Uzbekistan: diversifying from a cotton dominated agrisystem

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country located in
 Central Asia, sharing a border to the south with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan to the east and north, and kyrgzstan and Tajjikistan to the east ( It was a part of the Soviet Union 
until 1991 when it gained independence, while becoming a member of the
 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). During the Soviet era it was, like many other Soviet states, forced to assign its resources to the cultivation of single crops, in this case cotton. This resulted in environmental (depletion of water resources, increased soil salinity) and technical (farmer knowledge, technical capacity in industries and government departments) legacies that are all too prevalent today.

Uzbekistan’s climate is continental, enjoys four distinct seasons with hot summers and cold winters. All rivers are dammed holding back winter snow melts from mountains within the country as well as those of its neighbours. It’s ecology has parallels with those of the California region in the USA, both being dry climates relying on mountain snowfalls for water, although Uzbekistan winters and summers are more extreme than those of California. There is little rainfall and snow, all of which results from cold fronts which pass through the region predominantly during the late autumn, winter and early spring months.

Approximately 10% of the total land are of Uzbekistan is under cultivation. Of this approximately 94% is irrigated using surface water while 6% utilises ground water. Agriculture in Uzbekistan accounts for 18.25% of the total GDP[1]. Of this cotton is Uzbekistan’s main cash crop, accounting for 4% of the total world production, being the sixth largest producer and the fifth largest exporter[2]. In 2005, cotton accounted for approximately 30% of the total cultivated land. Over the last few decades Uzbekistan has been moving to diversify its production base due to the risks associated with a one-crop economy, considerations of food security for the population in addition to the environmental damage, including land degradation through salinity, and unsustainable water demands imposed by cotton cultivation. As such the area under cotton has been reducing year on year, having halved in production since 1990. Increasingly over the last 20 years, especially over the last ten years, the government has been encouraging farmers to transition from water intensive use cotton to high value alternatives including fruit trees and grapevines.

Fruit Tree Rootstocks

In 2014, approximately 69 percent of Uzbekistan’s fruit crop was consumed locally as fresh while 11 percent, or 227,000 MT, was exported. The export market for fruit includes Russia, Kazakhstan and parts of Europe. Currently Uzbekistan is one the leading producers of fresh deciduous and stone fruits in Central Asia, is the fifth largest producer of apricots in the world, sixth largest producer of cherries and the 17th largest producer of apples[3]. Since 2001, production of cherries has increased by approximately 400%[5]. Similar increases in other fruit crops have also been experienced. These increases in production are resulting from the transitioning of cotton farmland to fruit trees, largely through decrees issued by the government. In the four years from 2010 to 2014, 25,000 hectares of new orchards were established.

As the government continues to transition farms from water-inefficient cotton, as well as wheat, to high value alternatives such as tree fruit and grapevines, the demand for quality planting material, being rootstocks for grafting as well as fruit trees of high value export varieties, will continue to increase. This will be in addition to the demand from existing orchards to change their poorer performing varieties for more locally adapted varieties.

In the Surkhandarya region in the south, there are currently 2079 orchards with a total area of 12,607 hectares. Approximately 54% are apple orchards while 13%, 4%, 4% and 15% are apricots, peaches, cherries and plums, respectively[4]. Over the last 20 years, orchard planting areas have increased by 250%. In terms of grafted rootstock numbers, and based on plantings over the last five years, over the next five years approximately 1,681,000 grafted rootstocks will be planted in the region on average per year. Based on current plantings in the region, on average 908,000 will be apple rootstocks. This does not include replacement of rootstocks which die in their first year after transplanting, being approximately ten percent. Currently farmers either purchase their grafted rootstocks from commercial plant raisers from within Uzbekistan, overseas or produce their own. Government organisations also supply grafted rootstocks. Considering the demand over the next ten years, there would need to be major increases in current production capacities.

Grape Rootstocks

Uzbekistan is one of the largest table grape producers in Central Asia and one of the leading fresh grape exporters in the region3. Most table grapes are grown in the south including Samarkand, the Surkhandarya region, the Ferghana Valley as well as in the Tashkent region. The long warm to hot weather, combined with the well drained soils, are ideal for grape cultivation. In all approximately 37 grape varieties are cultivated both as table grapes and for wine production. It is not clear when, nor where, these and other varieties were imported. Like fruit trees, the government has promoted the expansion of grapevine cultivation, particularly over the last ten years. In 2013, plantings equaled 133,000 hectares and expectations were to increase by 10,000 hectares each year. Based on reports from 20138, the majority of grapes cultivated in Uzbekistan (approximately 70 percent) are consumed locally with less than 5% being exported. The remainder are processed for local consumption.

In 2015, 13,995 hectares of grapevines were under cultivation In the Surkhandarya region alone, a greater than 380% increase over the last twenty years4. Based on current plantings, this will increase to 20,408 hectares within the next ten years.

Currently it is not possible to import grapevine rootstocks into Uzbekistan due to quarantine restrictions over the control of the insect Phylloxera. Phylloxera damages the root system of susceptible plants resulting in death. Outbreaks in Europe have resulted in major economic impacts to the grapevine industry in a number of countries. As such, proposals included in the project documentation to import grapevine rootstocks must be dropped.

