Central Asian, Caucasus scientists ask for more technical support from international research centers

Date: 02.01.2014.

ICARDA Board members held a meeting with Mr Heydar Khanish oglu Asadov, the Minister of Agriculture of Azerbaijan, in Baku in December 2013. Mr Heydar Khanish oglu Asadov was presented with ICARDA's silver plate of appreciation. From right to left: Mr Heydar Khanish oglu Asadov, Dr Mahmoud Solh, Director General, Dr Camilla Toulmin, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Dr Mona Bishay, Vice Chair of the Board, and Dr Masum Burak, Chair of the Program Committee. Photo by Dr Jozef Turok.

During several days of talks in Baku, Azerbaijan, in early December 2013, scientists and experts pondered on ways to improve land and water management, ensure sustainable growth of productivity, tap the potential of mountains and other less-used areas for better livelihoods, and step up capacity-building drives in Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC). And four major issues emerged from these discussions.

First, there are growing concerns over water availability in the not-so-distant future as scientists forecast falls in precipitation. And this is a troubling prospect for the region where agriculture contributes largely to the national economies and rural populations depend on farming. Speaking at the biennial ICARDA Regional Coordination Meeting, held on 4-5 December, Acad Dzhamin Akimaliev, Director General of the Research Institute of Crop Husbandry in Kyrgyzstan, called for giving priority to water-related issues. He also warned that there are forecasts of serious water shortages by 2050, which could even lead to disputes in the CAC region. Researchers agree that new approaches are needed to deal with these problems. Increasing water productivity is one way to go. As Dr Theib Oweis, Director of Integrated Water and Land Program at ICARDA, pointed out at the meeting, the focus of research-for-development in dry areas is shifting from water efficiency to water productivity. Water-saving technologies can also help. Dr Ashir Saparmuradov, chief expert of the agriculture department at the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, said it is important to introduce water-efficient irrigation, and raise new, more stress-tolerant crop varieties and breeds of animals.

Second, a number of successful initiatives and projects have been carried out in the region to date to increase agricultural productivity. But ensuring their sustainability and taking successful results beyond project sites remains an issue. A recent IFAD-funded project in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on production, processing and export of value-added fiber can be a case in point. It is widely seen as successful. But there are questions about how sustainable its results are. For example, commenting on the project at the meeting, Dr Zakir Khalikulov, Deputy Regional Coordinator at ICARDA-CAC, wondered if women artisans and livestock breeders, the main beneficiaries, will continue to enjoy increased incomes after the project ends. In a similar vein, Dr Aden Aw-Hassan, Director of Social, Economic and Policy Research Program at ICARDA, said sustainability is an important issue to be addressed. So approaches should be in place to ensure sustainability and disseminate knowledge in other countries.

Third, participants also raised the issue of mountain agriculture and tourism. Mountains cover vast areas of territory in the region. Acad Akimaliev believes that concentrating on and using only irrigated areas is not effective as mountains remain unused. He argues that mountain tourism could help Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular as mountains make up over 90 percent of their territories. This idea has many advocates. A project in Uzbekistan on community-based landscape restoration as a way of adaptation to climate change is an example of what can be achieved in mountainous areas with community support. According to Dr Stefanie Christmann, researcher on environmental governance at ICARDA, one of the benefits of this project is that locals started earning money from tourism.

Finally, capacity development should be the cornerstone of every research-for-development effort. National scientists and farmers need to be taught new innovative practices and approaches. Knowledge sharing is still sluggish. Dr Guram Aleksidze, President of the Georgian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, lamented that Georgian farmers still get knowledge from their parents and other people rather than scientists. He argued that young specialists and researchers should learn more about climate change and approaches to tackle its effects. Echoing this view, Dr Khalikulov pointed to a serious lack of young scientists. Their poor language skills are also a barrier to learning, he added. But as international funding is often limited for these purposes, national research organizations are encouraged to step in and be more generous.

The issue of sharing research and innovations was also raised at ICARDA's 53rd Board Meeting, held in Baku at the end of November 2013. Speaking at the opening session, Dr Ilham Guliyev, Deputy Agriculture Minister of Azerbaijan, said: "...access to technology, new approaches and practices are critical to ensure that we are competitive and can meet the growing demand for agricultural products." And international research-for-development centers are a treasure trove of such knowledge. For example, ICARDA has a variety of relevant technologies. As Dr Mahmoud Solh, Director General of ICARDA, commented at the meeting: "Today, technically, we are at a stage where a number of practical solutions to these challenges exist and we can actually double or triple the production and incomes for smallholder farmers in irrigated areas and in dryland farming." He also highlighted the significant potential and range of available technical innovations suited to various agro-ecosystems.

ICARDA assists Central Asian and the Caucasus countries in drawing up national programs and strategies for agricultural development. At a meeting of ICARDA's representatives with Azerbaijan's Agriculture Minister on 4 December, the parties agreed to boost technical cooperation. Mr Heydar Asadov, Minister of Agriculture of Azerbaijan, stressed the need for research and technological innovations as a driving force for sustainable agricultural growth in the country. Stating the full political support for ICARDA's work in Azerbaijan, Mr Asadov requested a technical consultancy from ICARDA, which would aim to develop and agree on a collaborative research strategy. He also mentioned the need for ICARDA's advice on building institutional research capacities in the country. The parties agreed to hold a technical workshop to identify elements of the strategy and develop project proposals based on mutual interest in March 2014.

All these meetings identified a number of key areas of collaboration between ICARDA and national partners in the region. But, as scientists agree, regional cooperation needs to be enhanced. Agricultural researchers and policymakers urge closer cooperation and support from agricultural research-for-development centers in increasing productivity and tackling problems stemming from climate change. A member of the CGIAR Consortium, ICARDA has been leading the Regional Program on Sustainable Agricultural Development in CAC since 1998. It is widely held that regional exchange of improved germplasm and genetic resources of cereals and legumes through observation nurseries and yield trials belongs to the priority areas. There is also a need to work out a complex approach to research by involving rural communities in rangeland improvement and carry out more extensive research into livestock production. To promote sustainable land management through conservation agriculture, it is also necessary to arrange more travelling workshops on minimum tillage and other practices in the region and outside.

At the closure of the two-day deliberations at ICARDA's Regional Coordination Meeting, participants set out new priorities for collaborative work covering three broad areas such as crop improvement and plant genetic resources; livestock production and rangelands; and natural resources management. First, more joint work is planned on genotyping of yellow-rust-resistant varieties from the region using molecular markers; providing technical assistance to molecular labs in the region; and promoting mountain agriculture. Second, more attention will be paid to integrated livestock and feed/forage production considering climate change; development of veterinary services; organic livestock production and processing of livestock products; forage production and enhancement of degraded rangelands near villages. Third, more focused efforts will be put into salinity management in irrigated areas and increasing water productivity in irrigated areas through improving irrigation systems; and enhancing the resilience of production systems of mountain agriculture.

All this shows how important a role international research-for-development centers play in facilitating sustainable agricultural development in CAC and elsewhere. As Dr Solh said, ICARDA is committed to working more closely with Central Asian and the Caucasus countries, including in capacity-building and training of scientists and young specialists. Helping CAC countries achieve this will form the pivot of ICARDA's activities in the near future. The good thing is there is unflagging enthusiasm to conduct agricultural research in the region on integrated land and water management, food security enhancement, crop improvement, water management on saline soils, conservation agriculture, and capacity building across all disciplines. What is needed, though, is more political will and support to achieve all this at national and regional levels. To this end, the ministerial meeting planned in Turkmenistan in August 2014 will be an excellent opportunity for policymakers.

See also