Winter wheat quantity or quality? Assessing food security in Uzbekistan
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- Kienzler, K.M., Rudenko, I., Ruzimov, J. et al. Food Sec. (2011) 3: 53. doi:10.1007/s12571-010-0109-9
Winter wheat is the most important cereal in Uzbekistan. Although the processing industry recognizes the low quality of local wheat, the present land use policy prioritizes production quantity, and wheat of better quality is imported to improve local flour. Yet, with increasing world market prices, Uzbekistan has to decide whether to continue allocating considerable resources for imports or to start investing in local quality improvements. This study therefore analyzed wheat production in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan by (a) assessing the economic feasibility of local production vs. imports; and by (b) evaluating the current N-fertilizer management at field level in order to identify options for improving quality. Demand for wheat in the region currently falls short of supply by 79,000 t but under favorable world market prices, funds for importing additional wheat could be covered by cotton sales. Prices above $148 USD t−1 support the present land use policy to cultivate wheat but the baking quality of the crop is low. Higher N rates and/or an additional application of N at anthesis significantly increased grain quality. Additional costs for changes in N management, however, are currently not compensated by the price premiums at the State mills. Thus, in the absence of price incentives, it is unrealistic to expect producers to maximize quality production. Consequently, administrators must give quality greater attention by creating incentives through price differentials for higher quality, and encouraging awareness programs on wheat quality and improved on-field N management.
KeywordsUzbekistanFood securityWinter wheatBaking quality
Winter wheat is the most important cereal grown for making bread in Uzbekistan, where virtually all winter wheat is cultivated on irrigated land (FAO and WFP 2000). During the time of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan imported wheat and flour, as domestic production was limited to about 200,000 ha located in the rainfed areas where the average yield was about 0.5–1.0 t ha−1 (Morgunov and Shevtsov 2004). In 1996, it became a declared policy of Uzbekistan to decrease its dependency on wheat imports (Guadagni et al. 2005). Since then, domestic wheat cultivation has gained enormous momentum although production has been subject to all-embracing state control by means of fixed state orders, provision of subsidies and credits to farmers (Djanibekov 2008). The successful expansion of wheat cultivation was due to considerable efforts from the government and agricultural producers but at the expense of mainly forage crop production (Müller 2006). During the past 13 years, the area under irrigated cereals increased around fivefold, now reaching about 1 million ha, and gross yields rose from 1.54 t ha−1 in 1991 to 4.48 t ha−1 in 2008, totaling more than 6 million t per year (FAOSTAT 2010).
Despite the progress achieved in expanding wheat production, there is a considerable need to increase the quality of its grain and flour. Domestically produced winter wheat has a gluten content of less than 20%, which is of low quality and the kernels are often starchy (Abugalieva et al. 2003a) owing to their low protein content (Fowler et al. 1989). A recent survey revealed that the Uzbek wheat processing industry is well aware of the low content and quality of gluten of the winter wheat varieties presently grown, and acknowledges that it is unsuitable for production of high quality bread, such as Tandyr1 (Abugalieva et al. 2003a).
As the quality and nutritional characteristics of domestically grown wheat are poor, Uzbekistan imports wheat grain and flour of better quality from neighboring countries in order to improve the quality of local flour (Rudenko 2008). Although the total import volume has been gradually decreasing from 1.9 million tons in 1994, 113,000 t was still imported from Kazakhstan alone in 2008 (USDA 2009). Particularly during periods of low world market prices, Uzbekistan can afford imports of higher quality wheat and flour which, from an economic point of view, is more efficient than investing in local production of better quality wheat (e.g., Ottman et al. 2000; Woolfolk et al. 2002; IFA 2006). This policy is supported by results from a value chain analysis of the Khorezm region in northwest Uzbekistan which showed that wheat production, although contributing importantly to national food security, was quite inefficient from an economic point of view (Rudenko 2008). In contrast to cotton, which is responsible for positive cash flows into the state budget, wheat production represents a drain (Rudenko 2008). However, with increasing world market prices for wheat and given the constantly growing food demand of the increasing population, the situation is likely to change and the country will have to decide whether or not to continue allocating considerable resources for importing wheat or to start investing in improvement of the quality of local wheat.
