Agricultural practices such as animal husbandry are essential to Mongolian culture and way of life. It is also a substantial part of the economy; currently, agriculture employs one third of the workforce, and generates more than 10 percent of GDP. However, that is only a small portion of its untapped potential. With its enormous heads of livestock, Mongolia has the means to boost its economy through the meat industry, dairy food processing, cashmere wool, and animal skin products. According to Asian Development Blog, animal husbandry accounts for 80 percent of the country’s agricultural production. The 20 percent non-animal related produce includes corn, wheat, barley, sea buckthorn, pine nuts, and honey.
In 2016, the government estimated the potential annual meat export to reach one billion MNT. MICC, a leading local investment bank, estimates that Mongolia’s true potential is 700,000 tons of annual meat exports. With powerhouse neighbors, accessibility into export markets is a vivid possibility. Russia purchased 7,000 tons of beef and horses, China seeks to import 150,000 tons of meat, and Iran recently imported 4,000 tons of meat from Mongolia last year. However, Mongolia only sells less than a tenth of its potential for meat exports.
Due to the harsh climates and short growing season, cultivation of crops is not a productive option to significantly stimulate the economy. Currently, sea buckthorn is the most economically profitable - there are 37 sea buckthorn factories, and nearly one million USD worth of products are exported to Japan, Singapore, and Russia annually.
The challenges that have delayed the development of agribusiness are phytosanitary issues, poor logistics, and underdeveloped technological and productive capacities. The existing processing plants need extensive upgrading to meet international quality and sanitary standards, and due to poor logistics, trading procedures are inefficient. Another major challenge in animal husbandry is the dzud, or severe winters Mongolia has been facing lately. During dzud, sudden shortage of animal fodder and subsequent escalation in animal deaths caused a significant setback.
Eugene Lapinsky, the head of the animal husbandry and veterinary department at Russia’s National Meat Association, comments, “[In Mongolia], the risk of livestock contracting these infections is high, simply due to pastoral method of livestock breeding.”
The main problem constraining Mongolia from reaching its true export potential are phytosanitary issues. The government’s current annual budget of four million USD for vaccinations is insufficient to effectively combat animal related diseases. Due to lack of internationally recognized laboratories, Mongolia does not sufficiently fulfill the sanitation requirements imposed by cross-border trading. In addition, investing in animal nutrition, fodder and accommodation on an industrial level is crucial to combat dzud. Although there are problems as such in agricultural production, foreign investors are still interested in Mongolia as it is known to have produce that is high quality, organic, less polluted, and the least industrialized in the region.
In the face of such constraints, Mongolia may be compelled to turn to industrial, highly intensive production methods that include usage of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms and other various agricultural chemicals.
However, it is crucial to keep in mind that Mongolia’s sought after niche quality is the fact that its produce is organic, healthy, not industrialized and less polluted. Thus, investing into promotion of organic development in the agribusiness is highly recommended.
Julian Dierkes, an associate professor at University of British Columbia who focuses on Mongolian affairs, considers Mongolia to have high-value potential to provide “less polluted, organic” products to its neighbors. Julian suggests a countrywide certification to demand all production to be organic. However idealistic that might sound to some people, it is a feasible option since most of the country’s agricultural products are currently organic. Therefore, the certification would be natural to most products - meat, wool, cashmere, sea buckthorn, pine nuts and honey. Gobi Cashmere is already promoting their all-organic line, as well as skincare/beauty brands such as Goo and Lhamour.
The countrywide organic certification may be of concern due to widespread animal disease, and due to the fact that Mongolia is yet to achieve international standards of sanitation. Thereby, there is a delicate balance to be struck between organic and industrial means of production, since vaccinations and other veterinary interventions are necessary for sanitation.
“All-country organic certification would make marketing simpler as it could simply advertise all Mongolian agricultural production as organic, possibly raising the possibility of buy-in from a variety of producers (and perhaps donors). Finally, any marketing of all Mongolian agricultural products as organic would reinforce the kind of eco-tourism that is regularly touted as a diversification possibility for the Mongolian economy,” Dierkes writes on his blog.
Through exporting organic agricultural products to neighboring countries, Mongolia could supply to environmentally conscious urban middle class consumers who would pay premiums for such products. Mongolia could really leap ahead and take on a healthy trend and it could highly benefit from branding its organic and fresh produce. Taking on a countrywide trend is also a feasible option since the population is so small.
Discussing about a small country taking on a healthy, organic trend brings to mind the exceptional success story of Cuba. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the US imposed embargo, Cuba’s access to international markets vanished overnight. Consequently, Cuba entered its “Special Period” - when import plummeted, and crop production and fuel drastically declined. In the face of blackouts for days, and loss of 20 pounds per person on average, the nation turned to organic, agroecological methods to boost food production while reducing its dependency on inputs of agrochemicals and petroleum.
By 2000, food availability in Cuba reached daily levels of 2,600 calories and 68 grams of protein, higher than the necessary average intake. As of 2003, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture was using less than 50 percent of the diesel fuel and less than 10 percent of the chemical fertilizers it used in 1989. As of today, Cuba produces all of its fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and much of its meat. In 1999, Cuba won the Right Livelihood Award of the Swedish Parliament for world excellence in organic agriculture. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared Cuba to be the only sustainable nation based on ecological footprint and human development index.
To conclude, it is possible to achieve excellence, meet international quality and sanitation standards, and simultaneously be environmentally conscious. There is a common misconception that there is no alternative to industrial development, however, Cuba proved to be an exception and Mongolia could learn from their success.
Although it was out of necessity, Cuba was able to leap ahead in agricultural trends and consequently become a self-sufficient, environmentally conscious, and almost all organic nation. How was it able to do so? Through solidarity and resilience towards conscious development. Through the same means, Mongolia has great potential to collectively unite to become an allorganic nation and set an example for its neighbors.