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.
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.
Still, as Cambodia also illustrates, scientific advances will only take rice production so far. Although Cambodia's yields have doubled in the last 30 years, they are only almost half that of Thailand and Laos (where better soil conditions, seed varieties, climate and management make for higher outputs). Meanwhile, weeds here still cause rice yield losses of up to 30 percent, and poor seed quality in some areas means that 160,000 tons of rice rot every year, according to a report by the IRRI.
"There are still many problems that need to be addressed – problems from climate change and market changes," say Mr. Sarom.
Scientists also warn that the amount of land being farmed – especially in the developing world – has not increased substantially in the last two decades. Urban sprawl and industrial development continue to compete for farmland.
"Even here in Thailand [the world's largest exporter of rice], even if they wanted to, they can't produce more rice. There isn't much more farmland, and the production level is also already pretty high," says Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program in Thailand.
The recent global food crisis has sharply underlined that, despite the Green Revolution's benefits, many countries are simply not able to produce enough food for their exploding populations.
But even if the biggest production advances have already been achieved, that doesn't mean scientists are giving up.
CARDI, continues to develop new varieties that can produce better quality rice and withstand inclement weather. Sarom says research is already pointing the way to higher rice yields. "In America and Australia, you have yields of six to eight tons of rice per hectare. Why not here? We still have the potential to increase productivity," he says.
That enthusiasm was echoed by the country's agriculture minister, Chan Sarun, Tuesday when he said he expects Cambodia to produce enough rice to export some 8 million tons a year by 2015. That would make it one of the world's top rice exporters.
And around the world, research still offers the promise of better yields. For example, hybrid rice, a blend of three kinds of rice, grows faster, is more disease resistant, and produces 20 percent higher yields. Hybrids are only just starting to catch on: 800,000 hectares were planted in Asia outside of China between 2001-02, but only 1,000 in Indonesia, for example, and only 20,000 in Bangladesh, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The expanded use of hybrids has particular promise for food security, the FAO adds.
The current food crisis may be creating an investment environment for a second Green Revolution, some analysts say. By averting massive famine, the first Green Revolution helped create an impression among world leaders that investments in agriculture were no longer as vital. Many countries stopped spending on agricultural development. That may be starting to change as Malaysia, the Philippines, and China have in recent weeks announced plans to boost investment in agriculture.