Opinion: Local resilience can overcome food insecurity in Kyrgyzstan

The war in Ukraine has brought home the fragility of global food systems in a warming world, says the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development’s country director for Kyrgyzstan
<p>Farmers working in Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan (Image: Alamy)</p>

Farmers working in Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan (Image: Alamy)

Rising food prices and a shortage of inputs for farming are pushing vulnerable people into hunger in Kyrgyzstan this year. But even before the war between Russia and Ukraine, food insecurity in the landlocked Central Asian country was being aggravated by the raging effects of climate change.

Kyrgyzstan does not produce enough staple foods such as wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower oil to feed its population. These staples have, until recently, been mostly imported from Russia and Ukraine. In 2021, the Kyrgyz government imported over USD 21.2 million in key food commodities such as wheat, vegetable oil and sugar.

To ensure its own food security, between March and August Russia suspended grain exports to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), of which Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are members. Ukraine’s ability to export produce has been severely reduced as a result of the conflict. Moreover, international sanctions on imports from Russia are contributing to a shortage of fuel and fertilisers throughout Central Asia, disrupting food production in the region.

Even before the war between Russia and Ukraine, food insecurity in Kyrgyzstan was being aggravated by climate change

Since the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia war, the price of food has been increasing steadily. The most vulnerable households in Kyrgyzstan now spend over 60% of their income on food.

Economic stresses exacerbate the situation. Central Asian countries are struggling with the ongoing economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, despite a slight increase in remittances (4% more over the first five months of 2022 than in the same period in 2021). Before the war, younger people across Central Asia would often leave for work, mainly to Russia; in Kyrgyzstan remittances accounted for 31% of GDP. Many of these younger workers are now reluctant to work in countries directly involved in the conflict, but there are not enough jobs for them at home. Shrinking remittance flows will have a particularly severe impact in rural areas most dependent on wages being sent home.

Pressures come on top of climate change

Within Kyrgyzstan, wheat, potatoes and vegetables are the main crops grown. Many low-income households rely on potatoes for a large part of their diet, which families normally grow themselves. However, these staple crops are highly sensitive to changes in weather patterns.

A 2014 report by the World Food Programme states that nearly 40% of fluctuations in agricultural production in Kyrgyzstan are due to changes in rainfall and temperature – compared with the global average of 30%. Climate change is causing more erratic and intense rainfall, more severe heatwaves and droughts, reductions in snowfall as well as causing glaciers to melt, with “low-lying parts of Central Asia […] likely to gradually become arid deserts”. All of these climatic changes will affect food production and food security.

As international trade is disrupted, imports are becoming less affordable and natural disasters more frequent, costing a minimum of 1% of GDP annually. In light of all this, how can we ensure sufficient, affordable and nutritious food is available across Kyrgyzstan and the wider region? At such a time, local production and marketing of food becomes even more important.

IFAD initiatives to combat food insecurity

Kyrgyzstan epitomises the challenges in a region where a war is progressively determining new social, economic and environmental realities and priorities. Potentially lower remittances, the need to increase local food production to satisfy internal demand, and the cost of shifting to environmentally sustainable production all call for targeted investments.

Since 1995, IFAD has been working with small-scale food producers in Kyrgyzstan to increase their resilience, both to shocks from conflict or natural disasters and to slow-moving climate change.

Local solutions, through their farms, their businesses and their work, are critical to ensure food security is not jeopardised as global food systems are disrupted by shocks

Interventions that help to mitigate the effects of the Ukraine war were already present in IFAD’s activities under the Access to Markets Project (ATMP). The project aims to support Kyrgyzstan’s pastoral and rural communities by reinforcing their role in the livestock sector and by supporting the creation of jobs in rural areas.

IFAD-funded projects in Kyrgyzstan support collective initiatives in rural communities, such as pasture users’ unions and local community initiatives. Reinforcing value chains – mostly for meat, honey and milk – will improve access to markets for small producers, with a two-fold effect of generating income and supplying local communities with nutrient-dense food.

We equip target communities with innovative technological solutions, such as GIS and weather forecasting to manage their pastures while avoiding further degradation, and solar panels to supply farms with renewable energy. New breeding techniques across the region have been promoted by IFAD. These improve animal health and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock. The project also works with communities to reduce and reverse unsustainable land practices, such as overgrazing and lack of crop rotation that reduce grassland health, and supports community-based agriculture and pasture management.

IFAD is actively supporting the Kyrgyz government with its strategic national programme for the development of sustainable food systems by 2030, one of the outcomes of the 2021 Food Systems Summit. The UN country team is currently finalising the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF) for 2023-27 in close collaboration with the Kyrgyz government. IFAD’s main contribution to the framework will be promoting the resilience of the most vulnerable people to shocks, including the present disruptions to trade in food and fertiliser. A key part of this will be supporting local small-scale farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change, especially through nature-based approaches.

Finally, the Kyrgyz National Development Program for 2018-22 includes proactive management of disasters and risks associated with climate change, by prioritising water infrastructure and management.

Think local in times of global uncertainty

The Ukraine-Russia war has highlighted that the globalised economy was built on fragile foundations. At IFAD, we have seen again and again how crucial the work of small-scale producers is in times of uncertainty. Local solutions, through their farms, their businesses and their work, are critical to ensure food security is not jeopardised as global food systems are disrupted by shocks. Now is the time to strengthen and catalyse investment in local communities – where there is the greatest need – to guarantee national and regional food security in Central Asia.