Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Farm Reforms Failing

Government needs to launch comprehensive overhaul of agriculture if production is to be increased.
By Annadurdy Khadjiev
A year after President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power, his pledges to reform agriculture have yet to make much of an impact. If things are really to change, he needs to stop focusing on grain production and develop a more diversified and efficient farming sector that is better suited to conditions and food needs in Turkmenistan.

At a cabinet meeting on March 12, President Berdymuhammedov took agriculture sector chiefs to task, saying that spring sowing was behind schedule and arable land was in poor shape, with drainage systems collapsing and high levels of salt in the soil.

The president told his officials needed to make “fundamental changes” to the way food was produced in Turkmenistan.

His damning statements come a year after he announced large-scale reforms of farming. A strategic programme approved at the end of March by the Halk Maslahaty – the supreme legislative body in Turkmenistan – set out steps towards making better use of the land and the water that irrigates it. Two other laws approved at the same time were designed to improve the lot of small-scale private farmers.

Analysts suggest attempts to reform the sector have failed, for the moment at least.

It is of course early days for Berdymuhammedov, who inherited a failing economy in which – under his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, who died in Decembe 2007 – erratic policy decisions and neglect of the infrastructure led to chronically poor performance, covered up by officials who routinely misstated production figures.

Seventeen years after independence, Turkmenistan is largely dependent on food imports. According to local observers, more than half of all the foodstuffs consumed on the local market have come from other countries. Grain and flour, together with meat, vegetable oil, fish, rice, and dry milk are purchased from Kazakstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkmenistan is a largely desert country with only limited access to irrigation, and much of its arable land is given over to the export cash crop cotton. Wheat is also an important crop, but not enough is grown to meet local demand. Last year’s harvest was put at 1.2 million tons by the official statistics, or closer to one million according to independent estimates, far less than annual domestic consumption which a United States Agriculture Department study dating from 2005 calculated at almost 2.5 million tons.

As well as the scarcity of water, experts say this shortfall is due in part to the low level of technology available to Turkmen farmers. Yields of about 1.5 tons per hectare compare badly with neighbouring Kazakstan, where productivity can reach 4.5 tons per hectare, making it the main grain exporter in the region. Furthermore, the Kazak figure is for wheat for human consumption, whereas in Turkmenistan 55 to 60 per cent of output goes for animal fodder.

Before Niazov died, he ordered a 300,000 to 400,000 ton production increase every year, in an effort to reach an ultimate target of four million tons. For the moment at least, the authorities appear to be pressing ahead with this strategy of driving up grain production to the point where the country is self-sufficient, and have set a target of 1.8 million tons this year.

This is unlikely to happen, since none of the underlying conditions have changed, and the starting point is not based on accurate figures. In 2006, government inspectors found that farmers were planting less than half of the planned area with wheat, and some regional governors who were found to be exaggerating output figures were sacked and arrested. Berdymuhammedov has declared war on the practice of reporting fictitious output results.

It is worth asking whether Turkmenistan actually needs to grow this much grain.

Since gas and cotton are major revenue earners, the country should be in a position to buy the grain it needs rather than placing a huge strain on its limited land resources and poor infrastructure.

It might make more sense to grow enough cereals to cover local demand for animal feed, and diversify agriculture to produce fresh fruit and vegetables for the local market, as well as building up the livestock sector, a traditional strength of this once nomadic nation.

The country could also make tinned foods, wine and other processed items if it invested in industrial production.

It would not be difficult, with private-sector funding, to build poultry and fish farms, hothouse plantations and small-scale processing factories all around the country.

The structure of agriculture must also be addressed – new laws are needed to encourage farmers and food producers, together with better access to loans and preferential tax rates and import/export tariffs. The procedure for registering new agricultural firms also needs to be simplified.

Finally, the government must also end the Soviet-style “state order” which tells farmer what to grow and fixes artificially low purchase prices.

If all this was done and the sector was managed properly, Turkmenistan would gradually move to a position where it not only produced much of its own food, but was also an exporter, thereby recouping the money it has to spend on items that are better imported, like grain and sugar.

Turkmenistan may never become self-sufficient in food, but then there are very few countries that are. Russia, for example, buys 45 per cent of the pork it consumes from Europe, 60 per cent of its poultry from the United States and almost 40 per cent of its rice from Thailand.

Annadurdy Khadjiev is an economist based in Varna, Bulgaria.