Climate change-related problems cause growing concerns about the future of agricultural production in Central Asia. Droughts (see here) and outbreaks of diseases like yellow rust (see here) undermine prospects of enhancing food security. Livelihoods of rural dwellers are also at stake as they usually make a living from farming. Population growth also adds to this problem.
In recent years national governments, international donor and research-for-development organizations have put considerable efforts into developing solutions for sustainable agricultural production in the region (see here). However, scientists argue, a paradigm shift is needed. First, the focus should now be on raising production by increasing productivity. Farmers should learn to grow more with less land, water and other input. Second, crops should be resistant to extreme weather conditions, different diseases and pests. So there is a need for more new varieties adapted to local conditions. Both approaches help to ensure sustainable agricultural production and increased incomes for farmers and rural populations.
Much work has been done to develop and promote improved technologies and varieties of traditional and non-traditional crops by members of the CGIAR Regional Program for Central Asia and the Caucasus. For example, together with national partners, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have developed and released a number of yellow-rust-resistant wheat varieties such as 'Gozgon', 'Yaksart', 'Bunyodkor' and 'Hazrati Bashir' in Uzbekistan, and 'Ormon', 'Alex' and 'Chumon' in Tajikistan. In 2014 a new high-yielding and stress-tolerant winter wheat variety was submitted to the State Variety Testing Commission in Turkmenistan (see here). In partnership with national research institutions, AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center released a total of 42 new varieties of eight vegetable crops, including tomato, sweet and hot pepper, eggplant, vegetable soybean, mungbean, yard-long bean and cabbage between 2007-2014. As a result of a multi-year collaborative study, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and local researchers in Uzbekistan released a new high-yielding, early-maturing and stress-tolerant variety of pearl millet called 'Hashaki 1' in 2014 (see here).
While research has made progress, adoption in farmers' fields has been slow. Both scientists and farmers point to a shortage of well-organized seed supply systems and rural advisory services as the main reason. Seed multiplication is a big problem. Many farmers say they do not know where to get qualified information on seeds and technologies. For example, most national vegetable seed supply systems in Central Asia are fragmented and limited (see here). It is true that strategic crops like wheat and cotton receive considerable government support. In Uzbekistan there is a state-run system of wheat supply. To improve farmers' access to quality grain seed, the National Center for Seed Production of Grain Crops was established by presidential decree in Uzbekistan in 2014. But seed production of other crops also needs more attention.
The shortage of seed adapted to local conditions and lack of knowledge make farmers turn to imported alternatives. Imported seed is, however, often more expensive. Farmers using such seed face higher financial risks since seed usually accounts for more than half of the production costs. For example, in Uzbekistan many farmers rely on seed potato imports as 95 per cent of the cultivated varieties are of western origin. The imported seed potatoes cost around 2,400 UZS (around 1 USD at the exchange rate) and more per kg in 2012.
To deal with the problem, scientists help to set up seed multiplication plots, show farmers how to produce quality seed for themselves and occasionally hand out seed. For example, during a one-day training course in Tajikistan in October 2014, 12 tons of seed of two improved wheat varieties and one ton of seed of an improved barley variety were given to farmers for multiplication (see here). Researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP) started a project in 2012 in Tashkent Region, Uzbekistan, to teach smallholder potato producers a cost-effective method of seed production (see here).
But reaching more farmers requires a new approach. Now the focus is on improving the whole seed production system. Under the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Dryland Systems, scientists are working out an integrated systems approach to seed production in two Action Sites, the Aral Sea Region and the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. As seed is the most important input and quality seed is vital for improving crop productivity, it is necessary to understand the strengths and limitations of the prevalent seed systems of various crops. Such information will help to develop plans to improve seed systems and eventually farm productivity.
On 31 March 2015 a group of scientists from ICARDA, AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center, ICBA and Bioversity International organized a workshop with farmers to analyze seed systems in Karauzak district, Karakalpakstan, which is part of the Aral Sea Action Site. The purpose was to indentify present seed systems for cereals, legumes, vegetables, fodders and fruits in the district, understand the strengths and limitations in terms of infrastructure and availability of quality seed to farmers and discuss ways to improve seed systems for various crops. Two major problems arose during the discussion with farmers.
First, except for wheat, there are no seed production systems for other crops. For example, many farmers grow rice in the district. But they complained they do not know where to buy rice seed and there is no rice seed production system. Farmers usually produce seed for themselves or buy on the local market. But there is no guarantee of quality and the cost is high. So farmers also urged help from research institutions to set up seed production farms.
Second, except for wheat, farmers do not know where to get information about seed they need. They requested developing training materials and books, and more extensive and practical training. Lack of knowledge considerably reduces farmers' profits. Dr Zokhid Ziyadullayev, director of the National Center for Seed Production of Grain Crops, said that many wheat seed producers do not know enough about necessary agro-technologies and as a result, their seed output is of low quality and they earn less. Echoing Dr Ziyadullayev's opinion, one of the farmers said they often fail to recoup costs and repay loans. So they lose interest in seed production. This is why there is an urgent need for institutional support for farmers. And rural advisory services are also needed.
Seed is the single most expensive input in agricultural production. So making high quality seeds easily available can result in substantial gains for farmers and rural populations. This would definitely help to sow the seeds of successful and sustainable agricultural production in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries.