How do you like them apples? Central Asia gets ready to help feed the world

How do you like them apples? Central Asia gets ready to help feed the world

Central Asia is home to a treasure trove of marketable fruits and vegetables but food safety must be addressed before they can be marketed globally. Photo: ADB

By Dorothea Lazaro, Loreli de Dios

Central Asia is improving food safety measures to share with the world some of the more than 8000 plant species, as well as livestock, from the region.

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The apple is among the most well-known fruits in the world. But did you know that the Malus sieversii, a wild ancestor of all cultivated apples, is native to Central Asia? Wild apple domestication is traced to Almaty – whose old name Alma Ata in Kazakh means “father of apples” – and molecular genetic studies have supported this finding.

Not only is Central Asia a center of origin, it is a recognized global diversity hotspot. More than 8000 plant species grow in five members of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) alone. Wild varieties totaling a remarkable 28 walnut, 19 pistachio, 27 apple, 11 cherry plum, 16 apricot wild forms; and 160 grapevine, 145 apple, 143 apricot, 32 pear, 26 pomegranate, and 15 mulberry varieties, have been identified as promising prospects for future breeding and development.

Likewise in animal husbandry, because of a long tradition of livestock breeding, six CAREC countries are among the world’s major sheep and goat breeders, producing an average of 19 million heads a year, e.g., Afghanistan (13M), Kazakhstan (16M), Mongolia (28M), Pakistan (30M), Turkmenistan (14M), and Uzbekistan (16M). The People’s Republic of China produces 162M.

How does one take advantage of this enormous supply opportunity? One obvious answer is to sell these products abroad. This means ensuring they are acceptable in foreign markets.

What kind of demands must be satisfied? Globally, incomes have increased and so too has the demand for quality and safe food. Patterns of food consumption are changing in favor of animal proteins and vegetable oils. But increased globalization, climate change and intensified agriculture, have also heightened the vulnerability of agriculture to pests, diseases, and hazardous substances.

This is where sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards come in. Since agri-food trade is conditional on guarantees of freedom from pest and disease, quality is critical for these products to reach markets abroad.  And these markets have adopted the World Trade Organization SPS Agreement and international standards, which are science-based and are meant to provide the needed protection without becoming trade barriers.

  In Central Asia, the quality of agriculture products can be lifted with international standards

An ADB assessment revealed that CAREC countries need to adopt and execute SPS measures in line with international standards for plant health, animal health, and food safety in order to increase trade within the region and with international markets.

The inability to comply with these requirements effectively limits marketability. At the same time, border control must provide adequate protection against quarantine pests and transboundary animal disease.

  • For plant health, the International Standards for Sanitary Measures of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) must be reflected in regulations. Quarantine pests and regulated non-quarantine pests need to be listed. Pest risk analysis must be practiced, and laboratories must be capable of detecting viruses and phytoplasms and protecting against quarantine pests.
  • Veterinary legislation in CAREC countries is largely compliant with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) but lack implementing rules and regulations. Risk-based categories of animal diseases and notifiable diseases must be identified. About 40 animal diseases defined by the OIE as “of importance to international trade” are endemic in the region. One-third of these are transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases, which are difficult to eliminate, making surveillance and early detection critical.
  • Food safety regulations must align with the Codex Alimentarius international food standards, including the institution of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). Assessment and inspection need to be risk-based, and prescriptive requirements must replace final product testing. Laboratories must be able to analyze microbiological and chemical contaminants, and parameters and sampling protocols must adhere to international standards.

  Animal diseases and pests know no borders, so collective efforts are needed  

A regional approach is optimal due to countries’ geographical contiguity and similarity of agro-economic systems and practices. For instance, because pests do not know borders, a surveillance program particularly for quarantine pests must be regionally coordinated.

Moreover, at least 50% of the transboundary animal diseases and zoonotic diseases hindering exports of live animals and animal products are present in more than half of the CAREC region. These require knowledge of risk pathways and the capacity to control emerging pathogens, which is best approached regionally. Effective control cannot be achieved by countries acting independently.

SPS measures at the national level must complement regional efforts in ensuring sustainable food production and consumption. Indeed, they are indispensable to realizing the enormous potential of agriculture in CAREC countries – both as a provider of domestic requirements and as an export income-earner.