Uzbekistan has the advantages of a warm climate, a long growing season, and plentiful sources of water for irrigation. In the Soviet period, those conditions offered high and reliable yields of crops with specialized requirements. Soviet agricultural policy applied Uzbekistan's favorable conditions mainly to cotton cultivation. As Uzbekistan became a net exporter of cotton and a narrow range of other agricultural products, however, it required large-scale imports of grain and other foods that were not grown in sufficient quantities in domestic fields.
Organization of Agriculture
In the last decades of Soviet rule, the private agricultural sector produced about 25 percent of total farm output almost exclusively on the small private plots of collective and state farmers and nonagricultural households (the maximum private landholding was one-half hectare). In the early 1990s, Uzbekistan's agriculture still was dominated by collective and state farms, of which 2,108 were in operation in 1991. Because of this domination, average farm size was more than 24,000 hectares, and the average number of workers per farm was more than 1,100 in 1990. More than 99 percent of the value of agricultural production comes from irrigated land (see table 21, Appendix).
Economic Structure of Agriculture
Uzbekistan's economy depends heavily on agricultural production. As late as 1992, roughly 40 percent of its net material product (NMP--see Glossary) was in agriculture, although only about 10 percent of the country's land area was cultivated. Cotton accounts for 40 percent of the gross value of agricultural production. But with such a small percentage of land available for farming, the single-minded development of irrigated agriculture, without regard to consumption of water or other natural resources, has had adverse effects such as heavy salinization, erosion, and waterlogging of agricultural soils, which inevitably have limited the land's productivity. According to the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources, for example, after expansion of agricultural land under irrigation at a rate of more than 2 percent per year between 1965 and 1986, conditions attributed to poor water management had caused more than 3.4 million hectares to be taken out of production in the Aral Sea Basin alone. According to other reports, about 44 percent of the irrigated land in Uzbekistan today is strongly salinated. The regions of Uzbekistan most seriously affected by salinization are the provinces of Syrdariya, Bukhoro, Khorazm, and Jizzakh and the Karakalpakstan Republic (see fig. 13). Throughout the 1980s, agricultural investments rose steadily, but net losses rose at an even faster rate.
Uzbekistan's main agricultural resource has long been its "white gold," the vast amounts of cotton growing on its territory. Uzbekistan always was the chief cotton-growing region of the Soviet Union, accounting for 61 percent of total Soviet production; in the mid-1990s it ranks as the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world and the world's third largest cotton exporter. In 1991 Uzbekistan's cotton yield was more than 4.6 million tons, of which more than 80 percent was classified in the top two quality grades. In 1987 roughly 40 percent of the workforce and more than half of all irrigated land in Uzbekistan--more than 2 million hectares--were devoted to cotton.
In light of increasing water shortages in Central Asia and the end of the Soviet distribution system that guaranteed food imports, government leaders have proposed reducing cotton cultivation in favor of grain and other food plants to feed an increasingly impoverished population. In fact, between 1987 and 1991 land planted to cotton decreased by 16 percent, mainly in favor of grains and fruits and vegetables. But Uzbekistan's short-term needs for hard currency make dramatic declines in cotton cultivation unrealistic. Likewise, Uzbekistan's entire existing agricultural infrastructure--irrigation systems, configuration of fields, allocation and type of farm machinery, and other characteristics--is geared toward cotton production; shifting to other crops would require a massive overhaul of the agricultural system and a risk that policy makers have not wished to take in the early years of independence. Under these circumstances, continued commitment to cotton is seen as a good base for longer-term development and diversification.
In 1991 Uzbekistan's main agricultural products, aside from cotton, were grains (primarily wheat, oats, corn, barley, and rice), fodder crops, and fruits and vegetables (primarily potatoes, tomatoes, grapes, and apples). That year 41 percent of cultivated land was devoted to cotton, 32 percent to grains, 11 percent to fruits, 4 percent to vegetables, and 12 percent to other crops. In the early 1990s, Uzbekistan produced the largest volume of fruits and vegetables among the nations of the former Soviet Union. Because Uzbekistan's yield per hectare of noncotton crops is consistently below that for other countries with similar growing conditions, experts believe that productivity can be improved significantly.
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