Agriculture still plays a special and very important role in the economic development of the modern Central Asian countries, even in those of them where there is significant industrial potential. The latter, of course, applies to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent - to Turkmenistan (however, hydrocarbon production occupies a prominent place in the economy), which can currently be described as agrarian-industrial, while the rest of the region (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are mainly agrarian.

However, the appearance of the agricultural sector in Central Asia is largely associated with the historical past of the region, more precisely, with its traditional division into a predominantly livestock (nomadic) part in the north and an agricultural part in the south. All this still partly affects the economic activities of the population outside the urban centers of the region. And even if we take into account the significant changes in the economic structure that occurred in the Central Asian republics during the Soviet period, first of all, the introduction of the traditions of growing a number of agricultural crops in the territory dominated by the nomadic economy, still a number of historically established economic trends are traced to this day. However, in order to understand the peculiarities of the agrarian sector and its potential in the economic life of the modern countries of our region, it is necessary to dwell on its specific character in each of them

Kazakhstan. A specific character of this country is that it is quite well developed, both agricultural (more than 47% of all agricultural products) and livestock (up to 53%, respectively) sectors of agriculture. Moreover, the latter is even slightly ahead of the former.

The main part of the crop acreage in Kazakhstan is devoted to the production of high-quality grain, first of all, wheat (up to 80% of the total grain crops), accounting for almost 75% of all cultivated area (mainly in Central and Northern Kazakhstan).  More than 100 different varieties of this grain crop and their hybrids are grown in the country, but the greatest stake is made on the so-called solid varieties (durum), which have the highest quality level, and therefore are in greatest demand on the world market. Corn is the second most important grain crop in Kazakhstan, which accounts for most of the remaining acreage. 

To date, Kazakhstan has practically reached the second place, after Russia, in the production of grain and products based on it in the CIS countries, while in the region it remains their main producer.

Over the recent years, agricultural land has been progressively growing in this country, which is allotted for oilseed crops, mainly sunflower, that are mostly located in Eastern, Northern and Central Kazakhstan. Most of it goes to the production of vegetable oil, in terms of which the country ranks first in Central Asia and is second only to Russia and Ukraine in the CIS.

In Kazakhstan, in addition to grains and oilseeds, in the southern part of the country large agricultural areas are occupied by potatoes and other vegetables (cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, etc.). Most of them are grown in the Almaty region and, to a lesser extent, in the Dzhambul and Turkestan regions. The same regions of the country are also famous for various types of gourds (mainly melons and watermelons). Besides, over the last few years, the cultivation of soybeans has been established in the Almaty region, and its crops are gradually growing. The cultivation of sugar beets and tobacco occupies a prominent place in the southern regions of the country in the agricultural sector.

In Kazakhstan a considerable number grazing lands are also allotted for livestock farming (up to 84% of the total agricultural land area), which is most of all focused on meat production. Against this background, it is interesting that in the last decade the number of horses in this country has increased significantly - by almost a third, camels - by more than 20%, sheep and cattle - by about 8%, while the number of pigs has decreased by more than one third.  At the same time, the productivity of the poultry industry has increased by more than 30%. However, the production of meat in slaughter weight, despite the increase in livestock numbers, is still growing relatively weakly - only by a little over 3%. 

Much more modest results are observed in milk production, despite attempts made by Kazakhstan to increase it. In the period from 2011 to 2018, the production of milk and dairy products slightly increased - by 2% only. For this reason, Kazakhstan cannot yet fully meet domestic demand for such products. Therefore, a significant part of them, especially in the southern and south-eastern regions of the country, are traditionally imported from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, while in a number of northern regions - from Russia.

Uzbekistan. In the structure of agriculture in this country, crop production dominates to a significant extent over animal husbandry, which is quite natural, given its traditional features of the economy. The most strategic direction in the modern agricultural sector of Uzbekistan’s economy is cotton cultivation (more than a third of all agricultural lands are allocated for it) and grain crops (a little less than half of agricultural lands), primarily wheat, but corn and barley are also important.

It is worth noting that since the early 1990s, the area allocated for cotton plants has been gradually reduced by almost 30%. However, despite this, Uzbekistan remains the largest producer of raw cotton, both in Central Asia and in the CIS. Besides, according to various estimates, it produces up to 5% of the global production of this type of raw material.

The agricultural lands freed from cotton were mainly allotted for the cultivation of cereals, as the country traditionally suffers a grain shortage with a progressively growing population. For this reason, since the early 1990s, agricultural land allocated for growing wheat and other grain crops has increased from 24 to 45%. However, even this does not fully cover the needs of this country for grain, which is imported mainly from neighboring Kazakhstan (up to 1.5 million tons per year).

