Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Kazakhstan wants to take advantage of its proximity to the world's largest beef importers. The country's abundance of pastureland and history of nomadic herding is a good start, but investment in modern technologies and good breeding stock are going to be equally important.
Speaking to bne shortly before his promotion from chairman of KazAgro to minister of agriculture, Asylzhan Mamytbekov likens Kazakh meat to a flavoursome wild apple, rather than one ripened in an orchard. "The product is organic, there are no growth hormones, unlike in many meat-exporting countries. We have not produced genetically modified plants for cattle fodder, our animals graze where they choose on the steppe," he says.
In 21st century Kazakhstan, few people still take their animals to the high summer pastures, living in yurts while they fatten their herds. But meat is still at the heart of Kazakh cuisine and culture. At banquets and family gatherings, the centrepiece is the huge platter with meat piled high on a bed of noodles. Beshbarmak - the national dish - is usually made with mutton or horsemeat, but can be beef, camel or even fish in the areas near the Caspian Sea. It is washed down with fermented mare's or camel's milk. "Kazakhs are the second-highest consumers of meat in the world," they like to tell foreigners. "The first are wolves!"
In the Soviet times, Kazakh meat was sent elsewhere in the union, justifying the 3.5m heads of cattle in the country. But since then, the number of cattle has fallen to under 2m and herds of other animals dwindled as well. The 16m-strong population was catered for, but there was little incentive to produce more due to the restrictions on meat and dairy product transport between Kazakhstan and Russia.
That has all changed with the launch last year of the Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. "Thanks to the Customs Union, we have not only a single customs area, but a single veterinary space. It has opened a market of 170m people," says Mamytbekov.
In March, Kazakh First Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev announced plans for a massive increase in beef exports - to 60,000 tonnes a year by 2015. KazAgro, which has the dual role of ensuring domestic food security and increasing exports, will be the main player supporting with the project from the government side.
Part of the rationale for the attempt to boost beef production is that Kazakhstan is surrounded by some of the world's largest beef importers. According to Mamytbekov, Russia imports 1m tonnes of beef a year, China 200,000 tonnes and South Korea around 300,000 tonnes. "Being near to these countries and with favourable conditions to increase production, it would be a sin not to take advantage of the situation," Mamytbekov tells bne.
However, sufficient grazing space won't be enough. Local cattle don't meet international standards for genetic quality and internationally popular breeds of cattle such as Hereford, Angus and Charolais haven't been bred in the country. "We need to improve the gene pool of cattle," says Mamytbekov.
As such, Kazakhstan kicked off an import programme in October by flying in some 2,040 Angus and Hereford cattle from North Dakota. This was part of a $50m deal between North Dakota's Global Beef Consultants and the Kazakh government, which will also includes building breeding facilities and a feedlot.
Over the next five years, Kazakhstan will import nearly 70,000 head of cattle, mainly from the US, Canada, Australia, and north European countries including the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia. But while the North Dakotan cattle are already accustomed to harsh winters and severe wind chill like that on Kazakhstan's northern steppes, extra investment will be needed for animals imported from more temperate climates. Building special barns for some cattle will add further to the costs of the project.
KazAgro is also looking into more effective refrigeration for its meat products. According to Mamytbekov, locally manufactured refrigerators keep products fresh for just three days; introduction of newer technologies will increase this to two to three weeks. This, combined with completion of the Western China-Western Europe highway, will make it possible to increase exports to Europe in refrigerated lorries. This is a common theme across Kazakhstan's infrastructure for products from grain to wool - a need for investment into modern farming techniques, storage facilities and transportation infrastructure.
Beef is the current buzzword in government agricultural circles, but demand for lamb and mutton is also high, and in the foothills of the mountain ranges of south and east Kazakhstan there are good conditions for production of fine wool. Kazakhstan also has its own particular delicacies. While the opportunities for exporting camel steaks or fermented mare's milk may be low, Mamytbekov considers there are good prospects for exporting horsemeat, especially to Europe. "France imports more than 40,000 tonnes of horsemeat a year and Italy also imports a lot. They are very interested," says Mamytbekov. "Investment is needed to make sure our meat will comply with the standards of the importing countries, and this will require some effort. However, horsemeat is on the menus of France and Italy, and globally consumption is growing. The demand is there, and in principle, we can satisfy it."
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