A year in achievements - looking back at 2015, moving ahead...

Date: 31.12.2015.

Visiting Fayzabad district in Rasht Valley in Tajikistan, a potential research and demonstration site for integrated agricultural research. Multidisciplinary projects have been implemented in the four main agro-ecosystems of Central Asia and the Caucasus: rainfed and irrigated agriculture, mountains and rangelands during the year 2015.

Declared as the "International Year of Soils" by the 68th UN General Assembly, the year 2015 showcased implementation of a variety of multidisciplinary research programs and projects that have contributed to combating land degradation and improving soils in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Functioning like a well-oiled machine, adopting the more integrated, multidisciplinary approaches it became the result of efforts by the scientists of the CGIAR Regional Program for Sustainable Agricultural Development in Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC), donors and partner national research institutions. In this overview, we provide a glimpse of collaborative research outputs from January through December 2015. Most of our work aim at developing the national research capacities for sustainable productivity increases in agriculture through development, adoption and transfer of knowledge and technologies.

Actions to combat land degradation the key challenge in Central Asia have been supported and promoted by the three-year project to streamline the use, creation and dissemination of knowledge on sustainable land management (SLM) in five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), acting as the coordinating center of the Knowledge Management Project of the Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management (CACILM), convened an annual meeting of partners in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 17-18 March, followed by its steering committee get-together in Istanbul, Turkey on 24 June. These two events reviewed achievements and constraints, and agreed on a plan of activities for the upcoming year. To date, the project has collected and described in standard format more than one-hundred SLM approaches and technologies applicable to the four main agro-ecosystems of Central Asia: rainfed and irrigated agriculture, mountains and rangelands.

It has been a fruitful year for the multidisciplinary CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Dryland Systems led by ICARDA in the Aral Sea and Fergana Valley Action Sites. Researchers continued working with farmers on identifying improved winter wheat varieties resistant to soil salinity, frost and heat. Varieties like 'Bunyodkor', 'Gozgon' and 'Yaksart' in Uzbekistan and 'Chumon', 'Alex' and 'Ormon' in Tajikistan fared very well during the outbreaks of yellow rust in 2013, 2014 and 2015. New wheat varieties helped farmers not only save, but also to earn more. For instance, in Tajikistan, including Sughd region, part of the Fergana Valley Action Site, more than 4000 farmers benefited from cultivation and seed production of yellow rust resistant wheat varieties under the competitive partnership grant program in CRP WHEAT.

Moreover, with the aim of improving agricultural seed production in Uzbekistan, seed systems analysis was conducted in Karauzyak district, Karakalpakstan (Aral Sea Action Site). The purpose was to indentify present seed systems for cereals, legumes, vegetables, fodders and fruits in the district, understand the strengths and limitations in terms of infrastructure and availability of quality seed to farmers, discussing the ways to improve seed systems for various crops. Further, with the goal of improving soil, as well as farmers' profits, considerable work has been done to introduce and promote new varieties of mungbean in the Fergana Valley. Mungbean demonstrated how double cropping could improve water use efficiency as an effective way of converting evaporation losses from fallow land into useful crop transpiration, resulting in improved water use efficiency, food and income security. A new project - aptly titled "Beans with Benefits", launched by AVRDC the World Vegetable Centre in spring 2015 - now aims to integrate improved mungbean as a catch crop (planted after winter wheat harvest) in the dryland systems of Central Asia to increase farmers' income and establish more sustainable production systems.

Research on potato cultivation has been advanced by the International Potato Center (CIP), together with national research partners, during the last three years through a project on improvement of potato varieties and productivity of farmers in vulnerable environments of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Recent highlights include evaluation of 43 promising clones of potatoes for daylight-neutrality, stress-tolerance, productivity and suitability for second season cultivation. In a similar fashion, cultivation of improved vegetable varieties was addressed by a new AVRDC-USAID project "Tajikistan Nutrition-Sensitive Vegetable Technologies" that aims to improve nutrition outcomes by introducing improved production methods, including greenhouses for extended season vegetable production and containerized seedling production.

Effective management of marginal lands for increased winter feed livestock productivity and diversity of household incomes called for scientists to introduce non-conventional crops planted on marginal lands using marginal water, resulting in effective water and ecosystem conservation, protecting economic benefits of the households. Through a series of field training seminars titled "Alternative forage crops for animal feeding in winter" organized by International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Karauzyak district, farmers were familiarized with new forage crops (16 cultivars and improved lines). A similar goal was pursued while introducing environmentally resilient and nutritionally rich quinoa in order to improve food and nutrition security of low-income populations living in marginal areas of Central Asia, with target countries Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Extensive research by several centers members of the Regional Program on another drought and salinity resistant plant - licorice - also merits a special attention. The research has found that the plant helps to decrease groundwater level, reduce soil salinity and improve fertility. Trials in central Kyzylkum, Uzbekistan, have shown that licorice does well in saline conditions and can be highly valuable as livestock feed. It is an economical solution which would benefit not only rural households and farmers, but is also one of the ways to address and combat land degradation.

