FAO strives to enhance resilience of agricultural sector in Uzbekistan - Sherzod Umarov (Exclusive interview)

Uzbekistan Materials 2 October 2023 08:30 (UTC +04:00)
FAO strives to enhance resilience of agricultural sector in Uzbekistan - Sherzod Umarov (Exclusive interview)
Aydan Mammadova
Aydan Mammadova
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BAKU, Azerbaijan, October 2. By providing essential resources, knowledge, and opportunities, FAO strives to enhance the well-being and resilience of agriculture in Uzbekistan, Assistant Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Representative in Uzbekistan Sherzod Umarov told Trend in an exclusive interview.

The representative added that FAO, in collaboration with other development partners, actively supports and promotes the development of this sector in Uzbekistan through its diverse initiatives and projects.

“Issues of climate change, water shortages, agriculture land reforms, ensuring food security for the population, as well as joining the World Trade Organization, will be on the agenda of the national government in the field of agricultural development in the coming years,” he said.

Umarov explained that the issues of developing and further improving technologies for the production and processing of agricultural products, ensuring the preservation of their quality indicators and environmental cleanliness, adding certain indicators for improving quality, and ensuring their long-term storage become more relevant in the context of increasing competitiveness in the market of agricultural products and expanding export opportunities for domestic producers in Uzbekistan.

Earlier this month, Uzbekistan has revealed that it looks to attract $50 billion of foreign investment to its agricultural sector.

Meanwhile, Sherzod Umarov spoke on the subject of food safety and ways of boosting Uzbekistan’s competitiveness on agricultural market.

“Ensuring food safety is crucial for both domestic consumption and international trade. Uzbekistan may need to strengthen its national food safety standards to align with internationally recognized guidelines, such as those set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. This involves enhancing food inspection and certification systems, implementing rigorous quality control measures, and establishing traceability systems throughout the food supply chain. Improved national food safety standards can enhance consumer confidence and facilitate trade with other WTO member countries,” he said.

Umarov added that an important challenge here is diversifying crops and increasing the role of the horticulture sector, as well as establishing competitive value chains in production of fruit and vegetables, where Uzbekistan holds significant competitive advantages. As part of the government's plans for the years 2022–2025, small family farms will be provided with horticulture leases on approximately 200,000 hectares of land previously utilized for cotton and grain production by large farms and clusters.

“Uzbekistan, with its arid climate and extensive irrigation needs, faces a pressing issue of water scarcity. The country heavily depends on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for irrigation, but these rivers originate from upstream nations and have witnessed decreased flow in recent times. As a result, Uzbekistan has grappled with inefficient water management practices, which not only jeopardize agricultural productivity but also exacerbate the risks associated with limited water resources,” Umarov explained.

Uzbekistan is currently undergoing a challenging phase of transforming its agri-food systems. In 2019, the country adopted the Agriculture Development Strategy 2020–2030, which outlines nine priorities for the sustainable development of agriculture and agri-food systems. The government's vision, as articulated in the strategy, is to develop a competitive, market-based, diversified, and export-oriented agri-food sector. Uzbekistan aims to increase farm incomes, create new jobs, enhance food security, and ensure the sustainable use of natural resources.

Speaking of WTO, Umarov also specified conditions for Uzbekistan to enter the organization. He said the country underlined its commitment to making rapid progress in its WTO accession talks in spring 2023 as part of an overall program to implement large-scale reforms of its trade and economic regimes.

“In the context of preparations for joining the WTO, problems arose with improving the mechanism for subsidizing agricultural producers, introducing international standards of good agricultural practice, and improving national food safety standards,” Umarov noted.

Uzbekistan has traditionally employed a system of state support and subsidies for its agricultural sector. The FAO representative, however, states that there is a need to align these mechanisms with international trade rules and regulations. This involves ensuring that subsidies provided to agricultural producers are transparent, non-discriminatory, and comply with WTO guidelines.

“Also, joining the WTO requires compliance with international standards and regulations. In the agricultural sector, which includes adhering to good agricultural practices (GAP) that promote sustainable production, environmental protection, and food safety,” Umarov added.

