Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cows in the Caucasus: overgrazing, underfed

How do we get a measure on what's happening with agriculture? It turns out that dairy farming provides powerful indicators. According to an IFC expert, the average Georgian cow yields 1000 liters of milk per year. By comparison, a wholesome Swedish cow can provide up to 9000 liters.

Intensive Western farming practices may not be a desirable model -- they require investment, expertise, and bring their own perverse results. Nor can practices be transplanted: under current circumstances, the expert said, a Holsten cow in Georgia simply would not survive.

But the status quo is not sustainable either. There are an estimated 700.000 cows in Georgia, severely overgrazing the pastures (together with the sheep, and overall numbers are growing). It is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: a free resource for which there is unlimited appetite eventually gets exploited beyond carrying capacity. In the Caucasus overgrazing leads to desertification and erosion, while also destroying the habitat of other species.

If properly fed and kept, the average Georgian cow could provide 4000 liters. What is missing? Expertise is in short supply, and so much farming is subsistence-based that it is difficult to introduce better practices. Cows themselves count as capital, so farmers don't think much about increasing the productivity of individual cows, but rather want to have more of them. Larger dairy farms are very rare. Nor are the cows bred systematically. Investment would be required, but there is little capital. One of the problems is also that milk powder, subsidized by the European Union, apparently is smuggled in from Russia and makes dairy farming uncompetitive (many locally-made milk products actually are made from EU milk powder, rather than from local milk).

Land reform may be one solution, but there is little political appetite for it. In the meantime, various organizations are working with farmers to bring more expertise. Fortunately, it is easy to demonstrate the impact of better practices, so some farmers are catching on.

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