Transforming Agriculture as a Key Component of Food Security
Food security has remained a particularly critical topic in the Caspian region amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Wheat and flour export quotas in Kazakhstan were increased from 200,000 to 250,000 tones and doubled to 150,000 tons, respectively, affecting neighboring countries that rely on wheat imports. Significant rises in food prices generated by disruptions in trade and panic buying have noticeably contributed to the already difficult situation. In Kazakhstan alone, for example, food prices increased by a remarkable 9.3 percent over the course of a few months.
Food security in the region has always been a priority issue, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 19, 2019, policymakers, experts, and academics from five Central Asian countries convened in Almaty to discuss the current effectiveness of the irrigation system and to offer ways to develop it further. Modernization of irrigation practices, particularly the abandonment of flood irrigation, is essential for not only increasing crop yields but also for improving water management, another critical issue in the region.
Countries of the Southern Caucasus have paid close attention to food security by adopting new agricultural projects. For example, Armenia adopted a strategy for economic development in the agricultural sector for 2020-2030, which identifies major steps towards reducing uncultivated lands, developing a credit market, improving irrigation, and ensuring a minimum level of food availability and self-sufficiency of diversified food. Similarly, the Agricultural Support to Azerbaijan Project (ASAP) in Azerbaijan aims to promote agribusiness in the country and diversify its economy. Access to new technologies, expansion of agricultural exports, and cooperation among actors in a value chain, as well as the implementation of more efficient food safety systems, are the main priorities of the project.
The COVID-19 pandemic is fueling growing concern about food security and agricultural success in the region. The World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia, Lilia Burunciuc, reported that about $1.6 billion was invested in agricultural projects to increase efficiency and productivity and create additional jobs in the sector. The World Bank and other international institutions are also reviewing the possibility of allocating more financial resources into the region, given the current public health crisis. For instance, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is implementing the Sustainable Land Management project in Georgia. The project is intended to introduce crop rotation practices that will ensure soil productivity and food security in the region. Furthermore, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced new policies in mid-April designed to support struggling farmers and ensure food security in the country. For example, farmers looking to start small businesses would receive a $9,418 grant. In addition, farmers were declared exempt from paying irrigation tax in 2020. Financial assistance, coupled with international programs to boost productivity, will alleviate some COVID-19 related concerns of farmers.
Azerbaijan has also implemented a slew of initiatives to support its agricultural sector amidst the pandemic. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an order that would grant $16.5 million to the state-owned “Agroleasing” Open Joint Stock Company to acquire advanced agricultural machinery and equipment. President Aliyev’s efforts have caught the attention of international organizations seeking to make inroads in the country’s agricultural sector. In mid-April, the European Union Delegation to Azerbaijan announced its commitment to allocate €2 million ($2.24 million) towards four grant contracts to promote local food production and create new supply chains and advisory services for farmers.
Leaders of the Caspian countries have also prioritized regional cooperation in food security. The ministers of agriculture of Central Asian countries and representatives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) held a videoconference in mid-May to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agricultural sector.
Policies implemented to support agricultural sectors amidst the pandemic are critical to maintaining stable food supply lines and agricultural production. The levels of regional cooperation and international support to achieve these initiatives have grown since the start of the pandemic. The regional and international policies enacted to support agricultural sectors have displayed the Caspian region’s resilience to the pandemic, and could even result in a more market-oriented, competitive, and prosperous region.