Parviz Mullojanov: Food Security Problems in Tajikistan
“According to the basic parameters of food security, Tajikistan is currently approaching the thresholds, being behind all other Central Asian states. In terms of affordability of staple foods for the population, the import ratio to domestic production, household spending on food, the situation in the country looks worse than in the countries of the “Arab Spring” on the eve of the social and political unrest of 2010 – 2012″, – writes in his article, specially for CABAR.asia, a political analyst from Tajikistan, Parviz Mullojanov.
In today’s world, the definition of food security is directly related to such concepts as political and social stability. In other words, the security and stability of the state largely depends on whether the population is provided with food – in the amount corresponding to the modern standards of consumption. Accordingly, the higher and better the level of provision, the lower the level of social tension in society and the more stable is the state. Conversely, a shortage or inaccessibility of food can in the shortest possible time and for a long time thereafter undermine the stability of any, even the most powerful state. This article discusses the role the food security factor plays in contemporary Tajikistan. A question of no less importance is – what role can it play in the future, and what should be done to prevent the most negative case scenario?
Stability parameters – international experience
Recent events in the Middle East – namely, a series of revolutions and coups in the “Arab Spring” led scientists and politicians to take a fresh look at the phenomenon of “food security”. Indeed, the food crisis and the rise in food prices was the immediate impetus, untwisting the flywheel of the revolution, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. During the time of President Mubarak in Egypt, there was a special quota for bread – the poor could buy bread at discount prices. Forced removal of subsidies led to a disappearance of the “bread for the poor”, which caused a growing discontent and sharply exacerbated the situation in the country.
In general, if one carefully considers the events of the “Arab Spring”, one can identify the main parameters of “food security” – that is, the performance of the economy and agriculture, under which there emerges a threat to the preservation of political stability, namely:
1) “Food security” implies that a country will have sufficient volumes of food stocks – both, through internal production and by importing essential products from abroad. It is assumed that no less than 60-80% of food must be produced within the country. In developed countries, this showing is even higher – for example, the level of food self-sufficiency in the United States and France is – over 100%, Germany – 93%, Italy – 78%. In the countries of the Arab Spring, however, on the eve of the Revolution, domestic production amounted to an average of only 36-38%.
Accordingly, the “threshold of stability” is no less than 30% for this indicator – that is, if domestic food production is less than this figure, a country may face real conditions for social unrest and a breach of stability.
2) Equally important is the economic aspect of “food security”; this means that an average citizen must have sufficient income to purchase the minimum food basket. At that, prices for the products must be affordable for all social strata. In the countries of the “Arab Spring” the population spent an average of about 35% of its budget on food; for comparison, in developed countries the figure is 10-15%. In the pre-revolutionary Egypt, the price of bread rose by almost twice the cost; with 40% of the population living on just $2 a day. Therefore, when in 2010, within a short time span the prices soared, and bread suddenly became unaffordable for a significant part of the population, there was a social explosion, followed by a series of revolutions and riots.
Hence, it is possible to approximately deduct the threshold of economic accessibility of food — inflation of food should not be more than 7-10% per year, so that an average household spends no more than 30% of its total budget on food. Crossing of these parameters of accessibility and availability of food are fraught with negative consequences for any country — especially if the given threshold security indicators stay on for a long time.
Food Security in Tajikistan
The most important feature of contemporary agriculture in Tajikistan is its unprecedentedly low efficiency. Indeed, about 70% of the population is engaged in the agricultural sector of the country; at the same time, agricultural production accounts for only 22% of Tajikistan’s GDP. This means that the sector is unable to even feed the rural residents, let alone the population of the country. For comparison’s sake, only 14% of the population in the pre-revolutionary Egypt was engaged in agriculture, but agricultural production was more than 19% of GDP. Up to date, according to official statistics, it is precisely the agricultural workers who are getting the lowest wages in the real sector of the republic.
As a result, much of the population, first and foremost, the inhabitants of rural areas themselves, are forced to go into migration in order to “finish collecting” in a foreign country something that they cannot get from their own plot of land.