Further research on the Economics of Land Degradation indicated that cultivation of halophytic plants in salinized areas (e.g. licorice), rotation of crops such as alfalfa, mungbean and other legume crops are effective and low-cost interventions that can be undertaken by farmers. The research found an estimated return of about 4 USD over the next 30 years for each dollar invested in land rehabilitation, including major benefits to the environment. Thus, the costs of action would amount around 11 billion USD over the next 30 years, whereas, if this is not the case, the resulting losses may equal almost 50 billion USD.

A new book on rangeland rehabilitation points to one of the ways to solve the problem by cultivating plants that are tolerant to salinity, drought and heat. The book - a product of more than ten years of research and field trials by scientists from ICBA and Uzbek Institute of Karakul Sheep Husbandry and Desert Ecology - looks at one such plant Kochia prostrata (L.) Schrad. It is a valuable forage plant with great potential for improving the productivity of arid and semi-arid degraded rangelands in Central Asia.

Conservation and development of natural resources through sustainable agriculture - strategic elements of the work done by the Regional Program - have become one of the key research themes in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Coordinated by Bioversity International since 2012, a project on sustainable use of fruit tree genetic resources in Central Asia aims to improve the prospects for long-term food security and livelihoods for farmers in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by generating and disseminating important knowledge for conservation of fruit and nut tree species. In line with this, Model Forest Farms were established in each of the target-study countries, with several workshops organized during 2015 demonstrating advanced methods of sustainable management of forest genetic resources.  

Conservation of water and energy resources was addressed with the introduction of drip irrigation in one of the pilot farms in the Karshi district of Kashkadarya, Uzbekistan, using well-lifted groundwater on 5 ha area for irrigation of cotton. The engineering system of drip irrigation can alleviate many problems of traditional irrigation and increase quality performance of planting, economizing fuel, lubricating materials, as well as mineral fertilizers. As a result, the pilot farm demonstration served as a concrete example for improving yields, increasing mineral fertilizers efficiency, and reducing irrigation water application. Alike to other projects in the CAC region, the advantages of water saving technologies and its benefits were discussed by scientists from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) with the local partners and farmers during several knowledge-sharing events.

Throughout the year, knowledge-sharing efforts took a multitude of directions in the region. For example, this year under the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) traveling seminars were held in Azerbaijan and Georgia attended by more than 50 participants from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In addition, spurring reforms of rural advisory services, the Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (CACAARI) and the CAC Forum for Rural Advisory Services (CAC-FRAS) have undertaken joint actions towards strengthening new developments in the region. This has contributed to positive changes in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. As a result of governmental support, the two countries implemented major reforms to support extension and advisory services, as well as improvement of facilities and resources of research institutions. 

Coinciding with the breakthrough agreement reached at the Paris climate talks, with the large share of countries now including agriculture in their climate commitments, a regional 'Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Program for Aral Sea Basin (CAMP4ASB)' was launched by the World Bank. It has the ambition to identify and pursue synergies with climate-related research and development activities supported by the international community in Central Asia. The Regional Program provided inputs in terms of knowledge and available technologies to the new regional initiative.

In conclusion, it is important to mention that scientists working as part of the Regional Program publish the results of their research findings in a range of national and international scientific journals (see Selected Recent Publications). While knowledge-sharing activities lead to maintaining the fruitful cooperation with research partners and various stakeholders - local research institutions, public organizations, universities, farmers’ associations - the publications produced help to extend essential knowledge base, reflect on the work done and set new objectives.

As the year 2015 ends, the new year 2016 becomes a key transition year in redefining how CGIAR does business to 2030. Finalized this year, the new CGIAR Strategy and Results Framework 2016-2030, through its ten quantitative targets and its qualitative results framework, aligns our own targets closely with those of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. This new CGIAR strategy links research to Sustainable Development Goals: reduced poverty, improved food and nutrition security for health, and improved natural resource systems and ecosystem services. Promoting one of the new initiatives in sustainable agriculture, ICARDA has created a new website as part of 2016 International Year of Pulses (IYP). The "International Year of Pulses" was officially launched by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and ICARDA is at the forefront of pulses research in the drylands. Pulses, or grain legumes, with the unique ability of nitrogen-fixation needed for fertile soils, play a critical role in dry areas for sustainable food production systems and are, therefore, an integral part of the work done by the Regional Program for food security and better livelihoods in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

We wish our readers a happy, healthy, prosperous and joyful new year 2016!

See also