By Julian Dierkes
Early in December a bit of inspiration struck after I had read an ADB blog post and received a lot of responses to a tweet about that post. I wondered aloud whether it would be possible for Mongolia to go entirely organic.
I received a lot of tweeted, emailed, commented, mentioned-in-conversation replies to that idea and want to offer these here as well. Obviously, I was just presenting an idea and I wasn’t making a specific proposal, in part because I don’t know very much about Monglian agriculture. My conclusion from these comments is, however, that the idea is a bit radical, maybe even crazy, but that it might be worth thinking about further.
Just to recap: my idea was that since organic agriculture (plants and meat) seems to offer significant high-value export opportunities, why not pursue all-of-country certification for organic produce, i.e. for all agricultural products to be organic?
A number of comments seemed to like the idea, but there were also serious doubts expressed.
How organic is agricultural production now?
One of the premises of my idea was that much of Mongolian agricultural production currently is organic. I therefore imagined that some of the obstacles to organic production in the objections of existing producers might be less strong in the Mongolian context.
It may not be the case that agricultural production is as organic as I imagine. Some comments mentioned that there are examples of farming and animal husbandry practices (particularly around veterinary diseases) that will not stand up to organic certification.
The health of Mongolian animals may be a particular concern in this regard. Yes, for some significant portion of the national herd, animals may be raised in a very organic fashion, foregoing vaccinations and other veterinray intervention, for example, but that also means that animal diseases are fairly widespread. There is a careful balance to be struck between organic practices and health issues, particularly in industrial production and certification.
The cost and organizational effort tied to organic certification are significant. This has been an obstacle to the pursuit of producer-certification in the past.
In part, my idea hopes to side-step this issue by finding some way to actually certify all Mongolian products. Current certification won’t allow for that, I don’t think, so some creative solutions would be needed here either in collaborating with certification agents, or in creating a for-Mongolia certification. The various standards that are employed by existing certification schemes are knowable, so they could be compared to come with standards of particular relevance to Mongolia. If those were made known in a transparent manner and enforced with credibility, a Mongolia-only certification could be a solution, I imagine. If such a route was successful, it could even be explored with other countries that could consider a similar switch, perhaps even through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Cooperation Fund, Mongolia’s foreign aid program.
Obviously, the proliferation of organic standards is not particularly desirable as it confuses consumers, but if other avenues are not feasible for Mongolia, this should be considered.
But, how to enforce a nation-wide organic agriculture?
The simplest solution would be a ban on imports of relevant chemicals. An example of this is the ban on mercury. But, that is also an example of an ineffective ban as all observers agree that mercury is used extensively in mining, small and medium scale.
Also, as my former PhD student Bern Haggerty pointed out, would a fertilizer ban get by the WTO, for example?
But, if there wasn’t an import & production ban, how could nation-wide certification work? And, how could imports be prevented, really?
This seems to be an objection that is both fundamental and practical. I don’t quite see how to get around that easily, but others may have ideas/experience from other policy arenas.
A number of replies also focused on “nice idea, but it’ll never happen”. We know that the Mongolian state and politicians seem to be particularly challenged by implementing plans and laws that have been developed. There have been a number of past efforts at branding Mongolian products and Mongolia that have not gone anywhere, so why would an all-country organic certification?
I share the pessimism and readily suggested that the idea was a bit crazy. At the same time, the craziness might be just right to make this sort of thing work.
More Comments, Please!
I’m not about to submit a formal proposal to parliament or for funding to support an all-country organic branding, but I’d still be curious to hear more comments. And maybe, some day, something will come of this idea…
Julian – I’ve wondered about this for years. If Mongolian meat could be certified, the market opportunities, esp. in Europe, would be terrific. Years ago I was told by the then WHO rep that the major limitation was the lack of inspection and lab testing infrastructure. This restricted the market for meat to the domestic, and a bit of cross-border Russian trade. It is my view generally that Mongolia has really missed out by not investing in the agri sector. Cheers, Craig
It seems like there have been investments and progress on grains and vegetables, right? But less so on meat, especially meat processing. It’s odd with all the talk of diversification beyond mining and meat production seems the most obvious, especially because it could be combined with measures that would strengthen the economic viability of aimag centres and thus provide incentives for herders NOT to migrate to Ulaanbaatar. Maybe this could start somewhere in the far west as the OBOR branch from China to Russia is completed? Small scale markets in Western China and Central Siberia, but any production would be boost to Western Mongolian economy.
I think the idea is appealing and one that should somehow get organizational strength behind it. What are the non-profit organizations that represent or work in agriculture in Mongolia? Are there any?
I’ve talked to friends that are vegetarian/vegan for ethical reasons (as in they are choosing to abstain from an industry they see as corrupt, immoral and inefficient) about Mongolian cattle for consumption. They’ve always responded quite positively and said that since the cattle are raised on open fields, they would be able to consume it. That’s a very market advantage that I think Mongolia needs to embrace more. Mongolia has a ton of products with rare distinguishing features that can and already does have a market.
But again, the logistics, even from just a theoretical standpoint, are mind-boggling.