May 1, 2024

Erkinbek Kamalov

India-Central Asia can cooperate on agriculture sector for food security

India-Central Asia can cooperate on agriculture sector for food security

India stands out among the global community as one of the few countries capable of achieving food sufficiency for its entire population.
How Central Asian nations can cooperate with India on agriculture sector for their food security?

Agriculture has always remained a focus area for the Central Asian countries. In February 2020, the India-Central Asia Business Council was established in New Delhi in the framework of the Foreign Ministers dialogue. It has four working groups: on oil and gas; agro-processing and agricultural machinery; transport and logistics; and pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
In the Third meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue and Delhi Declaration of the 1st India-Central Asia Summit in January 2022 the leaders noted that there is a need to boost trade and investments in agriculture and agricultural products.

Central Asian nations heavily rely on imported food items and crucial agricultural resources. A significant portion of the wheat consumed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan originates from Kazakhstan and Russia. Wheat and its derivatives constitute a substantial portion of the diet in these countries, contributing to over a third of caloric intake in Kyrgyzstan and nearly half in Tajikistan. Trade relationships with Russia and intra-regional agricultural food trade play pivotal roles in meeting the food demands of Central Asian populations. Moreover, the region exhibits a high dependence on imported fertilizers, with a substantial portion sourced from Russia. For instance, in 2021, a quarter of Uzbekistan's fertilizer imports (a significant supplier to Tajikistan), over one-third in Kyrgyzstan, and close to three-quarters in Kazakhstan were acquired from Russia.

According to a World Bank paper, agricultural food export earnings, in particular in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where the share of Russia in total agricultural food exports is roughly one third, will depend on the evolution of Russian demand and the continued functioning of supply chains. At the regional level, fruits and vegetables are by far the largest category in agricultural food exports to Russia, with Uzbekistan being the largest supplier.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with just under seven years remaining until the deadline, Central Asia is advancing towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of Zero Hunger, addressing issues such as food insecurity and various forms of malnutrition, despite significant challenges encountered in recent years.
Major issues of sustainability in the Central Asian countries have been sustainable agriculture and natural resource management, which are critical for food security and the welfare of rural communities.

It is crucial to prioritize land and forest management, enhance resource efficiency, and promote sustainable farming practices. These efforts can yield economic, social, and environmental advantages, fostering 'green' growth. This approach has the potential to bolster the prosperity of agricultural communities, create new employment opportunities, increase incomes, and enhance overall quality of life.

Streamlining border procedures, creating agricultural clusters, and improving road connectivity are key steps to overcoming obstacles. Entities such as CAREC, ADB, and the Islamic Development Bank have played significant roles in enhancing roads and facilitating economic corridors for smoother and safer cross-border transportation of goods. As the Central Asian countries are tilting more towards conservation agriculture, India has much to share in that practice.

In many parts of India, there is still significant potential to increase the agronomic yield of food staples by addressing gaps in management practices. Embracing conservation agriculture as a foundation for sustainable intensification (SI) offers a promising solution, particularly in rainfed and delicate ecosystems, while also safeguarding natural resources. Conservation agriculture techniques have demonstrated the ability to achieve higher yields with fewer inputs (such as costs, water, energy, and labour), mitigate environmental degradation, encourage the use of organic materials (thus discouraging residue burning), enhance soil health, and improve resilience to climate-related risks.

While conservation agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it has a proven track record of revitalizing agriculture, as seen in South America's experience over the past 35 years, where it propelled cereal and oilseed production to new heights. Therefore, for addressing the challenges of resource depletion and narrowing management yield gaps, conservation agriculture-based sustainable intensification stands as a fundamental approach.

Over the last 20 years, significant research endeavors have focused on the development, adaptation, and expansion of conservation agriculture for sustainable intensification. These efforts have been spearheaded by various entities such as ICAR, State Agriculture Universities (SAUs), CIMMYT, CGIAR centers, developmental departments, NGOs, private sector actors, and farmers' organizations. While there exist promising success stories involving conservation agriculture technologies, the full potential impact has yet to be realized.

Conservation agriculture represents a collection of farming techniques centered around minimal mechanical disturbance of the soil, diversified crop rotation, and maintaining permanent soil cover with crop residues. Its primary goals are to mitigate soil erosion, enhance soil fertility, and optimize resource utilization through conservation agriculture-driven technologies. Conservation Agriculture offers a multitude of tangible and intangible advantages, including lowered production costs, time savings, boosted yields via timely planting, improved water efficiency, resilience to climate fluctuations, decreased occurrences of diseases and pests due to increased biological diversity, minimized environmental impacts, and ultimately, enhancements in soil health. India can impart complete technical knowledge to the Central Asian countries on enhancing agricultural yield and progress towards food security.

Erkinbek Kamalov