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An organic movement grows in Kyrgyzstan Farmers in this heavily agricultural nation are embracing chemical-free crops

Source: Meduza

Story by Diana Kruzman for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been exacerbating global food insecurity for almost two years now. On top of skyrocketing natural gas prices, naval blockades disrupting trade routes, and sanctions roiling markets, the war brought another consequential trade shock: fertilizer prices, which were already at historic highs heading into 2022, shot up even further. Countries dependent on imports from Russia and its ally Belarus, which are key producers of the three major fertilizer nutrients (urea, phosphate, and potash) that most farmers rely on to maximize their yields, were left clambering for alternative supplies. Fearing shortages and price hikes, officials in Kyrgyzstan — which imports about a third of its fertilizers from Russia — struck a hasty supply deal with Uzbekistan. Reports of fertilizer smuggling and the Agriculture Ministry selling farmers expired batches soon followed. (The investigative outlet Kloop would later uncover that Bishkek ended up losing about $2 million as a result of the fertilizer deal.) But a select few Kyrgyz farmers avoided these issues entirely because they grow food organically without chemical additives. For The Beet, journalist Diana Kruzman reports on Kyrgyzstan’s growing organic movement.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Ilya Kiyashko has lived off the land since he was two years old. His parents, Andrey and Olya, wanted their children to grow up surrounded by nature, far from the traffic and pollution of Kyrgyzstan’s smoggy capital, Bishkek. They were concerned about the effects of chemicals on their family's health, fearing the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow most of the country’s food. So when their fourth child, Ilya’s sister, was born in 2006, the Kiyashkos packed up their home and set off on a road trip around the country, looking for a plot of land to settle on. 

Issyk-Kul, a lake in the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan
Anyabr / Shutterstock

They found it in Grigorievka, a village of less than 6,000 people on the north shore of Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s famed high-altitude lake surrounded by the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. There, they built a farmhouse from the ground up and began producing their own food using organic methods like composting and natural pest control. They started with simple crops like rye, potatoes, and apples, at first growing just enough to feed their family and selling the rest to friends and neighbors. 

But demand grew as word spread about the quality of their chemical-free produce, and the Kiyashkos decided to make organic farming their full-time job. Today, their family business, Ecomysl — meaning “eco-minded” — offers almost four dozen kinds of flour, oil, grains, and herbs for sale to individual customers and companies, mainly in Bishkek. They tend to 50 hectares (124 acres) of grains, including rye, wheat, and oats, and grow dates, pomegranates, tomatoes, and apricots in a greenhouse and two-hectare (five-acre) fruit and vegetable garden. Their farmhouse also hosts visitors from around the world who want to learn about permaculture, an approach to farming that aims to replicate natural ecosystems. 

The Kiyashko family’s farm in Grigorievka
Diana Kruzman
Andrey and Olya Kiyashko

“There is a growing number of people who demand organic, environmentally friendly products” in Kyrgyzstan, Ilya Kiyashko said. Now 19, he helps his father and older brother around the farm. According to Kiyashko, many of the people who have made the switch to organic previously experienced health issues they believe stem from eating food contaminated with pesticides and antibiotics. “Before, they didn’t know the cause, so they just stopped eating certain things. But now they know there are other options,” he explained. 

The Kiyashkos have tapped into a developing market for organic food in Kyrgyzstan, which, along with other former Soviet republics, has typically relied on artificial pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other intensive, industrial farming methods to grow crops. Long considered luxury goods destined for wealthy customers in Europe and North America, organic products are gaining traction in Central Asia as awareness grows about the negative effects of agricultural chemicals on human health and the environment. 

At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s government sees the trend as an opportunity for farmers to export more organic products abroad, where they can sell for double or triple the price of non-organic foods. Kyrgyzstan established Central Asia’s first governmental department of organic agriculture in 2019 and passed a law on organic production in March of last year, aiming to standardize organic labeling and certification and encourage growers to incorporate organic practices into their businesses. 

“Our first priority is for our farmers to see a benefit from growing and exporting organic products,” said Sagynbek Tursunaliev, head of the Organic Agriculture Department under Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Resources Ministry. “The second is to protect our soil. Knowingly or unknowingly, everyone is using chemicals, and it’s destroying the earth.” 

A potato field in Grigorievka
Diana Kruzman

A toxic legacy 

For most of Kyrgyzstan’s history, agriculture was organic by default, as farmers relied on animal manure to fertilize their crops and used methods like crop rotation to keep the soil healthy. Then, in the 1960s, the worldwide Green Revolution (not to be confused with contemporary environmentalism) introduced and popularized new technologies, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, that helped boost crop production but also depleted the soil and led to widespread pollution. This left Kyrgyzstan and other countries that gained independence after the USSR’s collapse with a fraught legacy of toxic contamination. 

The Soviet Union’s frenzied drive to expand cotton production in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s led to the widespread use of agricultural chemicals, particularly pesticides. Leftover organochlorine pesticides such as DDT — the cancer-causing chemical that inspired American conservationist Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring, leading to DDT’s prohibition in the United States in 1972 — were dumped at 183 sites in southern Kyrgyzstan alone. In total, nearly 2,000 metric tons of pesticides were buried on the country’s territory, which leached into the soil and water and contributed to health issues like cancer, immune diseases, and congenital disabilities among people living nearby, according to research from the Kyrgyz Republic’s National Academy of Sciences. 

Lingering fears about chemical pollution among Kyrgyz citizens are helping to drive today’s organic boom, said Mairambek Nurgaziev, an environmental studies professor at the American University of Central Asia who has researched the organic movement in Kyrgyzstan. According to Nurgaziev, more and more farmers are seeing positive effects on their yields after switching to organic practices, helping others realize that the resulting healthy soils can support more crops and boost their bottom line in the long run. 

