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As world grasps for rice, Cambodia's success story

The rice-exporting country has seen a dramatic rebound thanks to years of agricultural research.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

For 30 years the rice fields at a commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh lay mostly barren and unused, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist regime that led almost 2 million Cambodians to their death, many from starvation.

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But today Cambodia has a rice surplus. And these fields are incubating some of the most advanced rice technology in Cambodia, under the tutelage of the Cambodian Agricultural Research Institute (CARDI), which is at the center of Cambodia's largely unheralded "green" revolution.

As the global food crisis continues to spark riots and rationing, Cambodia's turnaround showcases the power – and the limits – of rice research, experts say. Few countries in modern history have engineered as dramatic an agricultural rebound as Cambodia.

In 10 years, beginning in 1987, by applying the tool suite of the Green Revolution – new rice varieties, improved irrigation, and better fertilizer – the country has risen to a peak of rice output, producing enough rice to be self-sufficient for the first time in 25 years.

"It has been a big achievement for [Cambodia]," says Men Sarom, CARDI's director. "And I think research contributed a lot to that."

The kernel of that research was first planted in the 1960s, when scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a pioneering agricultural institute based in the Philippines, developed higher-yield varieties of grain and introduced new systems of irrigation and fertilizer. Thus was born the Rice Revolution.

Of particular importance was IR8, a rice variety that had a yield double that of normal rice, was less susceptible to disease and more responsive to fertilizer. Dubbed the "miracle rice," it has been credited with averting massive famine in India, Africa, and throughout the developing world in the 1970s.

Cambodia is home to one of the Green Revolution's greatest successes. In 1969, Cambodia's annual rice production was 4 million tons a year, a healthy output. But by 1980, the 6 million people who had survived the Communist Khmer Rouge era, from 1975 to 1978, were on the brink of starvation. By 1997, however, Cambodia had been virtually reborn: its rice fields were producing nearly as much rice as they had in 1969, but on half the land, making the country rice self-sufficient once again.

The rebound was the result of a collaboration between the Cambodian government, the IRRI, and the Australia government, which together invested millions of dollars in irrigation, infrastructure, and fertilizer beginning in 1987. They also trained 1,300 scientists and support staff to revitalize the country's agricultural system. And the new high-yielding rice varieties allowed farmers to produce more on less land.

Today, experts say, Cambodia's yields have risen from 1.35 tons per hectare to 2.5 tons per hectare. It produces enough to export – more than a million tons this year – but recently imposed export controls to ensure it has enough for its own people.