He also pointed out that Uzbekistan may need to enhance its agricultural practices to meet these standards, such as by reducing the use of agrochemicals, improving soil management, and implementing proper pest and disease control measures.

“The adoption of GAP can enhance the competitiveness of Uzbek agricultural products in the international market,” he said.

He went on to add that liberalizing the cotton market in Uzbekistan is a crucial task to increase yields, allocate land for food crops, and boost farm incomes.

"Cotton holds significant importance as an agricultural product in Uzbekistan, with a long value chain within the economy,” Umarov noted.

He added that Uzbekistan has been gradually reducing the land dedicated to raw cotton production. Reforms in the cotton market, implemented in 2020-2021, abolished the state cotton order system. This system previously mandated that all cotton produced in the country be sold to the state and set annual production targets for cotton-growing areas. The end of mandatory state procurement has provided farmers with more freedom and market power.

“However, challenges such as financial market restrictions, limited access to variable and capital inputs (especially for small-scale farmers), and weak contracting conditions still necessitate ongoing liberalization and structural reforms,” Umarov explained.

FAO official also stressed that major prospects for the development of agriculture in the Republic of Uzbekistan are defined in the Agriculture Development Strategy of the country for the period from 2020 through 2030 and the Road Map developed for it.

“The government's vision, as articulated in the Strategy, is to develop a competitive, market-based, diversified, and export-oriented agri-food sector. The aim is to increase farm incomes, create new jobs, enhance food security, and ensure the sustainable use of natural resources,” he said.

Uzbekistan stands as one of the world’s largest producers of natural textile fibers, cotton yarn, and knitwear. The country exported 21,800 tons of knitted products worth $102.9 million from January through April 2023. As per data by Uzbekistan’s Statistics Agency, cotton yields in Uzbekistan amounted to 678,900 in 2022, with a decrease of 31,700 tons compared to 2021 (710,600 tons).

The representative also said that developing a legislative framework is essential for providing a clear and comprehensive set of guidelines for rural development policies and interventions.

“Rural development, being recognized as a top priority in the Agriculture Development Strategy 2020–2030, highlights the importance of addressing the multifaceted nature of rural development, which is influenced by a combination of social and economic policies. This recognition signifies the commitment of Uzbekistan to foster the holistic development of rural areas in order to improve the well-being of rural communities and enhance overall agricultural sustainability,” he said.

The representative noted that Uzbekistan plans to develop and introduce a regulatory legal act, which will launch a national program for the development of rural areas by the end of 2023.

“To effectively address this priority, the Agency for Strategic Reforms under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan has recently established an interagency working group tasked with developing a national rural development plan, whose establishment demonstrates the government's commitment to coordinating efforts across multiple ministries and agencies to tackle rural development challenges comprehensively,” Umarov added.

A FAO representative explained that developing a legislative framework is essential for providing a clear and comprehensive set of guidelines for rural development policies and interventions. Such a framework can define key terms, principles, and procedures, ensuring consistency, transparency, and accountability in the implementation of rural development initiatives. It can also establish mechanisms for monitoring, evaluation, and feedback to facilitate continuous improvement and adaptive management.

Umarov also stressed that crop and animal production, along with forestry, contribute directly to approximately 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Given this significant environmental impact, promoting environmentally friendly food production practices is crucial for various reasons, including environmental conservation, food quality, food safety, and income generation.

“In Uzbekistan, farmers are gradually recognizing the benefits of international practices and standards that support the concept of environmentally friendly food production. By adopting internationally recognized food business management practices such as Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Hygiene Practices (GHP), and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), Uzbekistan can scale up these practices and have a wider impact,” he concluded.

Earlier this year, during the meeting between Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Director General of the FAO Qu Dongyu, which was held as part of the president's official visit to Italy, a new comprehensive cooperation program until 2023 was established as one of the priority areas of partnership between Uzbekistan and FAO.

Investment and trade agreements worth $1.88 billion were concluded on the Agri-Food Investment Forum in Uzbekistan earlier in September 2023. During the forum, the participants signed agreements on 24 projects worth $857.3 million to attract direct investment, while grants and funds from international financial institutions amounted to $707.5 million. Moreover, trade agreements worth $319.2 million were concluded.