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Country profile - Mongolia

Mongolia

Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world; livestock outnumber people ten-to-one and pastoralism is one of the key economic activities, employing almost half of the population and accounting for 90 per cent of agricultural output.

Overview

Mongolia has one of the largest concentrations of indigenous animal breeds in Asia. With a population of some 30 million head of cattle, horses, yaks, goats and camels, most herding households are self-sufficient in meat and milk products and earn an income from selling live animals, milk, meat, skins and hides, wool and cashmere.

Only one per cent of Mongolia is cultivable, and arable farmers are generally located in the northern river valleys where irrigation is possible. Yields tend to be low with a short growing season of about 100 days. The main crops are wheat, barley, potato, cabbage and carrots, mainly grown in the central provinces. Some fruits, such as watermelons and berry varieties are also grown, generally on a small scale in urban areas.

Mongolia's harsh climate severely impacts all forms of agriculture. Temperatures can fluctuate from as low as minus 50°C in the steppe in winter, to 40°C in the Gobi desert in the summer. Dzud, a Mongolian term, refers to a range of severe weather conditions, including severe summer droughts and exceptionally cold winters, that can prevent access to, or destroy, pasture causing significant loss of animal life and devastating the livelihoods of herding families. Consecutive dzuds from 1999 to 2002 killed about one-quarter of the livestock, forcing many people to migrate to urban areas. Since then, herd numbers have recovered, but the increase in numbers of goats for cashmere has resulted in widespread overgrazing.

With a livestock population of 30 million, people are outnumbered ten-to-one. (Martin Aylett)
With a livestock population of 30 million, people are outnumbered ten-to-one.
Martin Aylett

Mongolia has a small-scale fishing industry, but the freshwater fish that inhabit the lakes and rivers are limited and therefore easily overexploited. Forest reserves are also under pressure, with illegal logging and forest fires having reduced total forest area by half since 1990. Deforestation has contributed to increasing soil erosion and desertification.

Increasing vulnerabilities

As a communist country, Mongolia's agriculture was collectively owned by the state, and assisted by large subsidies from the Soviet Union. During that time, Mongolia became self-sufficient in wheat, milk and meat products and mechanised dairying was the primary livestock activity. This was supported by a vast system of external inputs from artificial insemination and supply of fodder to transport, marketing and processing facilities for hides, skins, wool and cashmere. When Mongolia began the transition from a centralised to a market economy in the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, herders reverted back to their nomadic traditions, relying once again on natural pastures only.

Access to inputs such as livestock fodder and veterinary services also fell. In 1989 over 1 million tonnes of fodder were produced, reducing to about 40,000 in 2002. Also, wells and watering holes, once maintained collectively were left to deteriorate. The lack of pasture management, combined with summer droughts and dzuds, prevented herders from stocking enough fodder for the winter months.

Privatisation and the loss of Soviet subsidies, coupled with the dzuds of 1999 to 2002, have also affected crop production. Poor management skills, inadequate input systems and low quality seeds have contributed to an 80 per cent fall in overall productivity and, while wheat yields have begun to recover, they remain low.

Mongolia's steppes provide natural pastures, on which herders rely (Martin Aylett)
Mongolia's steppes provide natural pastures, on which herders rely
Martin Aylett

Herding families are considered to be vulnerable due to the risk of natural disasters and their over-reliance on livestock. One hundred head of livestock is generally accepted as the minimum needed to cover the basic requirements of food and income, yet about one-quarter of herders have fewer than 30. These families are more likely to be vulnerable in the spring when winter stocks of milk and meat are exhausted and pastures have not had time to regenerate.

Inadequate rural infrastructure and a lack of markets are also causing problems. Also, due to a lack of storage facilities, most meat and milk products are processed domestically using traditional techniques, such as fermentation, leading to increasing concerns about food safety.

Full of potential

The Mongolian government has been keen to encourage profitable, sustainable dairying. With help from FAO and the Japanese government, efforts are underway to improve food safety, raise quality, and enable production by smallholders for export. With a three-fold increase of milk collected and processed between 2005 and 2006, and an increase in peri-urban dairy farming, the results so far look promising. The government has also adopted a programme to protect animals from droughts and dzuds, which includes pre-emptive measures as well as a system of compensation. With greater investment, wells and watering points have also been rehabilitated. Therefore, while there is still much to do, significant steps are being taken to ensure that agriculture in Mongolia fulfils its potential.

Statistical information
  • Country: Mongolia
  • Capital: Ulaanbaatar
  • Area: 1,564,116 sq km
  • Population: 2,996,081 (July 2008 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 1.5% (2008 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 67.32 years
  • Ethnic groups: Mongol (mostly Khalkha) 94.9%, Turkic (mostly Kazakh) 5%, other (including Chinese and Russian) 0.1% (2000)
  • Languages: Khalkha Mongol (90%), Turkic, Russian
  • Inflation: 10.5% (2007 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$9.792 billion (2008 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$3,300 (2008 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 20.6%; industry: 38.4%; services: 41% (2007 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 0.76%; permanent crops: 0%; other: 99.24% (2005)
  • Major industries: construction and construction materials; mining (coal, copper, molybdenum, fluorspar, tin, tungsten, and gold); oil; food and beverages; processing of animal products, cashmere and natural fibre manufacturing
  • Agricultural products: wheat, barley, vegetables, forage crops; sheep, goats, cattle, camels, horses
  • Natural resources: oil, coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver, iron
  • Export commodities: copper, apparel, livestock, animal products, cashmere, wool, hides, fluorspar, other nonferrous metals
  • Export partners: China 71.9%, Canada 10.7%, US 4.8% (2007)

Date published: May 2009

 

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