Georgia pushes to bolster its food security

With reports suggesting COVID-19 could spark food shortages around the world, food systems experts and United Nations officials say countries must increase the resilience of their agricultural systems. We take a look at the nation of Georgia, in the Caucasus, and what is being done there to improve food security.

Land resources are limited in Georgia. Only 15 per cent of the country is cultivated, while 70 per cent is forests, bush, meadows and pastures.  

Due to climatic and landscape conditions, as well as unsustainable agricultural practices, more than a third of agricultural land is affected by degradation, erosion, pollution and soil damage. Around 4 per cent of farmland is vulnerable to desertification. 

Overgrazing, poor forest management, loss of forest cover and unplanned urban sprawl are major drivers of land degradation in Georgia.    

The country is 70 per cent self-sufficient in vegetables, but only 8 per cent self-sufficient in wheat, according to official statistics.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia and the Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus, a non-governmental organization, have been working since autumn 2016 on a project to introduce crop rotation practices in the Shida Kartli and Kakheti regions of central and eastern Georgia.

It is called Generating Economic and Environmental Benefits from Sustainable Land Management for Vulnerable Rural Communities of Georgia, or Greenlands.GE for short. Financed by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it focuses on sustainable land management. It’s the continuation of a 2016-2019 project titled Landscape and Sustainable Land Management in Georgia

About 100 farmer households will take part in the pilot Greelands.GE project. Ultimately the project seeks to target 90,000 people. The farmers are being encouraged to rotate their crops. More than 1,000 hectares of land on which farmers used to cultivate only wheat are already being used to deploy crop rotation techniques to cultivate peas, maize, beans and buckwheat. The previous project  showed that crop rotation tripled the per hectare wheat yield.

Pilot projects for the promotion of sustainable land management practices are set to run until 2022 and will cover 20,000 hectares. Their aim is to improve soil productivity and food security through crop rotation and inter-cropping in Gori, Kareli, Kvareli and Sagarejo municipalities. (See map.)

“Crop rotation and mixed-inter-cropping contributes to increased yields through improved soil nutrition,” says Sophiko Akhobadze, the project coordinator in Georgia and the director of the Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus.

“By planting multiple crops, farmers can maximize land use while reducing the risks associated with crop failure,” she adds.

The project drew heavily on local knowledge and native seeds, in part to get round problems with seed imports.

As part of the project, the Ministry of Agriculture is working to promote local branding for sustainable agricultural products.

“When the COVID-19 crisis dies down, fundamental to a transformational and green recovery will be early action on a longer-term agenda to improve soil fertility, address climate change, avoid habitat loss and fragmentation, reverse the loss of biodiversity and reduce pollution,” says Ersin Esen, a UNEP biodiversity expert. “This project is a clear step in the right direction.”

UN Environment