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Food and Agriculture

From Herders to Cultivators

ULAANBAATAAR, Mongolia, May 5 2013 (IPS) - When the food-strapped Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) appealed to the Mongolian government for food last month, it signaled a major turning point in the public image of this Central Asian country, which has long struggled to feed its own population of three million.

Transformed from a nation of nomads into an industrial agricultural exporter during its time as a Soviet satellite state between 1921 and 1990, the country’s food production systems suffered a sudden crash after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Families went back to subsistence agriculture, but herding under a privatised market economy created unsustainable livestock populations and overgrazing, as a result of which Mongolia now has an estimated 78 percent desertification rate.

As recently as 2008, the country imported two-thirds of its wheat, one third of its potatoes and most of its milk products in urban areas, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report.

But new initiatives by the government and private sector to revive food production here have taken Mongolians back to their roots as small-scale cultivators, utilising the short growing season on the Central Asian Steppes to plan trees and the nutritious sea buckthorn bushes to protect the topsoil.

Tuya, a member of the Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA) told IPS that imported vegetables are too expensive for the rural and urban poor living in informal “tent cities” across the country. So the new cultivation initiatives offer a way out of malnutrition and food insecurity.

According to government studies, a full third (33 percent) of Mongolians eat no vegetables at all.  The poor suffer from heart disease, stunting in children, high blood pressure, obesity, malnutrition and alcoholism. The MWFA, a volunteer-led civil society organisation, has been teaching ger-district and rural residents how to grow and cook vegetables to improve both their income and health.


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