The protein and gluten content of wheat grain can be managed at the field level by targeted nitrogen (N) fertilizer applications during cultivation (e.g., Farrer et al. 2006). Also, grain weight can be increased by applying higher N-fertilizer rates (e.g., Alaru et al. 2003), although as protein content and yield are negatively correlated there is a natural limit above which increasing protein content is associated with decreasing yields, (e.g., Olson et al. 1976; Alaru et al. 2003). In Uzbekistan, the development of guidelines for balanced winter wheat fertilization and production only started systematically at the Wheat Research Institute and its regional branches after independence (MAWR 2000; MAWR 2006a).2 According to FAO (2003), the fertilizer application rate for grain crops in Soviet times was as high as 250 kg N ha−1. The present application recommendations for achieving 5 t ha−1 winter wheat on soils of low nutrient status are 150–180 kg N, 90–100 kg P, and 60–70 kg K ha−1 (MAWR 2000). Aside from increasing yields, N application significantly affects protein content but also the timing of application is critical (e.g., IFA 2006). For instance, when N application is delayed until the reproductive phase, i.e. prior to anthesis/flowering (Zadoks-60, Feekes-10.51), or after anthesis/at milk formation stages (Zadoks-73, Feekes-11.1), increased protein content of the grain can be achieved without affecting vegetative growth. Wuest and Cassman (1992) found that the effect of applied N after anthesis was greater than for earlier N applications as the partitioning of the absorbed N to the grain was more efficient. The current Uzbek N-fertilizer guidelines for irrigated winter wheat recommend a 3-split application with 20% of N to be applied before seeding, and the remaining N to be applied in two split applications with 50% at the beginning of tillering and 50% at stem elongation, followed immediately by irrigation (MAWR 1996; MAWR 2000). Quality-targeted N-fertilizer management, including late applications around anthesis is, up until now, not part of the official recommendations. Given the genetic potential of the crop, it can be concluded that current winter wheat production practices in Uzbekistan lead to under performance in terms of quality. Consequently, N-fertilizer management strategies need to be revised and adjusted should quality become a priority.
The objective of this study was therefore to (a) analyze the economic feasibility of local wheat production vs. imports under different world marked price levels, using the value chain approach; and (b) revise the N-fertilizer management strategies using yield and quality response data as a first step towards improving wheat quality at the field level. By building on the two studies of Kienzler (2010) and Rudenko (2008), the paper integrates economic and technical analyses of irrigated wheat production under the conditions of north-western Uzbekistan with the aim of improving food security in the region.
Materials and methods
Both the studies of Kienzler (2010) and Rudenko (2008) were conducted during the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 in the Khorezm region (60.05°–61.39°N latitude, 41.13°–42.02°E longitude). This region has a continental, semi-arid climate with mean annual temperatures of about 13–14°C, a minimum in February (−9°C) and a maximum in June/July (40°C) (Chub 2000). The temperatures during winter wheat harvest in mid June during 2004–2006 regularly exceeded the 20-year average air temperature (1980–2000) of 27.1°C (Kienzler 2010), the maxima being 40.2°C (18.06.04), 43.0°C (15.06.2005) and 42.0°C (13.06.06) (own recordings of climate data). Mean annual rainfall does not exceed 100 mm (75 mm in 2004, Khiva Meteorological Station) with maximum precipitation in April and November (cf. Sommer et al. 2008). Low precipitation and relative humidity, and high air temperatures, radiation and wind velocity encourage high evaporation rates of about 1,400–1,600 mm, which frequently exceeds precipitation throughout the year (Glazirin et al. 1999). The Khorezmian soils are of alluvial origin and, according to Russian and Uzbek literature, the main soil type found in the region is an irrigated alluvial meadow soil, covering almost 60% of the area (Rasulov 1989).
From value chain analysis to policy simulations
Value chain analysis (VCA) of wheat was undertaken in 2005 and set the framework for mapping the wheat chain and for its subsequent detailed financial and economic analyses (for more details see Rudenko 2008). Additionally, a deterministic policy simulation model was set up as a simple spreadsheet based model which, however, could provide various guidelines for strategy formulation and decision making for domestic wheat production vs. wheat imports. The aims of this policy simulation model were to understand: (1) how much foreign exchange the regional government of Khorezm would have to spend on imports of wheat to cover the domestic demand; and (2) to determine if such imports are economically efficient and feasible in the light of fluctuating world market prices for wheat and also when compared with alternative land use policies.
