Armenia’s Food Security

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

What is Food Security?

In a world where pandemics, extreme climatic phenomena and natural disasters are becoming more common, the issue of food security is a global challenge of increasing importance. Armenia is not immune to these developments and could be hit hard if measures are not taken to increase the resilience of its food security system.

Food security, as defined by the Committee on World Food Security of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, means that “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” The term food security was first coined during the 1974 World Food Conference and had food availability and price stability at the core of the definition. In the following decades, the term evolved and was modified to more accurately reflect the changing world order and multidimensional nature of the concept. The four core dimensions of the current definition of food security are food availability, access, utilization and stability.

Self-sufficiency is one of the key indicators used to assess a country’s level of food security. According to Armenia’s Ministry of Economy, in 2019, the level of self-sufficiency of “first necessity food products” (products that consumers are likely to buy despite changes in their income level) in Armenia was about 52.5%. Based on 2019 statistics, Armenia has a high self-sufficiency level with regard to a number of first necessity food products. After the local demand is fulfilled, the remaining quantity is exported. Such products include fish (128.3%), vegetables (101.5%), fruits and berries (100.5%), eggs (99.9%) and potatoes (99.2%). With regard to some other products, Armenia is partly self-sufficient, which means that the local produce is enough to cover only part of the domestic demand, while the remaining quantity is imported. Some of these products include beef (95.9%), milk (86.2%) and pork (74.1%). With regard to the remaining first necessity food products, Armenia is not self-sufficient and heavily relies on imports. Legumes (50%), wheat (30.7%), poultry (28.6%) and vegetable oil (1.4%) fall in this category.

Deputy Minister of Economy Arman Khojoyan believes that higher levels of self-sufficiency can be achieved not only by increasing the amount of cultivated land but also by improving the yield and quality of crops. Armenia’s 2020 National Security Strategy also says that Armenia shall make efforts to develop its agri-food system and increase the levels of self-sufficiency for most important foodstuffs by improving land productivity, supporting the development of the agricultural sector and assisting local production.

For instance, according to Khojoyan, wheat yield per hectare in Armenia is 1.8 tons, but it should be at least three to four tons (with the ideal harvest per hectare closer to seven tons). In that context, the Deputy Minister mentioned the introduction of a subsidy program for high quality wheat seed as one of the achievements of 2020, through which over 5,000 tons of new wheat seed were imported to Armenia. “Despite all of the challenges, including the pandemic, the war, the process has been fully completed,” he added. Khojoyan also said that efforts aimed at improving the quality of produce and ensuring increased crop yields make the overall production process more profitable for and attractive to farmers.

Speaking about the lessons learned during 2020, the Deputy Minister noted that the year constantly forced both the officials and the producers to get out of their comfort zone and come up with alternative solutions. In early March, for example, as the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to spread in Armenia, the country had both its remaining land borders with neighboring Georgia and Iran closed (The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed since the early 1990s). Quickly adapting to changing circumstances allowed the Armenian side to avoid serious complications with cargo transportation.

Wheat is the first item on the list of first necessity goods, the self-sufficiency of which decreased from 33.2% in 2017 to 30.7% in 2019. In 2014, the self-sufficiency of wheat had been at 48.7%.

Khojoyan said that, according to official data, wheat farmland in Armenia has decreased from 101,000 hectares in 2016 to 60,000 hectares in 2019. He explained that, in 2016, when more wheat was produced locally, 325,000 additional tons were imported. Though the area allocated to wheat farmland decreased by 2019, imports were also reduced to 250,000 tons. Khojoyan noted that, when the area allocated to wheat farmland decreased, one would have expected to see an increase in imports to cover the gap. Within those three years, however, the direct opposite happened. Although Khojoyan did not comment much on this discrepancy, he did say that the analysis of import data leads one to assume that the information about wheat farmland in 2016 was exaggerated.

Before the 2020 Artsakh War, wheat farmland in Artsakh comprised 35,000 hectares, while the farmland used for the production of legumes comprised between 75,000 to 80,000 hectares. According to rough calculations, approximately 500,000 to 600,000 tons of wheat were consumed in Armenia and Artsakh annually and 20% to 30% of that came from Artsakh. It is estimated that up to 150,000 tons of legumes and wheat were grown annually in Artsakh. For example, in 2019, that number stood at 118,000 tons. The Artsakh Ministry of Agriculture reported that, following the 2020 Artsakh War, the Armenian side lost control of over 95,000 hectares of arable land. It is still not clear how much of that comprised wheat and legume fields. However, it is known that wheat and legumes were mainly grown in the Kashatagh, Hadrut, Askeran, Martuni and Martakert regions, most of which are now under Azerbaijani control.