At that, Tajikistan produces only about 40% of the food consumed, while most of it is imported from abroad. The problem also lies in that the imported foods are precisely those that make up the basket for the poor – that is those of strategic importance to maintain social stability.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Bank, Tajikistan is the most problematic country in the region in terms of food security, being among the 32 poorest countries in the world. The Research Center of “The Economist” magazine, developed a food security index, based on FAO data, which is calculated for 106 countries of the world. According to this data, Tajikistan is on the 81st place out of 106 countries (for comparison, Russia in the same ranking is on the 36th place). According to the same estimates, 30% of Tajikistanis are malnourished – despite the fact that the figure is only 5-6% in the other countries of the region. Residents of Tajikistan spend the average of 55% of their total budget on food (compared to the “Arab Spring” countries, this figure was around 35-38%, in Russia the figure is about 39%).
Experts identify the following several factors behind the low efficiency of the agricultural sector of the country:
Firstly, it is the unsuccessful process of agricultural reformation, which dragged for almost two decades and has not been completed yet. Particular damage the agricultural sector had suffered during the first reform of 1995-1997, when a few tens of thousands of hectares of land were rented to farmers, and the former collective farms began to be reorganized into private farms. Meanwhile, most of the infrastructure was destroyed, including the systems of irrigation, processing, storage of the production, its transportation and distribution among the end users. It was then that the social infrastructure in the rural areas was irretrievably lost: rural clubs, cinemas, tea-houses, libraries, kindergartens, shops, etc., which were sold or privatized mostly for next to nothing. At the same time, together with the disappearance of the entire employment-providing infrastructure, nothing of value was provided in return.
At first, a system of so-called futures companies was set up, which dealt exclusively in cotton. Most of them supplied farmers, towards the future harvest, with the necessary materials, such as seeds and fuel at clearly inflated prices – ultimately driving the Tajik peasants into multi-million dollar debts. In 2008, the government was forced to write off these debts, but the actual damage caused to the agricultural sector at the time by the “futures” system, is hard to overestimate.
Today, with the mediation of the international community, Tajik banks come forth as the main creditors to the farms – in fact, this is another attempt to create a semblance of a modern and efficient agricultural infrastructure in the country. However, with the banking sector of the Republic being in crisis itself, the lending rates are too high, and therefore unaffordable to most farmers. In 2015, out of the total volume of allocated loans in the country, only 8.2% was accounted for by the agricultural sector, that is, over 94.5% of the industry’s financing fell on the shoulders of the farmers themselves.
On average, according to the farmers, one hectare of land requires at least 1-2 thousand dollars in investments, 80 trees of lemon need 10 sacks of urea, or 1.8 thousand Somoni, plus fertilizers, film, chemical processing. The lack of credit facilities, the rise in price of materials, fertilizers, tax collection (in some areas farmers are forced to pay taxes a year in advance, there are cases of double taxation, the invention of new tax traps on the ground) make the agrarian profession unprofitable. Reduced purchasing power of the population, increase in transportation tariffs, forces farmers to reduce the prices of their products, often at a loss to themselves. On top of everything else, the interests of Tajik farmers are being hit no less harder by the overall inflation – a rise in food prices, especially flour. As a result, according to the farmers themselves, if a few years ago, when selling 30 kg of lemons, a farmer could buy 20 bags of flour, today the return for the same can barely afford him one bag.
Thus, to date, work on the land is a disadvantage for the majority of rural residents. It is this circumstance that stands as the main cause of mass migration out of the country; and herein lies the main reason for the current food security crisis in the country.
Key findings and conclusions: what is to be done?
As mentioned above, according to the basic parameters of food security, Tajikistan is currently approaching the thresholds, being behind all other Central Asian states. In terms of affordability of staple foods for the population, the ratio of imports to domestic production, household spending on food, the situation in the country looks worse than in the countries of the “Arab Spring” on the eve of the social and political unrest of the years 2010 – 2012.