The model was used to simulate three scenarios, Baseline, Scenario 1 and Scenario 2. The Baseline scenario was based on empirical data collected from field surveys and interviews, and depicted the status quo of the wheat chain in 2005. This included private wheat production by farmers and rural households for home consumption, as well as centralized wheat production under state procurement. Wheat and wheat flour imports to cover the deficit caused by a growing population was considered to be negligible. Scenario 1 assumed no centralized procurement of wheat and no state wheat quotas. Under this scenario, the private agricultural producers continued growing wheat for their home consumption and import of wheat was allowed to cover the needs of the local population. In Scenario 2, wheat was left out of agricultural production in the region meaning that neither farmers nor rural households cultivate wheat. The land released from wheat cultivation was assumed to be used for alternative crops. Consequently, under this scenario, the entire amount of wheat required to meet the demands of the local population was assumed to be imported from neighboring Kazakhstan. This country has a long history of being the major wheat exporter to Uzbekistan and has the advantage of being the closest among wheat exporting countries that produces sufficient amounts of the required quality.
The model was run for the years 2005 and 2007 to cover the price variations in the world market for wheat from about USD 160 per ton in the year 2005 to about USD 265 per ton in 2007.
In order to assess the financial feasibility of higher rates of N-fertilizer application for increasing wheat quality from the farmer’s budget perspective, the cost of additional N fertilizer and associated transportation costs were calculated for each per cent increase in protein content in the wheat grain. Prices both from the statistical department and those reported by farmers were used for the calculations.
Field experiments for benchmarking wheat quality
Data of several field experiments for optimizing wheat quality by adjusting N-fertilizer levels and timing conducted at 12 different sites in the Khorezm region for the study years 2004–2006 were combined for comparison of wheat quality (Kienzler 2010). In all field experiments, the Russian winter wheat variety Kupava was used. This was the most common soft wheat variety in the Khorezm region during 2004–2006, covering 43% of the area, followed by the varieties Kroshka with 31%, Bozkala with 14%, Plovchanka with 4% and Intensivnaya with 3% of the area (OblStat 2006). Potential protein content for these varieties was estimated to be around 11–12.5% (Kupava), 11.5–13.7% (Kroshka), 11.8% (Polovchanka), and 10.6% (Intensivnaya) (MAWR 2006b).
The experimental layout was a randomized block design with three or four replicates. Nitrogen was applied in three split applications at total rates of 0, 20, 80, 120, 160, 180, 240 and 300 kg N ha−1. Twenty percent of the total N was applied before seeding in the form of ammonium phosphate (11% N) or urea (46% N), and 40% at both booting and tillering, followed directly by irrigation (“3 split application”). All N fertilizer was applied in the form of urea or ammonium nitrate (36% N), depending on the availability at the market.
In 2005/06, one additional set of treatments was included in one experiment where fertilizer application at the rate of 120 kg N ha−1 was split into four doses with an additional N fertilizer application just before heading, i.e. 30% of the N rate at tillering and booting and 20% at heading (“4 split application”).
For all experiments and experimental sites, the seeding rate was 250 kg ha−1. Three sub-plots, each of 1 m2, were harvested to determine 1000-kernel weight (TKW), as well as average kernel weight per m2 to estimate the yield per hectare. Grain sub-samples were analyzed for their N concentration using the Kjeldahl method. The crude protein concentration was computed based on the assumption that the N content of protein is 16%, or the N content × 6.25. The wet gluten content was determined according to the governmental standard GOST 13586.1-68 and GOST 27186 at the State Mill, i.e. by washing the dough and remove starch and soluble components.
The relationship of N rate/protein content was expressed by the function ‘protein content’ (in % of grain weight) = −0.000x3 + 0.0003x2–0.028x + 9.959 using the experimental data (with x being the N rate in kg ha-1). All coefficients were significant at p < 0.01. Substituting given protein levels into the equation, the N levels associated with the relative protein levels were derived.
The mean effect of treatment variables and their interactions were compared at p < 0.1 level of significance with the analysis of variance (ANOVA) procedure. The LSD post hoc test was used to compare individual treatment means.