A calendula field in Kyrgyzstan
KOICA's Organic Project

Despite the growing demand and ecological benefits of organic agriculture, it’s not easy to adopt and maintain, Nurgaziev explained. Many farmers simply don’t know how to make the switch and fear that cutting off their pesticide or fertilizer use will quickly lead to crop losses. Organic farming requires an upfront investment, as yields will initially be lower before rebounding, but most farmers in Kyrgyzstan, who already struggle to grow enough to feed their families, can’t afford to absorb these costs. 

In Nurgaziev’s opinion, the government isn’t providing enough material support, such as subsidies or discounts to purchase organic fertilizer, to help people make the change. “Our government’s actions [on organic agriculture] are mostly recommendations,” he said. “They recommend you conduct organic agriculture and say that it will help you, but there are no actions on the [cost].” 

Although their scale is limited, programs do exist to assist farmers who want to use fewer toxic chemicals, including some initiatives that date back to Soviet times. Inside a pastel-green facility in Novopavlovka, a town just outside of Bishkek, Agriculture Ministry employees have been manufacturing natural herbicides and pesticides since the 1970s, said Aida Malabaeva, the head of the laboratory. 

Substances like trichodermin, a naturally occurring toxin that isn’t harmful to humans and can be spread on crops to prevent fungal diseases, are mass-produced here and distributed to farmers from around Chüy Region, which surrounds the capital. The subsidized prices allow them to save money compared to purchasing expensive imported pesticides, Malabaeva said, and see benefits for their fields’ health.

An agricultural field in Grigorievka
Diana Kruzman

Opportunity and tradition 

Neighboring countries have also joined the organic trend. Kazakhstan has more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of certified organic land, mainly wheat and soybean fields, while Uzbekistan produces organic raisins, prunes, and apricots that it exports to Germany and the United States. But Kyrgyzstan has the biggest share of organic fields as a percentage of its overall agricultural land, according to Tursunaliev of the Organic Agriculture Department, and it has uniquely promoted organic methods as part of its official state policy. 

Today, organizations in Russia and European Union member states have certified the organic farming status of 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) in Kyrgyzstan, which allows local farmers to export their crops to these countries under an organic label. However, paying to certify fields puts the practice out of reach for many. In response, Kyrgyzstan’s 2023 law on organic agriculture tasked the government with establishing a national standard for what’s considered “organic” and a certification process for ensuring that farmers stick to chemical-free methods. 

The law’s aim, Tursunaliev said, is to ensure the confidence of international buyers and domestic consumers in Kyrgyzstan’s “organic” logo as a seal that meets international standards. It’s a slow undertaking, as fields must be chemical-free for several years before qualifying as organic, but the new policy is expected to help more growers access the market. The government estimates that the number of organic farmers will increase by up to 25 percent over the next decade. 

Clever marketing is also driving the boom. Tursunaliev’s department creates promotional materials on social media to spread awareness about the benefits of growing and eating organic, and his team organizes gatherings like Bishkek’s yearly Organic Expo, where farmers display and sell their produce. Although he recognizes that not all (or even most) growers are willing or able to adopt fully organic methods, he hopes that at least they might start thinking more consciously about their pesticide and fertilizer use, helping to minimize pollution. 

An organic produce market in Bishkek, 2022
Bread produced by Kyrgyz Organic
Diana Kruzman

Local companies such as Kyrgyz Organic, a Bishkek-based business that sources organic grains from producers like the Kiyashkos, have answered the call. Founded in 2016 by a team of three mothers, Kyrgyz Organic offers locally sourced, fully organic breads, snacks, and desserts for what they describe as an increasingly educated, upwardly mobile segment of society that has the money to spend on pricier food. At the same time, this means organic goods remain out of reach for most Kyrgyz citizens, although the company aims to lower its prices over time, said CEO Ilya Shnaider. 

“It should be the target for everyone to have access to healthy, natural, organic food,” Shnaider said. “This is our mission.” 

Others see organic farming not as a trend limited to the upper classes but as a traditional practice in Kyrgyzstan — one deeply rooted in the country’s culture and reverence for nature. The non-profit organization BIO-KG, for example, launched its “Organic Aymak” program in 2013 and has since helped establish 23 communities of villages that grow all their food entirely free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. According to BIO-KG president Sultan Sarygulov, neighbors in these villages keep each other accountable while upholding tenets of Kyrgyz spirituality that trace back to pre-Islamic Tengrism, an ecocentric belief system. 

“For thousands of years, Kyrgyz were nomads who followed principles of sustainability, not only for themselves but for their descendants,” Sarygulov said. “We understood that nature is a complex and unified system, which keeps everything in balance.” 

This mindset will only become more crucial as intensive agricultural practices — not just applying chemicals but also plowing with heavy machinery and planting cash crops like corn and cotton — continue to deplete the soil, said Professor Nurgaziev. Climate change is adding to the threat, with hotter temperatures and more unpredictable precipitation leading to droughts and raising the specter of hunger in a country where 40 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture. 

Zhamin Kolbaev in Tash-Bashat
Diana Kruzman

Farmers are already starting to see the effects of these changes, even in places like Naryn, the highest and coldest region of the country. Zhamin Kolbaev, who helps administer the organic aymak in his home village of Tash-Bashat, says he has noticed the soil becoming more degraded. Although farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers, they also can’t afford to buy compost most of the time. While he understands the benefits of organic agriculture, he says more should be done to help make it sustainable for growers. 

“Our ancestors, our grandfathers, and great-grandfathers cared for the soil,” Kolbaev said, gesturing at a field of sainfoin, a type of grass used to feed cattle and one of the few crops that can grow in the rocky, frozen ground. “Now there is nothing.” 

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Story by Diana Kruzman for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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