and nutritional opportunity is there. While the areas the project is focused on have high concentrations of stunting and malnutrition, they also boast the country’s most fertile soil and abundant water resources. Yet some 70 percent of Cambodia’s vegetables are imported, and increased monoculture farming has wiped out the indigenous vegetables that formed the backbone of the local food system. Soil degradation and pesticide use has left smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women, especially vulnerable to food insecurity. By reintroducing traditional and market-demanded vegetables, S.I. methods will create more biodiverse farming systems. Meanwhile, rice, which Cambodia has been exporting more of in the last several years and which represents a large component of the diet, will prove a key testing ground for S.I. technologies.

"An ecologically sensitive approach to SI in Cambodia is therefore paramount—one that can address pressures on the environment, greatly reduce reliance on harmful inputs, and improve household food and nutrition security by either encouraging production for household consumption, or providing economic opportunities in SI value chains, or both,” Bates wrote of the project.

For the team from Penn State, deploying S.I. principles in Cambodia isn’t just about ecological resilience. The project is aimed squarely at improving the socioeconomic and nutritional status of women and their families—not only through increased production, food, and economic security, but through overcoming the barriers that prevent women’s access to various links in the agricultural value chain, including markets. The goal, co–principal investigator Leif Jensen said, is for this approach to serve as a model for the entire country and region.

“Cambodia represents a best-case scenario for promoting S.I. through the increased involvement of women, who already play a significant and often nearly autonomous role in agriculture in much of the country,” Bates said.

When women farmers have the same access to resources as men do, they can increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, and in Cambodia, unlike many other developing nations where women are smallholder farmers, women often control the household finances. That puts them one step closer to improving the living conditions for their families: Studies show that when women have control over their family’s income, they spend 90 percent of it on their families, compared with the 30 to 40 percent that men spend, and children’s health and nutrition improves.

The Cambodian government supports efforts like these. In late 2015, it set out policies to improve the circumstances of women in rural areas and encourage more women in agriculture.

“[Women] are important partners in farming,” a 29 year-old farmer said at Cambodia’s recent National Champion Woman Farmer forum. “They help provide income for the stability of their family’s livelihood. They can be a good model for the next generation, as well as for other women in the community.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 23, 2016
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the farming practices that comprise the sustainable intensification being promoted in Cambodia.