Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Kazakhstan has raised its forecasts for the 2013 grain harvest as the agricultural sector rebounds from last year's severe drought. The country is one of relatively few worldwide expected to considerably boost food production in the coming decades - provided farmers diversify to alleviate the impact of climate change.
Kazakhstan's agriculture ministry is currently forecasting a harvest of 16m-17m tonnes of grain, chairman of the ministry's state inspection committee, Saktash Khassenov, told a press briefing in Astana on August 13. This is well above earlier forecasts of around 15m tonnes. The ministry has, however, warned that wet weather in the Kazakh grain belt and an expected fall in global wheat prices could be a setback. Agriculture Minister Asylzhan Mamytbekov told journalists the harvest would be "difficult", with crops set to ripen later than usual and humidity causing concerns about storage.
Even so, the 2013 harvest should be well above the disastrous 2012 harvest, when around 47% of crops were damaged by drought. Kazakhstan managed to maintain exports thanks to surplus stocks left over from 2011, but the poor harvest still contributed to lower-than-expected GDP growth.
Overall, agricultural production has been on an upward trend for the last decade following the slump in the 1990s, due to increased government and private sector investment. In February, Astana approved a KZT3.1 trillion ($20bn) long-term programme aimed at boosting production to 1.5-times its current level by 2020.
Currently, farmers face many bottlenecks, starkly illustrated by the record 2011 harvest when elevators ran out of capacity. Research at the Shortandy institute near Astana shows that while crops planted later have performed much better than early sowings, many farmers plant early to ensure they don't miss out on elevator space. This is being addressed as new storage and processing capacity is added, most recently with the opening of the Tonkeris granary near Astana on August 16.
As well as better infrastructure, farmers also need access to modern seed varieties, high-quality fertilisers and reliable forecasting in order to improve productivity, according to Glen Anderson of Engility, who is working on the Improving the Climate Resiliency of Kazakhstan Wheat and Central Asian Food Security project launched by Kazagroinnovations, the United Nations Development Programme and the United States Agency for International Development.
"Farmers lose money in bad years, but can also find it difficult to take advantage of good years - by saving money for future investment - because when the harvest is good, prices fall," Anderson tells bne. While the project includes working with the Kazhydromet meterological service to improve forecasting, "this only benefits farmers if they take advantage of this information to make the right decisions about what and when to plant, and have access to, for example, drought-resistant seeds, and other inputs," he says.
Shortandy and other research institutes are experimenting with different crops and techniques, including organic farming, introduction of new high-yield varieties and diversification. Speaking during a visit to the institute on August 5, Irina Babek, a farmer from North Kazakhstan oblast, says that given the impact wide variations in weather have on productivity, she is working to diversify and introduce new technologies. Farmers are considering the introduction of different varieties of wheat as well as other crops such as chickpeas, sunflowers and rapeseed.
Diversifying is also one of the main tools for Kazakhstani farmers to respond to climate change. Along with Western Europe and North America, Kazakhstan is expected to see an increase in crop yields, while productivity in most world regions will decline as a result of climate change.
While the impact of climate change can only be measured over a period of several decades, Kazakhstan may benefit from global warming if it results in longer summers and earlier springs. However, as Anderson points out, it may also cause problems for farmers by leading to more variability in precipitation and wider heat extremes - two factors that area already causing farmers to struggle.
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