Two Central Asian countries cope with food issues

Terrain, natural resources help Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan

By Shakar Saadi, Burzumekhr Ansori, Yaroslava Naumenko and Asker Sultanov

2011-05-18

Second of two parts

When it comes to food security, each Central Asian country is beset by its own particular problems or has its own blessings.

While some neighbouring countries – namely Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – struggle with the issue of how to keep their people fed well enough to support a healthy lifestyle, geography, topography and natural resources help Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan stave off the ill effects of food insecurity.

That ranking, though, is relative and neither Uzbekistan nor Kazakhstan is exempt from the prospect of dealing with food shortfalls or related problems.

Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan somewhat better off

Two countries with less rugged terrain and more hydrocarbon wealth have done better at feeding their people.

Uzbekistan’s government claims it has attained food security, but the country chronically lacks water.

“To achieve food security, a country must have the resources to pay for imports, withstand food extortion, and not depend on humanitarian aid,” Uzbek economist Sakhovat Bairomov said. “Today, Uzbekistan fully meets all those criteria (by producing more than 90% of the food consumed domestically).”

Among other problems facing Uzbekistan, he pointed to “the steady growth of the population (1.7% per year), which will make it increasingly difficult to provide a balanced diet nationally.”

“Secondly, the Aral Sea tragedy has gravely affected the condition of soil,” Bairomov said. “Also, one should consider the shortage of irrigated land suitable for farming, and the shortage of water, including drinking water, in Uzbekistan.”

The Aral Sea crisis has attracted international attention, including a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010. Soviet and post-Soviet irrigation projects drained the sea to 10% of its original size by 2007.

However, Uzbekistan will be able to stay self-sufficient in food for decades to come, Makhamadzhon Kasymov, head of the Agriculture and Water Ministry’s Chief Administration for Economic Reforms in the Countryside, said.

“The president’s 2009 Decree ‘On Measures to Optimise Cultivation Areas and Increase Crop Production’ expanded the areas sowed under cereal crops and oil plants,” he said. “In 2010, Uzbekistan harvested a record yield of wheat, about 7m tonnes, and the president ... said the country had become self-sufficient in grain. In his more recent reports summing up last year’s results, he said Uzbekistan had attained full food self-sufficiency.”

The country even exports part (12%) of its agricultural production, Kasymov added.

Kazakhstan leads the region

Kazakhstan has the best food situation in the region, analysts agree. Nurzhanov noted it even exports 14% of its grain harvest.

The country is drafting a food security programme that calls for new farming and livestock-breeding technology, said an Agriculture Ministry analyst who requested anonymity because he lacked authorisation to talk to media.

“Concerns over last year’s drought, which damaged much of the harvest, caused us to consider using new technology,” the analyst said. “Besides, we plan to introduce new irrigation and fertilisation systems.”

Dmitry Verkhoturov of the NGO Central Asia Development Institute contended that Kazakhstan is “barely 30% self-sufficient in terms of food. The share of imports is large even as regards such basic food products as vegetables and meat. Kazakhstan is self-sufficient only in grain, I think.”

Nurzhanov disagreed, saying Kazakhstan imports only 6 or 7% of its food.

Kazakhstan spent more than 580 billion KZT ($3.98 billion) on agricultural development in 2003-2010, largely on subsidies to farmers.

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