The population in Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC) is forecast to continue to grow. So is the demand for healthy and nutritious food. This is why countries are increasing both quantity and variety of staple crops, particularly vegetables. Around 40 indigenous and introduced, non-traditional species are currently cultivated in the region.
According to FAOSTAT, the CAC countries produced some 20m tons of vegetables in 2012. More land is also being earmarked for cultivating vegetables. The figure was around 800,000 ha in 2012. This is partly because growing vegetables is an important livelihood for many farmers and rural households. And in some countries agricultural produce is a major export earner. Uzbekistan, for example, exports food, specifically fruit and vegetable, products worth about 5bn dollars a year. While national governments are paying more attention to the fruit and vegetable processing industry, there are still some difficulties to overcome on the way to increased production. Scientists believe it is important to resolve some issues first. First, farmers need vegetable varieties adapted to local conditions. National agricultural research institutions work closely with international research organizations on this. A number of strong research partnerships have been established to date. One of them is the Central Asia and the Caucasus Regional Network for Vegetable Systems Research and Development (CACVEG), set up by AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center in 2006. The network fosters research cooperation in the region through, among other things, joint trials of improved varieties, adoption of lines, seed multiplication, and meets every year to review progress. This collaboration has already produced some positive results. A total of 42 new varieties of eight vegetable crops, including tomato, sweet and hot pepper, eggplant, vegetable soybean, mungbean, yard-long bean and cabbage, were released and registered with State Variety Testing Commissions between 2007-2014.
Second, seed production systems need to be improved. While research is moving forward, seed multiplication is lagging behind. Adoption rates are slow as there are not enough vegetable seed producers. Scientists believe more efforts should now be focused on making seeds of improved varieties available to farmers. But most national vegetable seed supply systems are fragmented and limited. So local growers have to turn to imported alternatives. Imported seed is, however, often more expensive and not adapted to local conditions. Farmers using such seed face higher financial risks. During the Seventh CACVEG Steering Committee meeting, held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 21-23 October 2014, Dr Fuad Mammadov, director of Azerbaijan's Research Institute of Vegetable Growing, pointed out a shortage of vegetable seed production farms in Azerbaijan. About six state enterprises are involved in producing vegetable seed in Azerbaijan, he added. While Azerbaijan needs around 450-700 tons of vegetable seed a year, some 20-30 per cent is produced locally. And this situation is similar in other countries too. Only 30 per cent of the vegetable seed is produced in Kazakhstan by five seed production farms (around 3 per cent) for sale and smallholder farmers (around 27 per cent) for personal use, according to Dr Temirzhan Aytbayev, director-general of the Kazakh Research Institute of Potato and Vegetable Growing. Dr Aytbayev added that, in some cases, imported seed is 10-12 times more expensive than locally produced seed. Similarly, in Armenia and Georgia, most of the demand is met by imports. In Armenia imported vegetable seed makes up around 95 per cent, although the demand is around 25-30 tons, according to Dr Gayane Martirosyan, of the Research Center of Vegetable, Melon and Industrial Crops.
Scientists give a few reasons for this. The first is lack of financing. Dr Nato Kakabadze, of Georgia's Department for Agriculture, argues that the sector needs more funding as seed production farms find it hard to make a profit. Second, seed producers often do not have necessary skills and knowledge. So training is important. For example, not many know about integrated pest management, an ecosystem-based approach to growing healthy crops and minimizing the use of pesticides. This could help them cut costs and save more. Third, more government incentives would give the sector a much-needed boost. Dr Aytbayev thinks making getting licenses easier for seed producers would be one way to help.
There are currently renewed efforts under way to restore national seed production systems. And international research organizations are helping too. For example, under the CGIAR research program Dryland Systems, launched in 2013, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, CIP, AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center, Bioversity International and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture are collaborating to establish a seed system platform in the region to supply farmers with high-quality seed and planting materials. The CACVEG network has also advocated plans to set up a national vegetable seed center in Uzbekistan. And more such centers would hopefully open in the region in the future. With sufficient funding however, this could happen sooner rather than later. All this would contribute to increasing high-quality vegetable production in the region. This is, however, more likely to happen if the whole chain works well. As scientists point out, there are many good varieties of vegetables. They only need to be mass-produced and delivered to farmers. For that, better seed systems are needed.