Penn State, National University of Battambang project will aid food security

Rick Bates, professor of horticulture at Penn State, left, is shown with Khemrin Khieu, field technician with the World Vegetable Center, center, and Channaty Ngang, research technician at the National University of Battambang. They are conducting an inventory of perennial wild food plants at a cooperating farm in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This photo was taken in February 2019. Credit: Rick BatesAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Improving the economic and household nutrition prospects of women farmers and their families in Cambodia is a key focus of a new partnership between Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, the National University of Battambang and the World Bank.

The collaboration is an outgrowth of a five-year relationship between Penn State and the National University of Battambang that started in 2015 with the “Women in Agriculture Network: Cambodia” project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The project teaches Cambodian farmers ways to diversify their operations by capitalizing on the use of perennial wild food plants, noted principal investigator Rick Bates, who pointed to USAID statistics showing that an estimated 2.3 million Cambodians face severe food insecurity and low dietary diversity.

“These wild food plants quite often are valuable sources of nutrients, have an important documented presence in local produce markets, and can possess important medicinal properties,” said Bates, professor of horticulture at Penn State. “Thus, they are a powerful tool in the battle against malnutrition and also contribute substantially to food security and income generation via increased market access, especially by women.”

He explained that the latest agreement is geared to help accomplish that goal by providing broad-based technical cooperation and support for improving the quality of education in science and technology at the Battambang City-based university, which will benefit Cambodian communities.

Through its Higher Education Improvement Project, the World Bank has provided $5 million to the National University of Battambang through the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport for the three-year program. This is a nationwide project with four other Cambodian universities, Bates noted.

“As we gain experience about food security strategies, we need to formalize this knowledge and integrate it into Cambodia’s agriculture education and training system,” said Bates. “These resources will not only be crucial to the Higher Education Improvement Project at Battambang but also will leverage nongovernmental organizations and agriculture development work throughout Cambodia."

An area of concentration for the Penn State partnership will be horticulture. Besides upgrading the existing undergraduate horticulture curriculum at the National University of Battambang, Bates and project collaborators will create new educational resources and infrastructure focused on underutilized plant species.

Shown is a Cambodian farmer who started a wild food plants nursery with support from the USAID-funded ‘‘Women in Agriculture Network: Cambodia” project. The plants were transported to the National University of Battambang to be used as stock plants for future propagation.  Credit: Rick BatesAll Rights Reserved.

They also will develop a wild food plants nursery and seed lab at the Battambang-based university that will be the first of its kind in Cambodia, Bates pointed out. The facility will grow a diverse array of highly nutritious, medicinal and economically important wild food species, which are critical components of the food system for many rural Cambodians.

An example of these species is Acacia pennata, also referred to as Cha-om, a fast-growing shrub that can serve multiple purposes. Its shoots are naturally high in beta-carotene, making it a valuable tool in preventing blindness due to vitamin A deficiency, which is a serious public health problem among children in Southeast Asia.

This project offers a unique opportunity to work alongside a relatively new Cambodian university to assist with focused human and institutional capacity-building efforts, noted Deanna Behring, assistant dean for international programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Many of the areas targeted by the National University of Battambang play to the strengths of our college,” she said. “The exchanges that will result from this partnership also will address important aspects of food security, including gender, youth, nutrition and economic growth, which are important elements of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Last Updated March 19, 2021