Khojoyan noted that the 2020 harvest has already been completed and the wheat was imported to Armenia. The loss of wheat farmland can be expected to show up in 2021 figures, however, once they are released in 2022. The Deputy Minister also said that the short-term solution for mitigating the consequences of lost wheat farmland is increasing imports. In 2019, over 90% of imported wheat came from Russia, with the remaining 10% mostly from Ukraine and Georgia. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) area registered 46 million tons of wheat surplus in 2020, after member state demand was satisfied. Thus, it can be expected that the share of wheat imported from the EAEU area will likely increase in 2021. At the same time, the Ministry of Economy has developed a new program aimed at promoting the cultivation of legumes, wheat and various other crops for this spring. It is expected that the program will be tabled for cabinet approval in early February.

Climate Change
Although Armenia’s contribution to global climate change is far below the levels of other countries, it has already registered a 1.3 °C increase in temperature and a nine percent decrease in precipitation since the early 1900s. As a mountainous country with a dry climate, Armenia is ranked fourth among countries in Europe and Central Asia likely to experience the greatest increases in climate extremes by the end of the 21st century. According to the Ministry of Environment’s Third National Communication on Climate Change, it is expected that temperature increases and reduced precipitation will negatively impact human health, accelerate desertification and deplete water resources. Less water availability will result in reduced agricultural output. Extreme climatic phenomena, such as droughts, floods and wildfires, will become more frequent, leaving a permanent mark on natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

Though the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in Armenia’s GDP has continuously decreased from 18.4% in 2012 to 12% in 2019, it is still among the largest contributors to the country’s gross domestic product. Coupled with the fact that the first five items on the country’s list of first necessity goods are agricultural products, it should be expected that climate change will impact all aspects of food security, including food production and availability, access, quality and stability.

“The sooner we respond to the consequences of climate change, the more manageable the risks for food security will be,” noted Khojoyan. Some of the agricultural projects developed by the Ministry are aimed at mitigating the consequences of climate change and reducing vulnerability through adaptation. For example, the Government has made significant investments to promote intensive gardening, which makes the practice more sustainable, helps to conserve water resources and increases crop yields. Adaptation can be implemented by supplementing existing plant species with high-value agricultural products that are also more resistant to climate change. Drop-irrigation or anti-hail protection systems are other forms of adaptation in agriculture.

Khojoyan said that the Government is also now offering agricultural insurance, which is one of the tools aimed at mitigating the consequences and risks of hail, drought and climate change in general. The Government has already increased the number of crops that can be insured, as well as expanded the regional coverage of the program. The Ministry is also collaborating with the Ministry of Environment to accurately assess the expected consequences of climate change, to provide guidance to potential investors based on evidence and calculated predictions.

The programs implemented by the Ministry are not solely aimed at supporting farmers but rather educating them and teaching them to conduct agriculture based on calculations, use crop rotation to increase yields and employ the right agricultural equipment to reduce losses. In 2020, more leasing was provided through state support programs to purchase agricultural and agro-processing equipment in comparison to 2019. According to Khojoyan, this is yet another signal that, despite the difficulties, investments in the agriculture sector continued throughout 2020.

Water Resources

It is estimated that Armenia’s renewable water resources are about 7.5 billion cubic meters annually, about three billion of which are underground. The number, however, does not include the water resources of Lake Sevan, which is a natural reservoir, or the Araks River, which is shared with Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. In recent years, the amount of Armenia’s water resources has, on average, decreased by 5%, primarily because of climate change and human activities. Some projections estimate that the loss will be up to 8% by 2028.

In 2019, the Government adopted a decision on introducing water conservation and protection technologies in order to minimize water loss. The document identifies the main industries that pose challenges for the water sector, such as agriculture, hydroelectric power stations and fish farming, and prioritizes the adoption of strategies for more efficient water consumption. One such solution in the agricultural sector is substituting surface irrigation, which is widely practiced among Armenian farmers, with drip irrigation. Despite the fact that surface irrigation is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, over time, runoff and surface water evaporation result in considerable water losses. The magnitude of the loss is especially significant if tailwater is not controlled and reused.

Armenia’s 2020-2030 Strategy on economic development in the agricultural sector addresses some of the challenges to the efficient development of the agricultural sector discussed above and some of the solutions adopted by the Government. They include low levels of productivity and efficiency, a lack of technical equipment, climate risks and poorly developed infrastructure. These challenges are not unique to Armenia, but neither can they be ignored if Armenia is to ensure food security for its citizens.