Over the years of independence, Uzbekistan has started growing much more vegetables. For example, only the production of potatoes has more than doubled, and growing of other vegetables increased, on average, by 1.5 times. The cultivation of melons, fruit and berry crops continues playing an important role in the agriculture of modern Uzbekistan, the yields of which were increased by an average of more than twofold. Most of them, however, go to the domestic market of the country, in contrast to the dried fruit produced on the basis of the latter.

Animal husbandry occupies a much more modest place in the agrarian sector of the economy of Uzbekistan, most of which is concentrated in Jizzakh, Navoi, Kashkadarya, Khorezm regions and Karakalpakstan. Here, the emphasis is mainly on the breeding of meat and dairy livestock - cattle, sheep and goats, whose number has increased from 2001 to the present time by more than twice as many. The poultry industry is experiencing a noticeable recovery, in which growth in the number of poultry is recorded - more than 5 times.

The fixed increase in the number of cows in Uzbekistan in less than a decade leads to the fact that during this same period, the country was able to increase milk production by more than twice. This made it possible to cover not only the needs of the domestic market, but to submit a serious bid to claim the role of an international exporter of products based on the abovementioned (as of 2016, Uzbekistan ranked 19th in the world in terms of the production of whole milk in the world).

Tajikistan. Agriculture plays a special role in the economic activities in this country. Natural conditions allow practicing land husbandry and cattle breeding here, but the former is more developed.

The main grain crop in Tajikistan is still wheat, the production volume of which, as a whole, has not grown over the entire period of independence of this country. The wheat yields do not cover domestic demand, so the country traditionally imports significant amounts of grain and ready-made flour from Kazakhstan and other countries.

The cultivation of cotton, which remains the main agricultural crop in Tajikistan, is still of great importance in the country's agriculture. It is grown mainly in the western and northern regions of the country (districts of republican subordination, Sogd and Khatlon regions). Although throughout the entire period of independence the yield of cotton gradually falls, yet the arable land, where it is grown, accounts for almost a third. Almost 80% of the raw cotton produced is exported to the CIS and other foreign countries.

Besides, of great importance in the economic life of Tajikistan is horticulture, which is concentrated mainly in the valley regions of Sogd (up to 50% of the total harvest) and Khatlon regions (up to 33% of the harvest). The main fruit and berry crops are apricots, peaches, plums and cherries. The production of these particular categories has steadily increased over the past fifteen years (the yields have increased almost by 2.5 times). At the same time, the volumes of produced dried fruit increase, a significant part of which is exported to CIS countries.

Livestock breeding occupies a more modest place in the agricultural sector of Tajikistan, which is represented mainly in the mountainous regions of the center and east of the country (Gorny Badakhshan). It is a predominantly meat livestock. In the structure of breeding domestic animals, dominance belongs to goats and sheep, to a somewhat lesser extent - to cattle. Yak breeding, traditionally practiced in the highlands of the Pamirs, stands apart in this respect (it accounts for 85% of the country's population of yaks), although yaks were also brought to a number of mountain areas in western Tajikistan and continue being grown there as well.

However, despite the fact that about half of all agricultural areas in Tajikistan are used for pastures, domestic livestock resources do not fully cover the population’s needs for meat, and even less for dairy products. This shortage is especially noticeable in the western regions of the country.

Kyrgyzstan has a fairly balanced combination of livestock and arable farming in agriculture, and has almost equal shares in the structure of the gross output of this sector of the economy.

Arable farming is traditionally developed in the valley areas of the country, and it accounts for slightly less than 13% of all agricultural lands. More than half of them are occupied by grain crops - wheat, corn and barley. The cultivation of potatoes, French beans, sunflowers, etc., in a number of regions of the country also plays a very important role. The cultivation of sugar beets remains important in the Chui Valley. And in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, traditionally the prominent place in agriculture is occupied by cotton growing.

Horticulture occupies a significant place in the crop production of Kyrgyzstan, which is focused on the cultivation of large volumes of apricots, peaches,  cherries, grapes and other fruit and berries, that is traditionally associated with the production of dried fruit going to the external market as well. Although the gourd crops are grown on a smaller scale, they still have an important character in this branch of agriculture, especially in the southern part of the country and partly in the Chui valley.

It is especially worthwhile to dwell on the traditional abundance of Kyrgyzstan with walnut-fruit resources, first of all - walnuts, which can be obtained both from plantings of its cultivated species and from relict forests in Jalal-Abad oblast. Besides, in our country there is a local production of pistachios and almonds.

Livestock breeding in Kyrgyzstan is of meat and dairy nature and it is widespread throughout the country. It accounts for 87% of all farmlands. The main livestock population is represented by sheep and cattle, while horses are represented in a somewhat smaller volume, however, the population of all these categories over the past ten years has been growing slowly (although it has not reached the indicators of the early 1990s). The only exception is pigs whose livestock has decreased by 8 times. In some places in Kyrgyzstan (Naryn and Osh oblasts), yak breeding is practiced, but it is relatively small in nature and tends to decrease. Poultry farming is not sufficiently developed in Kyrgyzstan either, - it cannot cover even 5% of the consumed volume of poultry meat in the country.

