SEATTLE, Washington — In Mongolia, where crop cultivation is impossible for anywhere between six and nine months each year, vegetable consumption constitutes a privilege. The regional phenomenon of extremely dry summers and harsh winters, collectively known as the dzud, severely undermines agricultural yields and makes farming economically unattractive. With domestic producers routinely struggling to satisfy more than 60% of its vegetable demand and with 25% of its 3 million people experiencing food shortages, Mongolia is yet to close its nutritional gap, exemplified in the paucity of vegetarian dishes in the country’s culinary tradition.
Why the Nutritional Gap Persists
There are several factors contributing to the size and persistence of Mongolia’s nutritional gap.
- Climate change: In recent years, dzuds have become more frequent and serious. In 2017, for instance, Mongolia lost approximately 2,700 hectares of vegetable land and registered a 23% diminution in the amount of vegetables harvested, compared to the 2016 figures. That year, almost 160,000 Mongolians suffered from the dzud and its concomitant effects on agriculture.
- Tradition: The local population had customarily lived a nomadic lifestyle and relied on herding as opposed to growing crops. For much of its modern history, Mongolia was under Communist rule, which did not favor domestic cultivation either. Back then, garden ownership was outlawed and vegetables were imported from the USSR at artificially lower prices. For this reason, Mongolians did not possess incentives to develop a sophisticated agricultural sector that could close the nutritional gap.
- Post-harvest processing: The already meager domestic supplies are further diminished as farmers sort their produce according to its quality and transport it to the market. Such losses militate against the overall yield, sometimes even decreasing it by a third.
There are many reasons why Mongolia has not thus far succeeded in closing its nutritional gap by optimizing vegetable cultivation but there are just as many initiatives designed to help it create a robust agricultural infrastructure and expand its citizens’ access to fresh and affordable vegetables.
As early as in 2008, the government launched a campaign to boost private crop growth. Many years later, the country is self-sustaining in wheat and potato production, farmers are planting more than 30 different types of vegetables on some 700,000 hectares of arable land and the Crop Protection Fund (CPF) equips producers with seeds, fuel, heavy machinery and fertilizers, prior to the annual cultivation season.
Although farmers are expected to repay any outstanding debts to the CPF, they may always sell their seeds and grain after the harvest to the state, if their sales have not been as high as they anticipated.
The Food and Agriculture Organization is also present locally. Its Input Supply to Vulnerable Populations project, operational between 2008 and 2009, assisted 9,000 rural households with efficient seed usage, water management and food production. It helped farmers gather some 600 tons of high-quality potato seeds at the end of 2009.
Simultaneously, the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are jointly subsidizing the government program to train farmers in water usage, soil cultivation, pest control and greenhouse maintenance. Undertaken by Mongolia’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, this initiative has created 30 Community Greenhouse Groups, altogether consisting of some 180 farmers spread across four sites.
This work is estimated to cost $3.2 million and should help foster resilience and collaboration among the country’s vegetable producers.
In addition to nationwide efforts, the struggle to close the nutritional gap has attracted considerable grassroots involvement. In particular, religious communities have become platforms for people to join forces and resultantly maximize agricultural yields.
In the village of Erdenebulgan, the local Bahai worshippers have successfully been running a community vegetable garden since 1997. By collecting at least 100 kg of fresh vegetables each harvest, it has seen residents not just savor vegetables for the first time but also diversify their diets and improve health. The locals have even acquired climate-resistant seeds from Canada to maximize their output by planting the types of crops that could withstand their region’s harsh weather conditions.
Similarly, the Buddhist Luvsandanzanjantsan Studies Centre, located in the town of Bayankhongor, has been working for more than 15 years on promoting healthy food consumption and growing vegetables and sugar beets in the area.
Another project, with which Mongolian Buddhists are fighting the country’s nutritional gap, is a communal garden in Gachuurt. The garden aims to help people access a more varied diet and generate income by selling surplus vegetables.
The Road Ahead
As the annual dzud curtails domestic production of vegetables and many Mongolians have been dissuaded from agriculture by their country’s past, Mongolia is not self-sufficient in vegetable cultivation; nor does it provide for the poor, whose unbalanced diets are disproportionately meat-based and conducive to health issues like obesity. Despite this, the scope of existing government, international and grassroots participation suggests that Mongolia’s struggle to close its nutritional gap could soon be nearing its end.
– Dan Mikhaylov