Wheat value chain
The Uzbek wheat chain (Fig. 1) starts with agricultural producers and flows to the flour milling/cereal/feed compound industry either directly from agricultural producers or through the grain preparation stations, which are scattered throughout the region and which usually belong to the corresponding mills. The flour produced is forwarded to the food (bread and pasta) industry and finally reaches the consumers. Wheat or wheat products may also find their consumers via commodity exchange (for grain and flour), via private traders (for flour, bread and pasta), or directly via local markets. In these processes, wheat has to go through a sequence of transformations before it reaches the final consumers: wheat—wheat flour—wheat products (bread, pasta and fodder for animals).
As wheat in Uzbekistan is subject to the state procurement system, farmers have to submit half of their harvest to the state at a monopolistic price determined by the state. The remainder can either be processed by local households for home consumption, or can be sold at local markets, which offer higher but also fluctuating prices compared to the state mills. These hedonic prices vary based on a visual rating (e.g. size of the grain and cleanliness). Price differentials at the market are narrow (about 20%). Nevertheless, farmers surveyed during the VCA study reported that they preferred to sell their non-state quota wheat not to the mill (even at negotiated prices), but at the local markets or to their neighbors because of the higher prices and particularly because of being paid in cash.
Findings from the financial and economic analyses of the wheat chain showed that although highly important for easing food insecurity, wheat production was quite inefficient (Rudenko 2008). The VCA revealed further that total costs for wheat production in the Khorezm region reached $296 USD ha−1, or $90 USD per ton, for a wheat growing farmer assuming the average yield of 3–4 t ha−1. The average profit for farmers also depended strongly on the further destinations of the wheat produced e.g. flour, bread or pasta. Farmers’ profits from the free domestic market were much higher than those from the state quota and, for example, in 2005 were twice as high. Wheat sold to the government that year showed an average loss of about $2 USD ha−1 whereas the potential gain, had it been sold solely at local markets, would have been approximately $293 USD ha−1. As half had to be sold at state procurement prices and only the remaining half at domestic markets, the average profit was estimated at only $146 USD ha−1, or about $40 USD per ton. The principal cost components in wheat production as percentages of the state procurement price for wheat were: planting activities 23%; fertilizer application 42%; harvesting 11%. The remaining costs relate to other inputs such as seed and fuel.
Wheat: local production or imports?
Simulation results showing wheat requirements, wheat import potential, and area for alternative use in Khorezm in 2005 using the 2005 wheat price
Wheat area, thousand ha
Wheat output, thousand tons
Wheat imports, thousand tons
Wheat import expenditure, million USD
Required cotton fiber exports, thousand tons
Required cotton area, thousand ha
Area for alternative use, thousand ha
In the case of a more extreme approach (Scenario 2), when wheat is excluded from the agricultural production, a total of 236,000 t, would have to be imported at the expense of about $26 million USD. To cover these costs, about 23,000 t of cotton fiber would have to be marketed, which would simultaneously release 20,000 ha of land and consequently allowing farmers to diversify their cropping patterns, as well as income possibilities (Table 1).
Simulation results showing the wheat import potential for the Khorezm region, Uzbekistan, given world price levels in 2007
Wheat imports, thousand tons
Wheat import expenditure, million USD
Required cotton fiber exports, thousand tons
Required cotton area, thousand ha
Area for alternative use, thousand ha
Average import price, USD per ton
Break even price, USD per ton
Should the increase in world market wheat prices continue, then the Government of Uzbekistan would have an even stronger argument to continue the present policy of land use for wheat or even expanding it further. However, as the targeted level of food security should not rely solely on quantity but also quality, the low quality of local wheat and wheat products should be given special attention in order to improve its nutritional value. Value Chain Analyses indicated that production management at the field level would be an effective way to improve quality in the first instance.
Towards improved wheat quality through nitrogen management
Average winter wheat yield (t ha−1), protein and gluten content (%) and 1000-kernel weight (TKW, g) for 2004–2006 (adapted after Kienzler 2010). SE denotes standard error of the mean
p < 0.1
p < 0.1
p < 0.1
p < 0.1
According to national wheat quality classifications for bread-making, medium quality wheat should have a gluten content of more than 23% and a crude protein content of more than 13%. The regional wheat in 2003–2006 was classified as unsatisfactory soft wheat (class 33). All wheat produced during the experiments, except for four cases, was classified in the better classes 1 and 2, i.e., as very good and good wheat. In comparison with the German protein classification for baking quality (Raiffeisen 2010), the protein class “low” (10.5%) was met when 120 kg N ha−1 was applied (Table 3). At N rates of more than 180 kg N ha−1, grain reached the protein class “medium” (12.5%). All wheat grain receiving less than 120 kg ha−1 of N fertilizer was below the minimum requirements.