Turkmenistan. Agriculture in the structure of the economy in this country occupies a relatively modest place, as hydrocarbon production continues being the leading industry.

Only 6% of the country’s area is allocated for cultivated land. Moreover, almost half of this farmland is used for growing wheat, and a little less than a third - for the cultivation of cotton (its production in the country has increased by 21 times over the years of independence). About 8% of suitable for crop production areas are used as gourd fields and gardens. And although Turkmenistan has managed to increase the yields of grain, vegetables and fruit over the years of independence, the country is still unable to completely meet domestic needs in these categories of food products and has to import them.

Livestock breeding is somewhat less important in agriculture of Turkmenistan. However, over the years of independence, it has been experiencing a certain rise, although the pasture area has been somewhat reduced. This branch of the economy has a meat and dairy orientation. It is indicative that over the years of independence, the number of the main types of livestock has increased markedly: cattle - by almost 3 times, sheep and goats - by 3.2 times, camels - by 1.5 times. During the same period, poultry was raised by more than 3.5 times. Therefore, in contrast to arable farming, livestock in Turkmenistan almost completely covers the needs of the population in the food industry produced by this industry.

So, a review of the agricultural potential in each of the Central Asian countries makes it possible to outline its general features and opportunities for the development of export trade both at the regional level, and outside Central Asia.

In this regard, it turns out that in most countries of the region the main branches of agriculture do not fully cover all the domestic needs of the population for the food they produce. But each of the countries has its own nuances in this respect.

Kazakhstan, for example, almost completely providing itself with meat and meat products (some exception is poultry meat), at the same time experiences significant needs for dairy products imported from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as from Russia. Speaking as the most powerful producer and supplier of grain in the region, Kazakhstan at the same time experiences a traditional dependence on imports (86%) of a significant amount of vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts and dried fruit, which it receives from its southern neighbors - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There is also a somewhat paradoxical moment: Uzbekistan, purchasing high volumes of Kazakhstani grain, grinds it at its milling enterprises and delivers further  both to neighboring Tajikistan and further - to Afghanistan, thus displacing the flour millers from Kazakhstan itself.

Uzbekistan, having the most numerous and still growing population in the region, is also not fully provided with agricultural products. Having achieved his own supply of milk and dairy products, Uzbekistan is forced to import meat and meat semi-finished products, both from neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries. Besides, the country is forced to import significant amounts of sugar, which is purchased mainly outside the region - in Ukraine and in more distant countries. At the same time, it remains a regional supplier of milk, fruit, berries, and some vegetables. And the production of raw cotton remains the strategic orientation of this country.

Along with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan at the regional level turned out to be one of the most vulnerable countries taking into consideration the potentials of their agricultures. They are forced to import a significant portion of food products from both neighboring countries in the region and from more distant ones (primarily grain and flour products). But at the same time, both countries have their positive aspects of development of the agricultural sector of the economy: Tajikistan is one of the fairly large producers and suppliers of fruit and dried fruit, while Turkmenistan is able to cover all domestic needs for meat and dairy products. And, moreover, both countries produce appreciable volumes of raw cotton, which serves as a source for export.

Kyrgyzstan, despite the relative balance in livestock breeding and arable farming, still has to import a significant part of grain and flour, vegetable oil, meat (mainly poultry), eggs, etc. berries, fruit, nuts and dried fruit.

Therefore, by now, the local export potential of each of the countries of Central Asia is quite clearly visible. For instance, Kazakhstan has a significant export potential not only in its traditional position that is sale of grain, it gradually becomes a regional producer of soybeans and soy products, much of which is going to neighboring China now. Besides, the country may eventually become an exporter of meat and meat products, given the significant government support for this industry. But so far, the deliveries of these product categories have been estimated at more than 0.1% of the total realized export potential of the country. But the supply chains of Kazakhstani meat products to neighboring China are being established now.

Uzbekistan, along with Turkmenistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan, are still major producers and suppliers of cotton abroad, which is a strategic commodity in all these countries, mostly in markets outside the CIS. Besides, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan increasingly focus on enhancing their export potential on the production of impressive volumes of fruit and berries, including dried fruit. Thus, in recent years, significant areas in Uzbekistan have been allocated for huge cherry orchards, which in the coming years should substantially add to the export positions of this country. In neighboring Tajikistan, farmlands are also growing, which are used as apricot, peach and plum orchards. This country is also one of the largest in the production and supply of dried fruit, first of all, dried apricots, which are exported not only to the CIS countries, but also now Tajik producers are trying to arrange supplies to countries outside the former Soviet Union.

