2010 was a tough year for Russia. It suffered record high temperatures which lead to heatwaves and fires. As a result, Russia lost 1/3 of all grain harvest in that year. As you probably know, Russians cannot imagine life without bread. Rise in prices can lead to protests and revolutions. The Russian Government made an unprecedented decision to stop all grain exports. Russia is one of the most important players in the world’s grain market and supplies a quarter of the total world’s wheat exports. This ban was painful to many countries that depended on imports of grains from Russia. Many countries were caught with their pants down. So how did Mongolia fare?
Source: NSO Yearbooks 2007–2016 (in thousands of tonnes)
Since 2008, Mongolia actively supported local grain producers. So, when Russia implemented ban on export of grains in 2010 (check the blue line, import of grains), Mongolian producers were already producing enough to be self-sufficient. When Russia had heatwaves from high temperatures, Mongolia had a good year (red line).
Is Mongolia 100 percent self-sufficient from Russia in terms of grains?
Not exactly. In 2015, Mongolia itself experienced drought, which lead to huge losses in terms of grains, as you can see from the graph above(red line), we had to import from Russia around 1/3 of grains needed for domestic consumption.
Mongolia has more than 66 million livestock. We don’t need to import the traditional livestock meats to Mongolia. There has been some push to increase chicken and fish farms though. There are more chicken farms now, some of them charge premium prices for their products, but it would be a long time until we can be self-sufficient in chicken meats.
Fish farming is something that our government has been keen to develop, but so far it is still a wishful thinking. As far as I know, there is still no commercial fish farms in Mongolia. If there is anybody out there who does fish farming, there is big potential waiting for you here in Mongolia.
Potatoes (also other root veggies):
Source: NSO yearbooks 2008–2017.(unit in thousands of tonnes)
Mongolia became largely self-sufficient in potatoes starting from 2009–2010. The imports of potatoes from China ( smaller amount from Russia) is now minuscule. Why do even still import potatoes then?
- Potato growing season starts from May till August-September
- Potatoes, and other root vegetables, need a very strict storage conditions. Potatoes, for example, need to be stored from 4 to 6 Celsius only.
- Most of potato growers are small businesses who have 1–3 ha of land.
Most of the potato growers have simple 10–30 tonnes storage units. They are heated only. That’s why potatoes cannot be stored longer than May. Starting from April the outside temperature rises above 5 Celsius, and potatoes start to sprout. So we have this time period from June till August, when we need to import potatoes.
To reduce this gap, we started growing early harvest potatoes which are ready from July, provided you planted them in April. But to do that we need to also use plastic mulching to save the potatoes from frost.
Mongolian companies are, also, building modern storage units that refrigerate, so that potatoes can be stored for longer period of time. But these are still expensive to build and expensive to use.
Mongolian government pursues two-prong strategy in terms of green veggies. They support a lot of small vegetable growers who grow vegetables within 1 ha of land. These producers can, not only support themselves, but also sell extra. They also help small producers with green houses, so that they can extend growing season by 2–3 months. But during the coldest time from November to April these are still not enough.
For winter growing we support large scale heated greenhouses. Some of them are hydroponics. But these are expensive and can only be viable if they can sell for premium price. So far it seems they have good sales during winter. But these are still not enough to supply whole of Mongolia. That’s why we need to import from China as it’s winter in Russia as well. Buying veggies from China also carries risks. Our Inspection Agency periodically stops veggies that are not safe. For example if we look just at pesticides, there were various violations:
- Vegetables with pesticides that are banned in China as everywhere else, but still readily available for Chinese growers;
- Vegetables with pesticides that are banned in EU, USA, but legal in China.
- Vegetables with pesticides that are legal everywhere else, but have amounts that are above safe consumption.
These violations do not happen all the time, but they happen with surprising regularity.
The last decade, Mongolian Government paid a lot of attention on food security. I think it was largely successful and has already shown impressive results. I also think food security and food self-sufficiency are the two sides of the coin. They have to co-exist together to be successful. But self-sufficiency doesn’t mean we stop buying from our neighbours. As we have seen from the above example, we see frequent dangerous conditions such as drought, flooding etc., that are becoming even more pronounced and devastating. So being flexible and ready is the key.