In the following interview, Vice President of the Mongolian Farmers and Flour Producers Association, agronomist Sh.Shinebayar delved into the current state of the Mongolian agricultural sector.
How many hectares of land were cultivated in Mongolia this year? What is your outlook for this year’s harvest?
Wheat was planted on 333,000 hectares of land in the country, which is a decrease of about 70,000 hectares compared to last year. As part of the goal of increasing food supplies, vegetables were planted on 18,000 hectares, an increase of 5,000 hectares from 2021, and potatoes were planted on 17,000 hectares. If the harvest from these crops is fully collected, it is estimated that the need for potatoes and wheat will be fully met while the amount of vegetable harvest is expected to increase by about 40 percent compared to 2021. In addition, this spring was cooler than the long-term average, so wheat planting was delayed. Many enterprises and factories that were preparing to grow wheat planted rapeseed this year. Therefore, the amount of rapeseed cultivation has increased by 20 percent compared to last year.
What should be done to get a full harvest? What are the risks?
Our country uses 10,000 tons of fertilizer per year. About 40 percent of them are used to fertilize vegetables and the rest is used to fertilize crops. This year, due to the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, quotas were set for nitrogen fertilizers supplied by Russia, limiting its exports. This spring, domestic companies imported 3,000 tons of fertilizer due to a slowdown in inter-country remittances and tugrug depreciation. This is equivalent to 30 percent of our country’s fertilizer consumption. On top of that, 1 ton of fertilizer used to cost 2.1 million MNT in 2021, but now, it has reached 3.9 million MNT, which is almost double the cost. In other words, enterprises imported small amounts of fertilizers at high prices. But this is not only a problem in Mongolia. As Russia and Ukraine are the main exporters of most agricultural inputs, this issue has arisen internationally.
Does it mean that the yield will decrease?
Poor supply of fertilizers is not a direct cause of reduced yield. It is essential to take good care of plants during their growth. Since plants are living organisms, they get sick, get eaten by pests and are affected by weeds. About 20 days after June 20 is the time period for weed control. One way to control weeds is to use herbicides. Weeds strip away nutrients from the main crop and can reduce yields by up to 40 percent.
Plant diseases have also increased in recent years. Due to the high humidity last year, chlorosis, brown rust and yellow rust diseases were detected in local fields. Therefore, it is necessary to take measures against plant diseases. Insects also eat the stems and fruits of plants. In other words, if the three risks mentioned above are taken into account and response measures are taken promptly, it is possible to maintain and safeguard the projected yield amount. Enterprises should act responsibly and work according to standards. The Mongolian Farmers and Flour Producers Association provides the necessary recommendations, conducts on-site evaluations and disseminates information online.
You mentioned that herbicides and other plant protection products are used for 20 days. Some people say that food hygiene is being compromised due to the erratic use of herbicides by farmers. What is your position on this?
If wheat is planted on a large area, it is right to use plant protection agents. It is impossible to get a decent crop without using such substances. Just as people take medicine when they are sick, depending on the color and growth of crops, it might be necessary to use herbicides. In addition, for a ton of wheat, three liters of fertilizer are used in our country. Meanwhile, 15 liters are used internationally. In general, if we use plant protection agents at the appropriate level, we can get a rich harvest. Pesticides and fertilizers can be understood as soil medicine, which scientists have derived based on the results of many years of research.
In countries that produce organic agricultural products, such as South Korea, Japan and Germany, 500 to 700 kilograms of fertilizers and 15 to 20 liters of plant protection agents are used per hectare. Even though they consume such a large amount, they follow good agricultural regulations. Hence, the agricultural products from these countries maintain their ecological purity. In general, if substances and fertilizers are used properly in time, there will be no problem. Large agricultural companies have good control and use their pesticides appropriately. But because it is impossible to monitor every private farmer, we cannot tell who is using which substance.
Many scientists and professors of the Mongolian University of Life Sciences have produced various fertilizers and plant protection products and established start-up companies. Is it possible to domestically provide the necessary substances and fertilizers for the agricultural sector?
Thirty-five kilograms of nitrogen, 28 kilograms of phosphorus and 22 kilograms of potassium are used to produce one ton of agricultural products. It is also necessary to use 17 trace elements such as sulfur, zinc and copper. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the main plant nutrients. We can produce potassium because there is plenty of potassium in the dried-up lake basins of our Gobi region. Also, if there are phosphorus deposits, nitrogen can be extracted from animal feces. A total of 40 tons of feces are needed to produce nitrogen for one hectare of land, so we do not have enough raw materials to produce nitrogen. However, as mentioned above, there are raw materials to produce potassium and phosphorus. In general, the production of fertilizers and plant protection substances is inextricably linked to the development of the agricultural sector. It will probably be produced locally. Start-up companies in the field of agriculture are importing raw materials and making fertilizers, but they are not able to produce in large quantities.
In accordance with the parliamentary resolution on some measures to be taken on food supply and security, approved last June, some comprehensive measures are planned to satisfy the national food needs with 19 key food products. Do you see this as possible?
The agriculture sector in our country is developing more and more. Therefore, we have enough opportunities to increase the cultivation of all kinds of edible and delicate vegetables and oilseeds and meet our needs.
People ask if they can plant rice and sugarcane. Mongolia has conducted a lot of research in order to supply these two food products domestically. For instance, in the 1970s, cattle farms were established in Erdeneburen and Buyant soums of Khovd Province, and they used to plant sugar beet to prepare their fodder. It is said that they used to harvest 40 tons of sugar beet from one hectare. In 1990, a sugarcane factory was established in Zuunkharaa soum of Selenge Province. In 1972, Vietnamese students studying at the Mongolian University of Life Sciences conducted an experiment to grow rice in Uyench soum in Khovd Province. A suitable location and place for planting sugar beet and white rice should be identified first. In other words, these can be cultivated in Mongolia. In general, there are a few crops that do not grow in our country. Any crop will grow anywhere if the water problem is solved properly.
Last year, there was a dispute about farmers not getting their bonus for supplying wheat. They are now saying that it is not profitable to grow wheat and instead, want to plant rapeseed. Has this problem affected the increase in rapeseed cultivation this year?
I would say that our farmers are patriots. As a result of the government’s support, we are fully meeting our domestic wheat needs at the current level. As rapeseed is an exportable and valuable product, its yield is increasing every year. Therefore, the increase in rapeseed cultivation is not a problem.
You are growing malted barley for beer with some farmers. You apparently have received approval from the State Plant Variety Testing Council. Can you elaborate on this?
I am an agronomist and have been working in the agricultural sector for over 20 years. During this time, I participated in the release of many cultivars. Most recently, or last year, the “mon-pi-barley-5” variety for beer was certified by the State Plant Variety Testing Council and approved as a promising crop variety. We are planting it in a small area. Our country imports malted barley worth 20 million to 25 million USD per year. If we can cultivate it domestically, there is a huge market waiting. Barley has the advantage of being fast-growing and could become a substitute for wheat fields.