Rebecca Luria-Phillips examines the world of natural farming to discover exactly what makes a fruit and vegetable ‘organic’.

The journey of an organic vegetable from the Cambodian countryside to your table begins long before the seed is planted. “With organic, you have to get it right before the seed goes in,” says Winfried Scheewe of German development agency GIZ, an advisor to the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA).

Improvements to soil quality, investments in green manure — where crops are planted to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil — and assurances that there is no cross-contamination from non-organic crops must all be in place. Planting and growing comes next, along with harvesting, processing, transport and marketing.

Provided each stage conforms to Cambodian organic industry standards, the product is then classified ‘organic’ or ‘chemical-free’ by one of two groups offering independent certification — the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association and the Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC) — with norms and standards based on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

Both organisations employ an inspection and certification system in which independent auditors — free from conflict of interest — perform scheduled and unscheduled visits to applicant farms and farm groups.

Inspectors ascertain conformity to organic or chemical-free standards, including looking at producers’ understanding of organic farming techniques, checking the property and household for banned substances, analysing the presence of insects such as butterflies and bees, and reviewing how the farmer manages pest control, soil fertility and contamination risk.

Certification by both organisations is paid for by farms and farm groups, but members all receive technical assistance from GIZ to improve agriculture practices and certification protocols. Given the small scale of chemical-free and organic production in Cambodia, external certification by an international agency is cost-prohibitive. Industry practitioners would like to see, and are working towards, certification occurring at a Southeast Asian regional level.

Nevertheless, Scheewe says the number of farmers interested in organics is growing. “One big challenge is to get smallholders to adopt more sustainable practices which require learning new techniques,” he adds. “Hopefully, they will be able to learn from the advanced larger firms.”

One test for would-be organic farmers is that the price of certified vegetables and fruits generally don’t reflect their improved pedigree, in contrast to the West where organic products are more expensive. This is due to a lack of awareness and faith on the part of producers, retailers and consumers that it’s a distinction worth promoting and paying for.

Consumers can become wary of organic and chemical-free claims in a place like Cambodia, where anyone can write or print the words ‘organic’, ‘chemical-free’ or ‘natural’ on their product without recourse. Currently, if volumes of organic vegetables coming from the provinces aren’t sufficient to make transport worthwhile, they are sold in the local market alongside conventionally-produced vegetables and their distinction is lost.

Talmage Payne, a board member of COrAA and co-owner of Discovery Farms, believes that “commanding 10 to 15 percent more for organically produced vegetables is likely enough to convince farmers to conform to organic practices.”

It is hoped that seeing demand in the cities will also help “convert” farmers to improved and ecologically-sound agriculture practices and, if they wish, organic certification — a move which leads to environmental sustainability and reduced pesticide consumption by consumers.

Experts say that chemical and synthetic materials are often used to fertilise and control insects on vegetables from both Cambodia and Vietnam.”Farmers in Cambodia don’t understand the proper application of pesticides due to most instructions being in Thai or Vietnamese,” explains Scheewe.

A 2010 study of pesticide residues in Cambodian market vegetables by Doug Graber Neufeld, Biology Professor at Eastern Mennonite University in the United States confirmed that consumers are regularly exposed to traces, although levels vary depending on the vegetable, farm condition and pesticide used.

“Some of the most toxic pesticides are banned from use [by the Word Health Organisation] but still available in the [Cambodian] marketplace. There is very little government enforcement and regulation about their application and usage,” adds Christian Fink, a GIZ technical advisor to CEDAC.

In the meantime, when shopping for organic produce, consumers can look for the COrAA labels and remember it is the product that is certified, rather than a store. The farm should also be identified. If a retailer or restaurant is claiming organic, ask to see certification.

At CEDAC shops consumers can believe that the products for sale conform to its organic, chemical-free and natural principles. If shopping at the market, ask the seller about the origins of the vegetables and production methods used. There are chemical-free products available, but they’re likely not labelled.

Certified chemical-free and organic vegetables and fruit can be found most plentifully at Natural Garden, CEDAC shops and the soon-to-open Digby’s Market.

Cambodian organic agriculture