Unhealthy nutrition and various diseases it causes are a global concern. Like in many other countries, authorities and researchers in Uzbekistan take action against this problem and educate the public about benefits of healthy food and lifestyle. A healthy population is a boon for the economy, after all.
But as the country's population grows, so does food consumption. This in turn puts additional strain on land and water resources, leading to soil degradation and other environmental ills. So researchers face the challenge of working out integrated approaches to sustainable agricultural development and production of healthy foods.
This issue was the focus of a large seminar in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 15 May 2013. Scientists, food and beverages producers, and farmers met to talk over how best to forge synergies along the research-production-consumption continuum.
At the event titled "Integration for the development of the food industry in Uzbekistan", which was organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, the AVRDC (the World Vegetable Center), ICARDA (the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas), the Association of Chefs of Uzbekistan, ZarExpo and a few other organizations, the participants looked at the state of nutrition and food production in the country and how well new raw materials and technologies are adopted by the food industry. As it turned out, there is considerable untapped potential. Businesses were keen to find out about new opportunities. And researchers had quite a few things to offer to business people and farmers. A number of new crop varieties were presented.
As researchers suggest, introducing new varieties of traditional crops and alternative crops that are healthy for consumers and profitable for farmers and producers is a way to go in ensuring healthy nutrition and sustainable agricultural development. New crops could also help to tackle soil degradation and salinization, which are major problems in large parts of Central Asia.
For instance, researchers from AVRDC, ICARDA and ICBA (the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture) have been working on this issue together with their national and international partners for a number of years. And some results are already out.
New varieties of legumes like vegetable soybean and mung bean, which increase soil fertility and are good for crop rotation, and the Jerusalem artichoke (or topinambour or girasol) are being taken up by farmers in Uzbekistan. What is good, these varieties are early-maturing and well adapted to the country's soil and climatic conditions.
Vegetable soybean, which is not widely cultivated in Uzbekistan, can be a cheap alternative source of nutrition to animal meat and make for affordable diet at schools and universities. Soya products are healthier too. Products like soya milk and yoghurts are already available, though not widely.
Mung bean, on the other hand, is a popular ingredient in Uzbek cuisine. The newly released varieties of mung bean take only 70 to 95 days to ripen and have upright stems and bushes, making mechanized harvesting possible.
Of the three crops, the least known to the local population is the Jerusalem artichoke. But, being a multi-purpose crop, it has got most potential. Its roots can be used for food and other products, and green mass for fodder. The newly released varieties of this crop take 180 days before they can be harvested, and yield 35-60 t/ha of green mass and 40-70 t/ha of tubers. And they take very little to cultivate. What is more, these varieties do well on salt-affected soils. In fact they help to reduce soil salinity and improve soil structure.
Local researchers have managed so far to make from topinambour such products as inulin, flour, yeast, ethanol and cellulose. A factory in Uzbekistan has managed to industrially make paper from topinambour. And having realized the potential uses of this crop, authorities and researchers have set up an Innovation Center for Topinambour at the Tashkent State University of Economics.
But take-up rates are still low as a whole and there is still a way to go for wider use of these crops by farmers and producers. And promoting these crops among consumers is also important. For instance, topinambour is cultivated in about 100 ha of farmland. And vegetable soybean is planted in around 50 ha of land.
There are, however, two issues that need to be dealt with for such efforts to be successful. Making the production-consumption chain more effective is the first. As some pointed out at the seminar, consumers would buy healthy alternatives to existing products, but those were not widely available.
This is partly so because farmers do not know if there is enough consumer interest. Farmers also often lack access to information on new alternative crops that are introduced to the country and developed by researchers.
Second, there are few partnerships between farmers who grow or could grow new crops and companies. Some producers do not know potential suppliers, and vice versa.
So the seminar proved invaluable in that it gave companies, farms and research organizations an opportunity to form those business links. Similar events in future may offer more networking opportunities.