Production of grapevine rootstocks is common throughout the world as they are important in producing virus-free planting material. Grapevine viruses and viroids, which often result in devastating economic losses, are commonly transmitted by vegetative propagation and as such spread rapidly in grape growing regions and between countries sharing germplasm. As such, propagation of grapevine rootstock propagation by tissue culture is ideal and ensures the distribution of virus-free material.


Surkhandarya Region Climate

Approximate average elevation: 300 to 600 metres. Latitude: 37 14N to 38 21 N Longitude: 067 16E.

The climate of the southern region of Surkhandarya is classified as continental, with very harsh, hot summers and cool to cold winters. The Köppen classification is tropical and subtropical steppe climate. The region is arid with average rainfall of between 100 and 150 mm, less than that experienced in other parts of the country. The main months of precipitation are the winter months of December, February and March. Summer temperatures from the months of May to September average over 30°C with the hottest months of June, July and August often reaching 40°C. Days where the temperature reaches 50°C are common. Humidity during the summer months is low, averaging forty percent. Winter temperatures, while on average drop below zero overnight, range between two and ten degrees Celsius during the day. However, night time temperatures can drop to as low as -25°C.

Because of the extremes between the harsh, hot summers and freezing nights of winters, any plants being propagated in greenhouses and plastic houses would need to be cooled during the summer months of May to September and heated during the winter period of November to March. While heating of the greenhouse plastic surfaces during the day would reduce the amount of heating required, the inverse applies during summer months where the heat generated from the sun on the greenhouse plastic surfaces would increase the greenhouse temperatures by as much as 10°C above the outside temperatures. As such mechanical greenhouse cooling would be required.

There have been a number of international projects in the country to improve knowledge, skills, profitability and the technical base of small agricultural producers, as well as processing plants and service providers in the horticultural sector, primarily in the fruit-growing subsector (large fruits, nut-bearing, subtropical and citrus). The need to modernize the horticulture sector is considered urgent as it would contribute to the sustainable growth of the country, improving the welfare of the rural population. Projects have also been implemented to support the updating of fruit planting material and rootstocks, development of knowledge and skills, introduction of new technologies, in addition to the provision of financial services to promote an increase in the productivity and quality of products. Overall, proposed improvements and increases in productivity would give greater access to international markets, giving a greater return on production and increasing profitability and employment at all levels of the horticultural chain.

During the Soviet era much of the technical expertise was held by Russians and research in science and engineering, including agriculture, was essentially their exclusive domain. The role of Uzbeks was that of support technicians. As such when the majority of Russians, and Soviet funding, left following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Uzbekistan was a essentially a “banana republic”, relying of cotton production with little or no scientific and engineering expertise to either support their agriculture sector nor to allow it to diversify into other income generating markets.

To support the development and diversification of the agriculture sector there is a major need to modernize the research and development sector, both private and public, the latter being incapable of supporting the diversification of the agriculture sector away from cotton. Incidentally to this day (end 2016), school children and whole communities are still be forced, under police supervision, into hand harvesting cotton for periods of up to a month.

In 2011, an Uzbekistan Government funded program offered loans to approximately 800 to 1,000 farmers to import and plant grafted apple trees of seven varieties including Granny Smith, Turkish Fuji, Mondale Gala, Golden Delicious, Ezamarot (local name), Red Chief and Staken (local name but could be “Starking Delicious”) [1]. This was in line with government policy of encouraging the transition of agricultural land from water-inefficient cotton to high value alternatives, such as fruit trees fruit, grapevines and vegetables. Rootstocks used included M9 (dwarfing type, plant height of 2.4 to 3.0 m, fruiting after 3 to 4 years, reaching full capacity 23 to 29 kg per plant after 5 to 6 years) and MM106 (semi-dwarfing type). At the time government loans allowed farmers to purchase grafted apple trees as well as irrigation equipment including drip systems, pumps and water storage tanks from companies in Turkey. Purchase included installation of equipment, irrigation systems and underground bores. However, this, and similar projects, didn’t include the technical support nor the local development and propagation of rootstocks. As such many farmers have not been able to produce harvests nor fruit of a quality acceptable to international markets. A major gap has been the development of research and development in support of the diversifying agricultural sector.

More recently some international projects have focused on the development of research and development facilities (including plant tissue culture laboratories) and the training of local research staff with a view to propagating modern varieties and rootstock of horticultural crops (large fruits, nut-bearing and subtropical). This would allow the laboratories to deliver plants to factory-farm enterprises and other stakeholders for onward propagation as well as providing grafted rootstocks to the farmers for the establishment of orchards.

Uzbekistan, while having major issues both politically and economically, has huge potential for the development of the agricultural sector, especially fruit but also vegetables, with the markets of Russia and Europe at their doorstep.


[1] Information from local farmers and Central Nursery staff.

[1] FAO, 2015

[2] World Cotton Incorporated monthly newsletter, September 2016

[3] USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, GAIN report, February, 2014

[4] Local Government Administration of Surkhandarya, Republic of Uzbekistan

[5] pers comm. Farmers in the district of Denov, Surkhandarya.

[6] Information from local farmers and Central Nursery staff.


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