The crude protein content of winter wheat was significantly higher in 2004 (13.1 ± 0.4%) and 2005 (12.4 ± 0.5%) compared to 2006 (10.2 ± 0.1%) (Kienzler 2010). Also, the N rates made a difference at p < 0.1 (Table 3); grain with N rates of 240 and 300 kg ha−1 had significantly higher protein contents (14.1 ± 0.5 and 15.2 ± 1.3%) than those from the lower N rates.
Grain gluten content was on average 22.1 ± 0.5%. Gluten content differed among years and the interaction year x N rate was significant. The N rate alone was not significant. Gluten content was significantly lower in 2004 (20.7 ± 1.4%) than in 2005 (23.7 ± 0.7%) (Kienzler 2010).
Grain at all N rates had gluten concentrations higher than the threshold value of 20.0% (Raiffeisen 2010; Table 3). The “medium” class (23.5%) was reached for wheat fertilized with 160–180 kg N ha−1 but higher N application rates did not allow attainment of the highest gluten class.
The timing of fertilizer application significantly influenced the crude protein content of the grain. Wheat from the treatment with the four split applications, which had received an additional application at heading, had significantly higher crude protein contents (10.3 ± 0.2%) than that from those treatments that received the recommended three split applications (9.0 ± 0.2%).
The 1000-kernel weight (TKW) of the Khorezmian wheat (Table 3; Fig. 2) was generally higher than the 5-year average of 33 g for US soft red wheat (Gwirtz et al. 2007). This weight, however, differed according to the harvest year: on average grain was significantly lighter in 2005 (34.1 ± 0.3 g) than in 2004 and 2006 (37.4 ± 0.5 g and 37.4 ± 0.3 g, respectively).
The TKW followed the trend of the yield; the response to the N rate can be described by a quadratic function. The TKW was significantly higher for N-160 (39.0 ± 0.4 g) than for the other N rates (Fig. 2). The lowest TKW was found for N-0 (33.3 ± 0.5 g). N-fertilizer timing also had a significant effect on TKW as grain from plants receiving four split applications were nearly 2 g heavier (39.3 ± 1.4 g) than those receiving only three split applications (on average 37.5 ± 0.4 g) (Kienzler 2010).
Financial feasibility of additional N-fertilizer application
Costs associated with different N-fertilizer application levels
Classificationa (according to Abugalieva et al. 2003b)
N-fertilizer cost, 2005
N-fertilizer cost, 2007
N-fertilizer transportation cost
satisfactory wheat filler
good wheat filler
value wheat type
The second option, which would require the farmer only to modify the N-fertilizer application management in terms of timing, did not imply additional costs other than transportation since labor expenses, which would be required for an additional application event, were included in the fixed salary per season and were not based on specific field activities. Additional irrigation water applications were not necessary as, at that time, irrigation water was applied irrespective of the late fertilizer application.
Wheat imports to Uzbekistan were found to be financially feasible below a certain threshold of world market wheat prices. Based on the input/output parameters from 2005, i.e. favorable (low) wheat prices, the import of wheat would have been profitable: the low wheat prices would have required on the one hand relatively low foreign exchange expenditures, and on the other hand would have allowed the introduction of a land use policy that gives room for economically more profitable crops than wheat. The declared Uzbek policy of food self sufficiency after independence in 1991 has been economically feasible only when including large subsidies (Kandiyoti 2002). Assuming that these subsidies would be covered by cotton export revenues, which has a higher return per hectare than wheat, the analyses showed that the revenues would have allowed the purchase of wheat volumes greater than those domestically produced and, more importantly, of better quality. Furthermore, the Government of Uzbekistan could use export earnings from locally manufactured textile products for meeting the expenses of the wheat import. In both cases, a significant amount of land could be freed and concurrently a substantial amount of agricultural inputs could be saved. The change in land use policy, however, demands an enabling legislation in particular with regards to customs regulations, import duties and other barriers for wheat import.
