Uzbekistan’s Outdated Agriculture

by Joshua Foust on 11/2/2007 · 9 comments

Uzbekistan’s embassy in London is angrily denouncing the stories that children are being used (or forced) to pick cotton in the fields that have drained the Aral Sea and poisoned the land.

It is known that nowadays the Uzbek cotton drives out other producing countries’ cotton on the world market and the agiotage around it has appeared immediately after lifting of the state subsidies for cotton producers in some of well-known countries, that makes them less competitive in the global market.

Obviously, Uzbekistan’s task-oriented course on increasing the volume of cotton processing within the country, directed to the reduction of practice of export of cheap raw materials abroad, causes concerns among different foreign companies that are accustomed to use cheap raw materials for manufacturing and selling of their own products for multiply overrated prices.

That’s actually true: human rights groups dislike Uzbekistan’s cotton industry from jealousy, and not that they still use people to pick cotton ninety years after the more efficient mechanical cotton picker was invented. But it’s not efficiency that is killing Uzbekistan’s cotton: there are steep price differentials between growers and the market, messy and ineffective farming techniques, and the extensive use of pesticide, all of which combine to keep the industry performing far below where it could.

Indeed, such is the legacy of authoritarianism, whether it be Soviet of Karimovian: inefficiency, environmental disaster, and the abuse of the innocent. As long as Islom Karimov remains in power, these will continue.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Nathan November 2, 2007 at 11:12 am

And it will probably continue after him as well until a truly major crisis develops. Even if those controlling the state were not corrupt, there is so much reliance on cotton funds, that it would be very hard to give farmers the land and let them grow what they want on it.

Reforming agriculture is just about the best damned thing that could be done for Uzbekistan, in my opinion. It’s a shame that nothing will be done until a whole hell of a lot more suffering goes on than has already.

Julian November 2, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Apparently, this Uzbek diplomats’ statement was in response to
a BBC TV report. You can watch it online here

There is a Utube video showing same things and available at

Rodsjournal November 2, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Human rights groups “dislike” Uzbekistan’s cotton industry from “jealousy”?

Care to elaborate on that?

Joshua Foust November 2, 2007 at 1:47 pm

Umm, that’s called sarcasm. The embassy claimed it was essentially jealousy that compels people to decry Uzbekistan’s cotton. I was mocking that claim.

Frank November 3, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Interesting that you cite pesticide use as one of the major factors keeping the cotton industry below where it could be. Do you have any sources or links with more on that?

The farmers I knew in Uzbekistan seemed more up in arms about water systems, land tenure, price controls, fertilizer access. I don’t recall if pesticides ever came up. If they did, though, it would be a story about some qishloq where good pesticides weren’t available and how awful that was. It didn’t seem like there was any interest in or awareness of systems like integrated pest management.

I’m not saying rampant/inefficient pesticide application isn’t a problem, but I would guess that telling an Uzbek farmer that pesticides are keeping the industry down would be a tough sell.

Joshua Foust November 3, 2007 at 3:01 pm

The farmers have different concerns that an overall ecological/efficiency look would indicate (i.e. theirs are far more immediate). From my understanding, and I don’t have time to dig up links and references at the moment, there is actually an overuse of pesticides in the area, which, given the poor water usage means a lot of it leaches into the ground and creates problems there. Similarly, rampant pesticide use has contributed greatly to the clouds of toxic dust that swirl around the dead former seabed regions of the Aral Sea.

But I am not an agriculture expert; I am relying on second and third hand reports and analysis, so I can’t claim to be exhaustive.

Frank November 3, 2007 at 5:34 pm

I wasn’t arguing; you’re completely right, especially tying it to water and the Aral Sea issue. I was just surprised, as chemicals aren’t usually mentioned so highly as a stand-alone problem for Central Asian agriculture. I guess because the full impact is so complex and relates to non-ag sectors.

I think you’re right, farmers have bigger and more immediate issues to face – and the more-cowbell Soviet mentality would make leaders loathe to admit you can have or apply too much technology.

Joshua Foust November 3, 2007 at 8:42 pm

I’m pretty sure “the more-cowbell Soviet mentality” has just entered my lexicon as a favored phrase 🙂 That is a perfect description.

Craig Murray November 5, 2007 at 11:22 am

Think about it – they very seldom practice crop rotation, and have planted cotton in the same fields for decades. The cotton pests are only kept at bay by really massive pesticide application, especially fungicides.

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