Food made from wheat flour comes near top on the menu in Central Asia. Food security is inconceivable without enough wheat. And as demand for wheat is set to grow and supply is at risk globally due to climate change, sending prices up, little wonder adapting wheat to the changing environment is at the forefront of agricultural research for development. Existing agricultural policies in some Central Asian countries are also in need of an overhaul. All this underlines how important it is to take steps in the immediate future.
Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian countries, gives priority to wheat production and food self-sufficiency. Authorities have been tweaking the agricultural sector since Uzbekistan's independence in 1991 to meet national demand for agricultural produce. According to government figures, the country now produces enough wheat for its needs.
Dr Amir Amanov, First Deputy Director-General of the Uzbek Scientific Production Centre for Agriculture, says that gross grain production reached some 6m tonnes in 2012 after new high-yielding wheat varieties had been introduced to the fields. But most of the wheat varieties are developed from genetic material introduced from other countries. Dr Amanov notes that only 35 per cent of the wheat varieties used in 2012 was locally developed. What is more, imported wheat varieties are not always well adapted to climatic and soil conditions of Uzbekistan. So the wheat industry still has a way to go. Researchers from international agricultural research centers and their local counterparts work together on breeding new wheat varieties that are up to scratch.
But just breeding will not do. What is also needed is widespread adoption of new improved varieties and technologies, which can be encouraged by policies. Wheat growers need stimuli.
That is the main idea behind a new project launched by ICARDA titled "Adoption and ex-post impact assessment of improved wheat technologies and detailed analysis of the wheat seed and grain value chain in Uzbekistan". The project is aimed at increasing the effectiveness and impact of wheat research on food security, poverty reduction, gender equity, and the environment through better targeting of new technologies. But as the seed system is important in the whole adoption and impact cycle, the project also aims at developing more diverse wheat seed systems that will offer farmers quicker access to improved varieties, encouraging broader public and private participation, as well as alternative and innovative seed production and marketing by farmer groups and communities. This should be reinforced by improved policies, strategic analysis, and institutional innovations that strengthen linkages among stakeholders along the wheat input-output value chain.
According to Dr Ahmed Mazid, of ICARDA, only if farmers adopt the technologies developed through agricultural research can research make an ultimate impact on productivity, poverty alleviation, conservation of natural resources, and food security. Since not all research output does certainly fully meet the needs of users, ongoing assessment of the use and impact of research can provide important information. To this end, adoption studies are useful. They help to better understand farming systems and farming communities, and get exact numbers behind adoption of technologies to assess impact, as well as identify varying constraints and work out solutions.
Adoption rates also depend on how efficiently varietal identification and seed multiplication processes work. As Dr Ram Sharma, of ICARDA, argues, it is necessary to speed up these processes and get improved wheat varieties to the end-users (farmers, seed producers) before the useful life span of most new varieties runs out. It usually takes some three years before a new variety is fully evaluated. However, lately this has been reduced to a minimum of two years in Uzbekistan. Still, the process of releasing new varieties and seed production of those varieties needs to be accelerated. Most importantly, increased participation on farmers' side is also required.
But in the end, all this boils down to policy. Or, put it a different way, more stimulating policies. Dr Roberto Telleria, agricultural policy specialist with ICARDA, points out that right seed policies can be critical. Incentives like subsidies can help farmers and get them involved in seed production.
And Uzbekistan makes an interesting example for the project's purpose. First, there is still some room for improvement. Second, the country is also at the heart of Central Asia, characterized by agro-ecological diversity, high wheat consumption rates, and strong national research programmes and partnerships.
All this will give researchers involved in the project data to look at in order to study adoption rates, factors affecting adoption, impact, constraints and opportunities, and offer recommendations based on the study results.
To understand how best to implement the project, an inception workshop was recently organized. The workshop participants gathered in Tashkent from 12 to 14 March 2013 to discuss what and why has worked in Uzbekistan in adoption of different wheat varieties. And what did not work well and why. The scientists also considered prospects for wider adoption in the country, and major constraints. Most importantly, the workshop also proved an opportunity for bringing together scientists from various national institutions involved in wheat breeding and production, ICARDA and other partners, and helping them to find common ground for streamlining research cooperation.