Old irrigation pipes and import taxes are only two of the factors that can determine how much bread ends up on people’s tables. More obvious variables may spring to mind first: for example the world’s (growing) overall population, the amount people eat, and, most importantly, how much produce is harvested.
A lively panel debate at the EBRD’s Annual Meeting entitled The Food Security Challenge: Realising the Potential of Agriculture united experts from international organisations as well as representatives from the public and private sectors to discuss the complexity of agricultural production in central Asia, eastern Europe and the rest of the world.
A heterogeneous region
Three of the EBRD’s countries of operations – Annual Meeting host Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine– are globally among the main crop producers, but this provides only part of the picture for the broader geographic region. The Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan on the other hand, are highly dependent on imports from their neighbours, explained Johan Swinnen, a renowned agricultural expert from Leuven University.
This fact in itself would not necessarily be problematic if food were available and affordable at any time. However, since the mid-2000s food prices have been spiking to such a point that many international organisations, non-governmental organisations and the general public are alarmed.
Rising food prices are “a major concern”, stressed Dina Umali-Deininger from the World Bank. Even more so as this affects mainly socially vulnerable groups that have already been hard hit by the global financial crisis.
Unlocking the region’s potential
A large territory in the EBRD region is arable land, which means that unlocking the region’s potential can be an important part of solving the global food crisis. However there are various challenges that the sector faces.
Kazakh Minister for Agriculture Asylzhan Mamytbekov stressed, for example, that irrigation systems date back to Soviet times and are in urgent need of modernisation.
Further, Kazakhstan faces the additional challenge of being a landlocked country. The lack of an accessible port means that the country mainly exports produce to its neighbouring countries, as transport costs can put a strain on shipping goods to countries further afield.
The EBRD’s Andre Kuusvek, Director for Ukraine, stressed the large potential for increasing agricultural production in Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. He also underscored the competitive advantage of the EBRD, which can provide a “full service” to its clients. This includes not only innovative financing facilities for entrepreneurs, but also policy dialogue with the governments of its countries of operations to address potential problems of a regulatory or structural nature.
Panellists also noted the importance of identifying and using new technologies to increase and improve agricultural production. Recent droughts, for example, have demonstrated the need to make agricultural production more climate change-resistant and to unlock the full potential of crops, said Aleksander Berkovsky from Russian company Syngenta.
This idea was also taken up by Igor Ermolenko, CEO of Kazakh grain company Kazexportastyk, who emphasised the importance of research and development in the agricultural sector to feed an increasingly hungry world.