About 925 million people are undernourished (pdf) in the world and Central Asia is no exception. People living in Central Asia are severely impacted by fluctuations in food prices. The primary concern related to food security in the region is the relatively high level of poverty faced by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (47.2 percent and 31.7 percent, respectively), and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan.
The region is also vulnerable to natural hazards including earthquakes, floods, land degradation and scarcity of water. Partly because of these hazards, Central Asia suffers from low agricultural productivity, which is one of the main causes of food insecurity.
Central Asian populations suffer from both short and long term food insecurity.
Temporary food shortages can be due to natural causes, such as earthquakes or floods. For example, the energy crises in the winter of 2007 and 2008 in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan resulted in shortages of food, a peak in prices and aggravated food insecurity in both countries.
Chronic insecurity is a much bigger and long-term problem and happens when people are not able to meet their minimum food requirements over a long period of time. Causes include:
- Extended periods of poverty
- Lack of assets
- Insufficient access to production or financial resources
This ultimately leads to malnutrition in the population. The country most affected by chronic insecurity in Central Asia is Tajikistan,where according to the International Food Policy Research Institute about 26 percent of the population is undernourished (See: A Regional View of Wheat Markets and Food Security in Central Asia (pdf)).
The agriculture sector
Central Asian countries have taken steps toward a market oriented system after their independence. Kazakhstan is able to produce enough cereals that it can sustain its population’s needs and export the remaining wheat to other countries in the region.
However, the rest of Central Asia experienced a decline in its agricultural productivity and produces mostly low quality wheat. This is due to a number of factors, such as:
- Underinvestment in the agricultural sector
- Complicated land ownership laws
- Government intervention in export markets
- The environment
- Input costs, such as the price of fuel
Because food production in all Central Asian countries except Kazakhstan cannot fully satisfy national demand, people rely on imports, particularly for wheat. Dependence on wheat imports varies from country to country and it is higher in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which import 43 percent and 69 percent respectively of the wheat required to meet domestic food needs.
When a country relies on cereal imports, a main staple in Central Asia, it becomes highly vulnerable to changes in the price of food. This can have a significant impact on poor households particularly in countries like Tajikistan where 80 percent of household income is spent on food, compared to developed countries where about 15 to 30 percent of household income is spent on food.
Import price volatility is sensitive to changes in input costs. The higher price for fuel and other inputs also cause a decrease in their own agriculture production. This might then result in further poverty in rural areas where approximately 30 percent of the population is employed in the agricultural sector.
The best strategy to improve food security in Central Asia is to reduce poverty through economic growth by increasing agricultural productivity. People living in poverty in rural areas would be the first to benefit, and food prices would be more likely to stabilize since the countries would not be as dependent on imports.
As the latest policy brief Food Security Challenges Facing Central Asia explains, the agricultural sector can be best supported through:
- Investing in capital
- Fixing over employment
- Correcting market distortions
- Creation of a better business environment, including a risk management programme for farmers
- Design and implementation of policies that focus on nutrition and cross-sector partnerships
While Kazakhstan saw record harvest in 2011 which has shown a positive trend in food prices in the rest of Central Asia, we agree with a recent EBRD blog post that explains this is not a time for policy makers to relax. In particular policy makers worrying about food and energy price volatility need to take a broader view that considers the need to boost food supply through adequate price signals and policies that help, rather than hinder, long-term supply responses.
This would be ideal, but can supply really adapt quickly in countries with low agriculture productivity and highly centralized agriculture production?