Press Conference by David Lane, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome

Thank you all for joining us today to discuss challenges and progress being made in food security and nutrition in Cambodia.  As the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome, I am especially pleased to be joined today by the World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director GianPietro Bordignon, the Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) Country Director Nina Brandstrup, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Cambodia Mission Director Rebecca Black.   Over the past five days, we have been traveling across six provinces in Cambodia, starting in Siem Reap and ending in Phnom Penh, visiting project sites supported by WFP, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), USAID and our partners.  We have met with local communities and talked directly with rural poor families about how these programs and activities work together with the Cambodian people to improve food security, nutrition, and economic growth through agriculture in Cambodia.  This trip has been particularly important, because we have been accompanied by seven journalists from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made ending extreme poverty and hunger in our lifetime a top priority of his Administration.  Through Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s primary food security and hunger initiative, we have learned a lot about what is needed to increase agricultural productivity, to ensure access to safe and nutritious food, to facilitate training and financing to enable smallholder farmers to adopt new technologies, and to develop market linkages in order to raise small-holder farmer incomes.

Cambodia’s economic growth over the last decade has been truly impressive, and I understand that the economy is expected to grow another seven percent next year. It is crucial that smallholder farmers and their families benefit from the great economic strides that are being made.  Agriculture accounts for 30% of the country’s gross domestic product.  When you include Cambodians working in fisheries and forestry, nearly five million people work in the agricultural sector, making it the largest source of employment in the country.  Yet one in five rural Cambodians are living under the official poverty line, with a similar number teetering just above the threshold.  Two out of five are malnourished, which robs individuals of social and economic potential.  As we talked with farmers, we were reminded of their desire to improve their own lives and the lives of their children. We have also seen that the best projects are those in which the goals and activities of the Cambodian people, the U.S. government, and the international community work in alignment.

My reflections and learnings from this trip that I would like to share with you today will focus on three key areas:

  • Ensuring access to enough healthy food for the most vulnerable populations;
  • Improving nutrition, especially during the critical period before a child is two years old, which means targeting interventions to pregnant and lactating women and young children; and
  • Facilitating dissemination and adoption of well-proven technologies and innovations, in order to move farmers beyond subsistence farming to commercial production.

Too many Cambodians do not have access to enough nutritious food to lead healthy and productive lives. Several programs are working to address this.

The World Food Program and USAID have collaborated with the local population to help them survive particularly difficult times through payment for work on important projects to improve their infrastructure.  The road connecting Peanea Village to the nearest town was damaged in the 2011 floods.   By paying villagers during the lean season for work to rehabilitate and improve the quality of the road, the program not only provided badly needed income to buy food, but also enhanced their ability to survive future shocks, such as another flood.

A School Meals Program at Wat Run primary school encourages children to attend school regularly by providing breakfast for the students.  But many children in Cambodia still drop out after grade 3, as their labor is needed to help support the family.  To enable families to keep their children in school longer, WFP offers scholarships to the poorest school children in grades 4 to 6, providing food or cash to purchase food, as long as the child continues in school.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s McGovern-Dole Food and Nutrition Program supports the effort by providing much of the food.  The families who benefit also contribute supplies and labor.

Other programs also work to ensure that Cambodia’s children and youth are well-nourished, so that they can develop into healthy adults who will be prepared to lead Cambodia in the years to come.

We know that the days before a child turns two are especially critical for development of both their minds and bodies. To address this need, in Wat Kandol village, WFP provides special vitamin and mineral fortified foods for pregnant women and children under two years of age, as part of a program that also includes education on nutrition and food preparation.  In another example, with training and support from USAID, participants in Chrey Village’s HARVEST program now supplement their core diet of rice with more nutrition-rich crops which they grow in small garden plots and fish they raise in household fish ponds.

The farmers we met have dreams that go far beyond subsistence farming.  Many small-holder farmers see themselves as business people, and are eager to gain skills to become commercial producers.  Achieving this requires innovation in all steps of the farm-to-market process. We met with farmers who are learning better techniques to diversify their crops, increase their productivity, and preserve and market their products.  Some farmers have begun using more efficient drum seeders, while others save money with targeted fertilizer application. We even talked with farmers who are taking advantage of micro financing to make small-scale investments.

One particularly interesting innovation is the production and use of biogas. Like solar and wind, biogas is a renewable energy source, produced by the breakdown of organic matter, such as manure. Used as cooking fuel, it’s clean, safe, and saves hours of time normally spent gathering firewood, while the byproduct of the bio-digester, the slurry, is an excellent fertilizer. It is a perfect technology for small holder farmers. But most current bio-digesters are too large and too expensive for the poorest people.  IFAD is collaborating with the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture to develop smaller and cheaper bio-digesters and help farmers acquire them through subsidies and linkage with micro-finance institutions.

These are just a few of the exciting and innovative programs we have seen that give me confidence in the future of Cambodia’s agricultural development.

I’d like to close by saying that donor investment, government commitment at all levels, and the hard work of farmers and communities are showing results.  I saw communities and households that have higher incomes and better food security, and are better prepared to deal with droughts and other crises.   It is a great time to invest in agricultural development because we know more today about what works in agriculture than we ever have.  The next challenge will be to share these great examples and ideas, so that the innovations can be taken to a larger scale, and Cambodia and its smallholder farmers can achieve food security and a higher standard of living for their families.