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Kyrgyzstan: Authorities strive to ensure food security

16.06.2008 23:30 msk

Nezavisimaya Gazeta

Business Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has introduced export duties on wheat, flour, vegetable oil and some seeds. Additionally, measures to soon restrict sugar and rice exports are being considered. These export duties are being implemented to alleviate the effect of the general price-rise and ensure the country’s food security.

"Inconsiderate policy, global trends, and an arduous winter may cause a famine in Kazakhstan," experts warned in early 2008. In the mean time, Kyrgyz media outlets continue to speculate about whether the nation’s "food security is in jeopardy".

Since Kyrgyzstan is an import-dependent country, soaring food prices in world markets can severely hurt the country. Particularly affected are the poor, making up nearly 50% of the population of Kyrgyzstan. Observers note that food prices in the country have doubled and even tripled in less than a year, while communal service tariffs and transport fees have soared. A fairly impoverished country facing grave problems in the energy sector, Kyrgyzstan may not have the means to cope with such massive problems.

Experts and state officials view the shape the nation’s agriculture sector is in as one of the principal dangers to food security. When the USSR disintegrated, all collective farms were disbanded and land was parceled out among peasants. As things stand, there are nearly 300,000 Kyrgyz farms and private land plots spread over 913,000 hectares. Each of them, therefore, averages just over 3 hectares. However, experts say that a farmer needs at least 100 hectares to plant for the farm to be profitable and permit alternating crops, planned fertilization and irrigation, and efficient cultivation. All of this is considered well beyond the ability of Kyrgyz farmers.

Government authorities admit that unification into major cooperatives probably offers the most promising opportunity for small farmers and peasants. The peasants, however, have shown no interest in returning to cooperatives. Also, cooperatives require administrators and managers with practical experience. Yet, there are no such specialists in Kyrgyz rural communities because young men who are educated refuse to live in depressed villages, while ambitious young people seek employment abroad. Additionally, the wage problem is heightened by facts such as a street sweeper in Moscow is paid ten times the sum a Kyrgyz peasant may earn by working in his home village. Further, existing chairmen of collective farms are incapacitated by their lack of free enterprise experience, as separate farms cannot establish adequate cooperation and interaction.

There had been a smoothly working system for the distribution of fertilizers, fodder, and other materials during the Soviet period, but today owners grapple with these distribution problems on their own. Since infrastructure is lacking, the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture is down by 65% and use of crop protecting agents has decreased 40%, according to data grudgingly provided by the Ministry of Agriculture). While agricultural machinery often barely functions, new agricultural machinery being bought with foreign credits is distributed among large farming cooperatives, thus encouraging unification. By and large, however, the state cannot help farmers. The republic, in general, needs 228,000 tons of fertilizers, but has bought only 3.860 tons (or 16%) – which officials say is all it can afford. Also, available diesel fuel amounts to only 25% of what is needed. While some seeds are made available to farmers and peasants at a discount, a substantial part of this relief aid is pilfered, according to officials.

Further, farmers and peasants are short of finances because a considerable part of dividends ends up in intermediaries' pockets. Sub-purchasers buy crops from small farms at wholesale prices because farmers cannot take the time to sell their crops at markets. When farmers complain, they often find themselves bullied and harassed by sub-purchasers. The lack of adequate transport is playing its part, too. Loaning money from banks remains problematic because of interest payments as high as 20% and more. Also, the lack of political and economic stability has harmed the agriculture sector. Lastly, fuel prices rising every two to three weeks have added to the farmers' and peasants' problems.

Food prices, meanwhile, change on a daily basis. Farmers and peasants claim that much of their harvested crops never reach Kyrgyz cities because Kazakh and Uzbek businessmen purchase part of the crops. With less available, potato and flour prices leaped 15-20% in May alone.

Also important (and burdensome), Kyrgyzstan has to import wheat. Kazakhstan banned wheat exports recently and Kyrgyz authorities turned to Russia as an alternative exporter. Meanwhile, land being planted in Kyrgyzstan was expanded from 360,000 hectares last year to 400,000 in 2008. To grow enough wheat for domestic consumption, Kyrgyzstan must plant 500,000 hectares, according to officials, and that is the announced goal official Bishkek hopes to achieve by 2010.

The effect of these efforts will become clear by the fall. For the time being, the state has opened a special bank account for donations to the poor and the sale of subsidized foodstuffs for the poor is being contemplated. Discontent in the country, in the meantime, is growing. Careers of state officials depend, to a considerable extent, on the ability of authorities to make sure people have food on their tables. The opposition is already using the subject of rising food prices as its slogan, and riots among those famished is gradually becoming a grim possibility.

Grigori Mikhailov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), No 119, June 16, 2008, p. 17. Original text is here - http://www.ng.ru/courier/2008-06-16/17_hunger.html © Translated by Ferghana.Ru