Kyrgyzstan also has a significant export potential for agricultural products. In this case, the potential supply of dairy products from Kyrgyzstan - cheese, milk, dairy products is potentially beneficial. For almost a decade, the Kyrgyzstan has been considered as one of the largest producers of high-quality French beans at the regional level, much of which is exported - mainly to Turkey. Besides, Kyrgyzstan, being a fairly large regional walnut producer, can to a certain extent provide this type of product to neighboring countries - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and also to China. Recently, a channel has been established for the supply of nuts from the Kyrgyz Republic to European countries.

Such a different export potential of various Central Asian countries in the sale of agricultural products is largely determined by the different approaches in supporting and developing this sector of the economy in those countries. For example, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan created a number of large state agricultural corporations, especially in the cotton industry, since “white gold” is a priority product for these countries. In Tajikistan, the state is also the main buyer of raw cotton. In the production of fruit and berries and their subsequent deliveries abroad, large-scale business is becoming increasingly important - positive progress in this direction is noticeable in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Kazakhstan, the production of meat and its semi-finished products is also becoming an increasingly priority branch of agriculture, and thanks to the state support, large businesses have begun to invest in it in the last 5-6 years.

Foreign investments in agriculture in the countries of Central Asia are still insignificant. Most of all, they are noticeable in Kazakhstan, where businessmen from the People's Republic of China lease significant agricultural land to grow a whole cluster of plants, the main part of which is then delivered to the Celestial Empire. However, the expansion of the Chinese large agricultural capital in the border regions of Kazakhstan raises concerns in Kazakhstan, since, according to some experts, it may threaten the country's food and, accordingly, national security.

At the same time, the agricultural industry in the countries of Central Asia is largely developing in contradictory and uneven ways. This is due to the various ways of its formation and subsequent evolution in the post-Soviet period. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the state chose to distribute land resources in rural areas. In Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the majority of agricultural products are produced by peasant and private farms. This makes the process of its production low-skilled, almost devoid of modern agricultural technologies, technical innovative equipment, etc. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where state order and procurement programs are in place, purchase prices for peasant and private farms are fairly low. All this together makes agriculture low-profitable for the main part of non-urbanized areas of the region, where intermediary companies, the state and ordinary resellers receive considerable income from the subsequent sale and processing. In the overwhelming majority of agricultural producers, due to relatively small volumes of their own products, they are naturally cut off in most cases, both from the domestic market in Central Asia and from the supply of agricultural products abroad. 

However, the transition to the farming model of development similar to what is currently seen in Western Europe or the United States will not happen in the countries of Central Asia in the near future. On the one hand, it assumes the above-mentioned innovative technification of production in the agricultural sector, which would make it possible to obtain higher yields and increase the production of a whole cluster of goods. But, on the other hand, it will lead to the landlessness of the majority of the rural population, which in all Central Asian countries makes up more than half of the population, which in turn is fraught with large social and political upheavals that are not acceptable to the ruling elites of the region.

At the same time, one of the main problems in the development of agriculture in the countries of Central Asia is its low interconnection with the relevant sector of the food industry, which could fully or partially process and preserve agricultural products. This, ultimately, significantly slows down the development of this sector of the economy, further reducing its profitability. Therefore, only the establishment of large state corporations for storage, processing and subsequent sale abroad of products of the agricultural sector would significantly help and develop this industry, ensuring a stable replenishment of the budget not only for the countries of the region, but also for a significant part of the rural population. This would ultimately contribute to the gradual transition of a significant part of the peasant and private farms to more modern farming methods on the whole.

It should be also taken into account that the phased development of the agricultural sector in the countries of Central Asia can be greatly promoted by the expansion of the market and the opportunity to export their own products. At present, they are largely limited, including by the regional frameworks, beyond which the CIS countries have not overstepped so far to a sufficient extent, bringing mainly strategic goods, cotton and grain, to foreign markets. However, accession to a number of agreements of an economic nature opens up new opportunities for other types of agricultural products.

For example, the membership of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the Eurasian Economic Union allowed them to connect to the huge market of the member countries of this organization, as a result of which supplies of a number of agricultural products from these countries increase every year. Another positive example was the accession of Kyrgyzstan to the GSP + agreement in 2016, which allowed supplying a number of items of goods, including agricultural ones, to EU countries - mainly French beans and dried fruit. Since December 2013, there is a “green corridor” for the supply of agricultural products from Kazakhstan to the PRC. Besides, negotiations are underway to open a similar simplified import of agricultural products from Kyrgyzstan.

All this gives hope for a gradual increase in the agricultural export potential of the Central Asian countries not only within the region or the CIS, but ensuring access to the interregional market for agricultural products.

Denis Berdakov, political scientist