Rising world market wheat prices as in 2007 would substantially change the perception of wheat imports into Uzbekistan. High prices would turn wheat into an expensive import commodity and consequently would support the present land use policy of promoting domestic wheat production further. However, the locally produced wheat is of markedly low quality according to both national and international standards, giving rise also to low quality of subsequent products such as wheat flour and bread (Fowler et al. 1989; Shewry et al. 1995). Consequently, imports are still needed to boost the quality of the local product unless this can be improved. Moreover, in the light of rising world market prices, the continuation of importing wheat may become a considerable financial burden in the future.
There is presently little encouragement to produce better quality wheat as, both at the state mills and the markets, the extra price paid is only marginal. In order to influence management practices by farmers and eventually raise their income, first, the common perception of wheat quality has to change. This necessitates an understanding by the local population that quality is not only about appearance, but also more about content (i.e. good quality protein and gluten). Although worldwide meat protein is complementing or even replacing plant protein sources, cereals still represent the highest share of protein sources in developing countries (Friedman 1996). Owing to high meat prices in Uzbekistan, meat consumption on a daily basis is beyond the reach of the poor rural population (Bobojonov and Lamers 2008). In addition, the water footprint of, for instance, beef is five to ten times higher than for wheat (Hoekstra and Chapagain 2007). This is a key constraint to be considered in semi-arid Central Asia where water is projected to be a limiting factor for crop production in the near future (McCarthy et al. 2001; Bates et al. 2008). Therefore, if Central Asian governments wish to improve the nutrition and food security of their people, it is imperative that they support the domestic production of high quality wheat. Improving the quality of domestic wheat is feasible and could be achieved by easing production targets (state procurement system), allowing farmers to manage their fields at their discretion and introducing better varieties of bread wheat.
Grain yield and protein content increased with higher N rates. However, while the increase in protein content was linearly related to N application rates, the relationship between yield and N application followed a quadratic function. Furthermore, although the curves of the regression for the different years were rather flat, a quadratic relationship between yield and protein content could be discerned. This indicates that the maximum yield of the variety Kupava did not correspond to the highest protein content: at the highest N amendments tested, maximum yields decreased again whereas protein content increased. The highest protein level of 15.2% was achieved by applying 300 kg N ha−1, but at this N rate yields decreased from the maximum of 5.5 to approximately 3.0 t ha−1. The crude protein content at the highest yield level (N rate of 181 kg N ha−1) was only around 12.3%, just reaching the medium quality protein level of good wheat filler (Abugalieva et al. 2003b; Raiffeisen 2010) A similar relationship was previously reported (Johnson et al. 1973), where the relationship between protein and yield increase for the wheat variety Lancer was quadratic as opposed to the variety Comanche, which showed a linear relationship. Selles and Zentner (2001) attributed a negative correlation between grain protein and yield to water stress rather than N availability. This explains the continual efforts of breeders to select for wheat varieties with high quality as well as high yield potential (e.g., Johnson et al. 1973; Ortiz-Monasterio et al. 1997; Fowler 2003; MAWR 2006a).
Significant year and location effects on yield, protein and gluten levels have been observed previously (Farrer et al. 2006) and these effects can be as important as genotype (Fowler 2003). Planting date, seasonal temperatures, timing of irrigation and related water stress during spring and up to anthesis influence tiller density, N accumulation, seed size and wheat quality (e.g., Farrer et al. 2006).
The slight response of TKW to N rates agrees with findings by Alaru et al. (2003) but contrasts to the results of Frederick et al. (2001) who noted that TKW was only marginally correlated with overall yield. They attributed this to the breeder’s selection for higher kernel number per square meter rather than for heavier grain. Also, Eck (1988) found insignificant differences in seed weight among N treatments. TKW was affected more by warm, dry weather conditions and water stress during grain filling (Frederick et al. 2001). Water-stress induces premature ripening resulting in lower seed numbers and kernel weights, and thus reduced yields (e.g., Eck 1988).
Overall, officially recommended N-fertilizer rates of 150–180 kg N ha−1 (MAWR 2000) can be regarded as acceptable for wheat production. However, the protein and gluten results show that the winter wheat variety Kupava can only meet the criteria of satisfactory to good wheat filler and flour thickener of low to medium quality (Abugalieva et al. 2003b; Raiffeisen 2010). There is thus much room for improvement, in particular by increasing the efficiency of N use through judicious N application strategies. The present results showed that wheat receiving either high N rates or an additional N application at heading yielded the highest protein content in the grain. Economically, an increase in quality through additional N applications evidently comes at the expense of higher costs for the producers (i.e., 40–50 USD ha−1). Fertilizer application costs already constitute almost half the production costs. The additional costs, which currently cannot be covered by price premiums at the State mills, would obviously need to be compensated for by the market, buyers or consumers. Besides, in the irrigated conditions of Uzbekistan, higher N applications, if applied inefficiently, are a risk to the environment (Scheer et al. 2008; Kienzler 2010), and may not be the path to higher grain quality in the long run. Presently, on average 40% of the N-fertilizer applied is lost as gases due to denitrification as the combined result of the availability of N, irrigation practices and high top soil temperatures (Scheer et al. 2008).
