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Community organisation pursues an organic future in Kyrgyzstan

In July, the Bio-KG Federation of Organic Development was announced as a winner of UNDP’s Equator Prize. The Third Pole spoke with a coordinator of the organisation, which has pioneered the organic food movement in Kyrgyzstan
Bio-KG organic farmers with their produce (Image © UNDP)
Bio-KG organic farmers with their produce (Image © UNDP)

Organic agriculture is a fairly new concept in Kyrgyzstan, but it received a boost last month. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced the Bio-KG Federation of Organic Development (Bio-KG) as one of the winners of its 12th Equator Prize. These awards recognise organisations that adopt “local, innovative, nature-based solutions for tackling biodiversity loss and climate change, and achieving their local development goals”.

Bio-KG is a group of specialists based in the country’s capital Bishkek who are working to develop organic agriculture in Kyrgyzstan. Organic farmers face multiple hurdles in the poverty-stricken mountainous country due to a lack of government support and access to banks for loans, and an absence of food laboratory testing infrastructure.

The Third Pole spoke with Asan Alymkulov, a project coordinator at Bio-KG, to find out more about the organisation’s work and progress.

What is Bio-KG? What does it do?

Bio-KG is an umbrella organisation for the organic sector in Kyrgyzstan, which consolidates all stakeholders of organic agriculture and production. We actively work with the government of the Kyrgyz Republic on the basis of a state-private partnership. We are closely working with seven oblasts [regions] of the country, with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education, and the Kyrgyz National Agrarian University. We are also lobbying for the adoption of the Kyrgyz Organic National Plan to become a road map for the development of the organic sector in Kyrgyzstan.

Bio-KG has developed a private organic standard on crop planting and livestock. In 2013 it initiated the organic aymak [community or district] – a model of sustainable agriculture development. Furthermore, Bio-KG has been implementing projects in value chain development in cooperation with professional service providers [such as logistics and delivery companies] and businesses.

What is value chain development?

A value chain is the full range of activities needed to create a service or product – such as organic food. Value chain development aims to create employment and improve working conditions by analysing market dynamics and relationships.

In 2014, Bio-KG initiated the establishment of IFOAM Euro-Asia, a body uniting organic movements in post-Soviet countries. Eleven Russian-speaking countries joined, but a lack of resources limits its activities.

How does organic farming in Kyrgyzstan benefit the local population?

Bio-KG starts with a thorough study of the soil, water and whether they meet the requirements for organic farming. Since 2013, it has inspired local communities to establish 10 organic aymaks covering 23 mountain and rural villages, which includes 69,815 residents in four provinces in Kyrgyzstan. They started with 250 kilogrammes of seed material for potatoes. In 2019 organic farmers grew 6,000 tonnes of vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, beets and garlic, on 7,300 hectares of land.

Bio-KG has catalysed a debate around agricultural revival and healthy cultural foods as a central plank of Kyrgyz life. The most important thing is the revival of the ancient traditional institution of reciprocity and community-building Shirge zhyar – a festival of thanksgiving to nature and the seasons.

Organic aymak in Kyrgyzstan, Bio-KG
Women often take on leadership roles in organic aymaks (Image © Bio-KG)

Education, training and awareness-raising are central to the organisation’s activities. Through information centres and ‘farmer-to-farmer field schools’, the organisation offers ongoing training sessions that teach smallholder farmers how best to use agroecological approaches, [as well as educating them about] local vegetable varieties and under what conditions they are most likely to flourish.

What is agroecology?

Sustainable farming that works with nature

The introduction of crops that were not previously cultivated in mountain regions is another intervention. Along with this, the introduction of small processing units such as drying equipment, milk processing units and jam production equipment increase the value chain for mountain products.

How do the organic aymaks affect the lives of the women involved?

The main pillars of organic communities are definitely the women. Out of 18 leaders of an organic aymak, 12 may be women. Out of 1,052 Participatory Guarantee System (PGS)-certified farmers more than 60% are women. The processing units in organic aymaks are mostly led by women.

What is a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS)?

Locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on the active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.

Considering women have always been vital contributors to family farms, it’s not surprising that they are also taking leadership roles in all these areas.

How can consumers be sure that products are indeed organic as advertised?

Bio-KG has a system of certification, with a mechanism of internal mutual control and a database of organic growers. This records information about the farmer, land plot, cultivated produce, etc. The PGS certification process has helped certify 1,052 farmers as growers of organic produce.

In a PGS the involvement of consumers is obligatory in the quality-control process. Anyone interested in the process of cultivating organic food is welcome to visit any farm in organic aymaks. Due to the distance between organic aymaks and the capital city, Bio-KG and communities organise farmers’ days and festivals in organic aymaks and invite consumers to the farms to be part of the inspection and certification process. Consumers can speak to the farmers, see their plots. The farmer-to-farmer inspection process also strengthens trust in the produce.

How is the organic movement coping with shortages of irrigation water this year? 

Improving water use should optimise irrigation planning and use more efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation. The practice of drip irrigation has been introduced in organic aymaks since 2015, and many organic farms have set up drip irrigation systems in their orchards. There is still a lack of resources for setting up drip irrigation in fields.

Soil fertility needs to be improved so that crop growth is guaranteed, and every drop of water is utilised to its fullest. Efficient water uptake by crops can be achieved through demand-based irrigation planning, which takes into account the water requirements of different crops, at different stages of growth and depending on the prevailing environmental conditions.

We provide training on these methods and technologies.

How can the organic movement mitigate future climate change?

There is a direct correlation between nitrous oxide emissions [a potent greenhouse gas] and the amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied to agricultural land. Organic farming does not allow the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, focusing instead on establishing closed nutrient cycles. This minimises losses via runoff and volatilisation (the evaporation of volatile herbicides). Thus nitrogen emissions from organic farms tend to be lower than conventional farms.

Conventional agriculture uses vast quantities of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, using a significant amount of energy to manufacture. Organic agriculture uses less energy, by 30-70% per unit of land, by eliminating the energy required to manufacture synthetic fertilisers, and by using internal farm inputs, thus reducing fuel used for transportation.

Bio-KG farmers grow calendula
Calendula is one of the crops grown by Bio-KG farmers (Image © Bio-KG)
Bio-KG organic farming
Organic farming increase the amount of carbon stored in soil (Image © Bio-KG)
An apple grown in a Bio-KG organic aymak
Organic farming does not use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides (Image © Bio-KG)

Many management practices used by organic agriculture (eg minimum tillage, returning crop residues to the soil, the use of cover crops and rotations, and the greater integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes), increase the storage of carbon in the soil – which means less carbon in the atmosphere.

As the climate changes, farmers are facing many challenges: more unpredictable rains, soil degradation, and new or different pests and diseases. Organic agriculture helps farmers adapt to climate change because high soil organic matter content and soil cover help to prevent nutrient and water loss. This makes soils more resilient to floods, droughts and land degradation.

The people working in organic food systems also work hard to preserve seed and crop diversity. This increases crop resistance to pests and disease. Maintaining this diversity also helps farmers evolve new cropping systems to adapt to climatic change.

What does the UNDP Equator Prize mean for the organic farming in Kyrgyzstan?

First, the UNDP Equator Prize is a recognition of Bio-KG’s efforts on establishing a model of sustainable development for rural communities. It shows that our efforts on creating favourable legal conditions for farmers by lobbying for organic agriculture in Kyrgyzstan have been accepted and recognised.

Second, it motivates us to work harder. It is a motivation for our organic farmers, as it shows that they are moving forward in a prosperous direction.

Finally, it is a step towards preserving the environment and land in that condition in which we inherited it from our ancestors.