Fortifying supply: Ensuring long-term food security is a national priority

Over the past five years Mongolia’s food security situation has improved dramatically. Current estimates put the country’s overall food self-sufficiency – a measure of the extent to which the nation can meet domestic demand for food – at 50-60%, which is up considerably on previous years. The steadily improving food security situation since the mid-2000s, in particular, can be attributed in part to a series of programmes put in place by the government and various private entities, including both domestic firms and international organisations.

Good Conditions

Mongolia’s herders, farmers and other food producers and suppliers have benefitted from four successive years of favourable agricultural conditions. A series of relatively mild winters has meant that the country’s 52m-strong animal stock has not been threatened by weather for some time. Indeed, the most recent bout of large-scale livestock loss took place during the winter of 2009-10, when a dzud (a spell of extreme cold that sweeps through the steppe with little warning) wiped out an estimated one-quarter of the nation’s livestock.

“Last winter was quite warm – only -20°C – in Mongolian terms,” said Guy Van Geel, the technical director at the Mongolian Beverages Company (MBC), in late 2014. “This has been good news for herders and, indeed, for the country as a whole.”

The sector continues to face challenges when it comes to securing Mongolia’s long-term food security. Despite the importance of agriculture to both the nation’s economy and overall employment – as of the end of 2013 the sector accounted for around 80% of the rural economy, according to data from the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SACD), for example – relatively few herders and farmers operate on a sustainable basis, and the country remains reliant on imports for many common food items, particularly fruit and vegetables.

Mongolia’s harsh, dry climate and extreme winter temperatures mean that the growing season is just three-to-four months long each year. The great majority of the country is covered in arid grassland or windy desert, and therefore cannot support agricultural activities. An estimated 1% of Mongolia’s total land is currently used for crop production, and yields remain low across the board. “In Europe average wheat yields are 6-9 tonnes per ha,” Van Geel told OBG. “In Mongolia we generally get just 1-2 tonnes per ha, and the quality of local production is considerably lower than in Europe as well.”

A History of Surplus

Mongolia’s food security situation has not always been so challenging. Indeed, during the Soviet period the country reportedly met more than 80% of domestic demand with local production, the latter of which was overseen (and strictly managed) by a variety of central planning units.

The collapse of communism and subsequent transition to a market economy in the early 1990s threw the system into disarray, and production declined rapidly during this period. Indeed, the mid-1990s were marked by rapid market liberalisation and a related lack of regulation in many sectors, including agriculture, as the government worked to develop and institute new legal frameworks and policies. The situation was exacerbated by years of drought and a series of debilitating dzuds in the mid-1990s, which wiped out much of Mongolia’s livestock population and left many herders in a poor economic state.

In an effort to make up for this loss of livestock, many small-scale farmers and herders – who account for the majority of Mongolia’s agricultural production – bred as many animals as possible in the late 1990s, with no regard for long-term sustainability. This raised new issues. Large swathes of the country were overgrazed, for example, as herders worked to overcome shortages of feed and other inputs. Even today, many herders face high levels of volatility in terms of the size of their herds and income.

In the early 2000s, however, the government took on a more substantive role in agriculture, primarily in an effort to ensure that the sector remained a major source of rural employment. While this objective has been met – as of 2013 around 60% of rural jobs were in agriculture, according to SACD – the government has struggled to boost productivity and improve the quality of agricultural products. This is largely down to a lack of continuity between successive governments and overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) policy objectives across various government departments and other entities.

According to many local players, the state has failed to sufficiently fund many of its own projects. “We recently completed an expenditure review of the government’s agriculture programmes,” said Charles Annor-Frempong, a senior rural development specialist at the World Bank who focuses on Mongolia. “It is clear that while the state has developed a number of comprehensive initiatives in this area, most of them remain broadly underfunded.”

Other Issues

Mongolian farmers and herders face other challenges too. Bringing agricultural products to market remains a major issue, for example. While around 50% of Mongolia’s population is located in and around Ulaanbaatar, the great majority of the domestic food supply is produced well outside the capital, and the national road and other federal-level transport networks are in poor shape.

The sector also suffers from a lack of food storage capacity. According to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MFA), by the end of September 2013 Mongolia’s food storage facilities were capable of holding 110,000 tonnes of produce, which was equal to just 25% of total expected annual production.

Additionally, the rapid expansion of the minerals sector since 2011 has caused concern among agriculture firms and smallholders about rising levels of competition for land and other natural resources. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mongolia’s agricultural sector is hindered by the extremely short growing season and small amount of arable land.

Federal-Level Initiatives

Over the past decade-and-a-half or so, the government has launched a series of programmes with the aim of shoring up the country’s food security.

The first National Food Security Programme (NFSP), established in 2001 with the support of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), aimed to boost domestic production, fill gaps in the supply chain and replace staple imports with local foodstuffs. The initiative, which ended in 2007, was broadly successful. By the end of the first NFSP Mongolia was 98.3% and 95.2% self-sufficient in meat and milk, respectively, and 74.3% and 45.3% selfsufficient in potatoes and vegetables as a whole, according to data from IFAD.

Launched in 2009 and set to run until 2016, the second NFSP aims to build on these successes and address some lingering issues. The second NFSP is roughly organised around four key objectives; improving the agricultural enabling environment; ensuring continued expansion in commercial and smallholder food production; guaranteeing food safety and quality; and boosting public awareness about nutrition. With government financing of $1.13m in total, the second NFSP is organised into two phases, covering the periods 2009-12 and 2013-16.

Other programmes

In addition to the NFSP, a handful of other federal-level, government-led programmes are currently under way, including the State Policy on Food and Agriculture, which is set to run through 2020; the Mongolian National Livestock Programme (2010-21) and the first phase of the State Policy Towards Herders, which is forecast to end in 2015, though more stages will likely follow.

Some local players have pointed to the sheer number of purportedly top-level initiatives in this area as a sign of the continued lack of leadership in Mongolia’s agriculture sector. While these projects technically fall under the umbrella of the MFA, many of them are widely thought to be underfunded. Similarly, the formal relationship between the projects is unclear, though most local observers consider them to be co-constitutive and complementary.

Various other initiatives have either taken place recently or are currently under way. In late 2013, for example, the government began construction work on a number of new food storage facilities as part of an effort to boost capacity in this area.

Additionally, in June 2013 the MFA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Laotian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, under which the two countries agreed to cooperate on mutually beneficial projects. This follows on from a series of other agreements between the two countries, including a recent deal wherein Mongolia has taken charge of some 10,000 ha of agricultural land in Laos, where it is planning to grow rice, timber and other products that will then be exported to Mongolia. The MFA is also hoping to attract Laotian investment into a variety of agricultural segments over the coming years, including the country’s livestock industry.