In perspective, all this creates a real threat to the preservation and strengthening of social peace and stability in Tajikistan. Accordingly, it is imperative today to take a number of assertive measures to rectify the situation and opt for more favorable food security conditions. In this relation, based on international experience and suggestions of experts, one can make a few preliminary comments on necessary and concrete steps to be taken in this direction:
In the short-term perspective, there is a need to create a strategic reserve, a kind of a “food safety cushion”, in order to limit inflation or a sharp rise in prices for foodstuffs that make up the main diet for most of the country’s population. Given that the diet of over 50% of Tajikistan’s population consists mainly of tea and bakery products, it is, primarily, flour (bread, pasta, etc.), as well as vegetable oil, sugar, tea, potato, rice.
Of course, these foods make up only part of the minimal basket of food needed for normal and high-quality food. However, as mentioned above, the prices on these kinds of products are the key barometer of the mood in the society and directly influence the level of social tension.
At that, the experts warn that inflation retention measures should not be coercive in nature – that is, one cannot adjust the prices by force or instructions from above. Otherwise, as international experience shows, it will only lead to a shortage of goods and the development of a black market for goods and services. At the same time, truly effective measures could be subsidies and the creation of incentives for firms and entrepreneurs dealing with the import of “strategically important” food items. In many countries there is a practice of creating financial reserve funds, strategic food stocks. In the times of crisis, the state puts out food for sale out of its reserves, thus contributing toward lower prices for staple foodstuffs. If, in 2010, the Arab governments had at their disposal a strategic stock of wheat and flour, then, they may well have been able to prevent a social explosion.
However, measures to reduce inflation, in themselves, do not solve the problem and are only of a temporary nature. Experts point out that, in the long term, the Tajik government has no choice but to complete the agrarian reform at the fastest rate possible. Moreover, the time for half measures since long has passed, the reform must be systematic, otherwise it may have a reverse effect. In general, with respect to a long-term reform, most of the expert proposals and recommendations are as follows:
Firstly, it is necessary to develop and improve the legal framework of the agrarian reform – meaning a significant reduction in the tax burden, the introduction of a series of specific benefits and subsidies for farmers. In the long term, the country has no other choice, but to introduce the institution of private land ownership (at least in the form of a long-term right to use), the land market, independent development of the credit system in agriculture. Only farmers and the market should determine what to sow and how to use the land.
If the government deems it necessary to maintain the state order for cotton, then payment for the production must be made at market prices. The analysis of the rise of prices and salary rates for the period of 2000 to 2013 also showed that cotton farming, as the main form of the agricultural enterprise, became unprofitable.
The legal framework should determine new approaches to lending to farmers; at present there is a need to move towards long-term loans, at preferential rates, for only then can it really encourage farmers. The existing credit system is not working and is unlikely to work in the future. Tajik farmers are apprehensive of taking short-term loans, for high interest rates, on security of property or on security of their lands. For this reason, in Tajikistan, experts propose to introduce the experience of Islamic banks’ interest-free loans, and where a contract-based profit is shared between the bank and the producer.
Secondly, the country needs to rebuild its agricultural infrastructure, without which establishment of a modern agriculture is simply impossible. This primarily concerns the reconstruction of the technological/scientific and service station, tractor depot, rehabilitation of irrigation facilities, effective system of material procurement, storage, transportation and marketing of agricultural products, transition to water-saving technologies, etc.
Thirdly, it is impossible to conduct a successful reform of agriculture without seriously reducing corruption. According to research conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan in 2008 -2010, the agricultural sector of the country, is among the most prone to corruption. Corruption permeated the whole chain of transmission of, both imported and local food products, ranging from the producer (the border) to the end user. According to surveys of Tajik farmers only the arrangement of various types of legal documents, such as rights of ownership and use of land, illegal payments come up to at least 300 to 500 US dollars. Particularly palpable is the corruption on the roads; farmers and traders complain that police posts subject every vehicle to payment of informal fees, which inevitably affects the final price of food products.
Thus, agrarian reform should be integrated and comprehensive. Moreover, the main goal of the reform, as well as an indicator of its success, should be that once again work on the land becomes profitable and cost effective for the Tajik farmers. Only in this way will they be able to not only feed themselves and their families, but also bring their country out of the economic crisis and ensure genuine food security of the state.
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Author: Parviz Mullojonov, political analyst (Tajikistan, Dushanbe)
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of CABAR.asia