Clare Nuttall in Dushanbe -
Tajikistan this year expects its largest cotton harvest in the 20 years since independence, but this will be accompanied by an anticipated drop in food production of around 30%.
According to a forecast from Tajikistan's Agriculture Institute, cotton farmers will harvest at least 500,000 tonnes of cotton this year, the country's largest cotton crop since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Farmers in parts of Tajikistan started harvesting their cotton between 10 and 15 days earlier than last year, following a dry spring and hot summer. In the Dushanbe region and in north Tajikistan, the harvest is due to start in early September, Asia Plus reported.
But the conditions that have helped Tajikistan produce a bumper crop of cotton have had the opposite effect on food production. The 2011 food harvest is expected to be 20-30% lower than last year, according to government information, because of the dry spring.
Tajikistan has already seen food shortages and soaring prices earlier this year, due both to high fuel costs and the increase in global food prices; an August World Bank report puts prices at 33% higher than a year ago. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that in June, retail food prices in Tajikistan reached their highest level since it started monitoring in 2002.
In Tajikistan, the price for wheat grain was 75% higher than in June 2010, and wheat flour was up 63% on year. Vegetable oil prices continued to rise in Dushanbe and Qurgonteppa, the largest city in south Tajikistan, pushed up by the depreciation of the Tajik somoni against the US dollar.
Attempts by the Tajik authorities to bring down prices through price-capping have been largely unsuccessful. After a limit on meat prices was set in Qurgonteppa, traders in Qurgonteppa started selling higher quality meat on the black market; the measure lasted only three weeks. However, special markets where farm products are sold at subsidised prices have been more successful. Prices have also started to fall since the start of the 2011 harvest began, and fasting during Ramadan, which is strictly observed especially in rural Tajikistan, has also had an effect.
But Tajikistan remains heavily dependent on world food prices, since 50% of food consumed in the country, including commodities such as flour, rice and potatoes, is imported. "Only 7% of the land is arable and a lot of that is used to grow cotton. Due to its geography most production is small scale, unlike in other FSU countries. Tajikistan also suffers from a lot of local disasters including mudflows and floods," says the WFP's country director for Tajikistan, Heather Hill.
According to Hill, memories of the 2007-08 winter, when the global crisis in food and fuel prices coincided with the extremely cold winter in Central Asia, remain fresh in people's minds for several years, and focused attention among both government officials and NGOs on food security. While the entire region was affected, Tajikistan suffered especially badly with many apartments losing their electricity and running water, in addition to widespread food shortages.
In addition to this year's lower-than-usual harvest, there are also concerns about the longer-term impact of climate change on Tajikistan, where some of the glaciers which supply almost all the country's fresh water have shown an alarmingly fast recession rate.
The 2007-08 wake up call has led to a gradual transition away from cotton to food crops, with areas of land exhausted by years of cotton cultivation being turned over to orchards or vegetable farmers. But while farmers used to complain about being forced or pressured to grow cotton, many have reportedly been keen to go back to cotton this year because of high prices in the last year. "There is an awareness that cotton is not the best crop for Tajikistan, and that people need food," Hill tells bne. "However, the price of cotton is up, and cotton is more profitable. There is a strong interest in cotton production because of high prices."
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