The option of late N applications, on the other hand, has high potential for increasing N concentrations in the grain and improving quality at low cost as it does not require additional expenses except for transporting the fertilizer to the field. Such supplemental fertilizer applications at the Zadoks-60/Feekes-10.51 or at the Zadoks-73/Feekes-11.1 stages are also a common management strategy to raise protein levels in specific environments elsewhere (e.g., Woolfolk et al. 2002; IFA 2006), and it has also been reported to increase the N use efficiency via lowering N losses in the Khorezm region (e.g., Kienzler 2010). Including such low-cost N-management options and strategies for improving the efficiency of N use in the official blue-print recommendations for winter wheat would allow farmers to make their own decisions depending on their priorities and interests. In the absence of any informing and regulating mechanisms, however, it is unrealistic to expect producers to maximize grain quality, which currently attracts only a low increase in price, when they can keep their focus on maximizing yields.
Moreover, wheat that will be used for flour production is currently only analyzed by State Mills for such qualities as transparency, gluten content, gluten viscoelastic characteristics, and natural weight (Abugalieva et al. 2003b). Crude protein content is only checked for wheat that will be used for fodder. Including international wheat quality indicators such as protein in the analysis routine, as well as internationally comparable analyses methodologies and equipment such as near infrared reflectance devices for measuring genotypically determined ratios, would allow the Uzbek government to better evaluate whether local wheat can potentially meet the criteria of world markets.
Finally, recent developments in the global wheat market have shown that major wheat producing and exporting countries react with export bans following seasons of low yields, e.g., Australia (2007), Kazakhstan (2008), or Russia (2010). This in turn causes prices for wheat to soar (FAO 2010) and such perturbations endanger the internal wheat market of importing countries such as Uzbekistan. Given the present necessity for Uzbekistan still to import flour of better quality and to mix this with the domestically produced flour to improve baking quality (Rudenko 2008), any progress in increasing grain quality is an opportunity to become more independent from imports in the future. Higher wheat quality would not only contribute to the declared direction of wheat self-sufficiency, but also allow the export of high quality wheat flour once the domestic demands have been satisfied.
Given the rising world market prices for wheat, countries which seek food and social security such as Uzbekistan have to face the challenge of producing wheat domestically rather than relying on imports. However, to achieve long-term and sustainable food security by domestic production, attention must be paid to food quality as well as quantity. As wheat quality in Uzbekistan and also nutritional and market value can be, in part, improved by management practices, producers must be encouraged to apply these. One option would be to offer adequate premiums for high quality wheat. Also, N-fertilizer recommendations on winter wheat must be redefined by including quality indicators such as crude protein content.
The present recommendations for N fertilizer for wheat prioritize high yields to meet the domestic wheat demands and in turn contribute to food security. However, food security is more than quantity alone and the next challenge is to improve the present low baking quality. Producers can contribute to quality improvement by applying additional N fertilizer later than presently recommended, i.e. at anthesis/heading. Nonetheless, as farmers are presently encouraged to produce high yields at low (fertilizer) cost rather than producing higher protein and quality grain, the reward structure needs to be altered by the administration so as to create incentives for better quality. This could be done through price differentials, and through educational or awareness programs about the quality of wheat and its products. Last but not least, as crude protein content and yield are negatively related for the varieties presently used, the issue of breeding wheat varieties with a narrower quality and yield relationship suitable for the irrigated lowland areas of the region has to be addressed more avidly by researchers.
Tandyr bread is locally made traditional flat bread from wheat flour.
Unfortunately, researchers of the Khorezm Wheat Research Station were reluctant to share their latest research results with the author.
This wheat classification is provided by the wheat laboratories at the Uzbek State mills, and is based on a calculated value between 1 and 4, with class 1 being the best and class 4 being the worst and equivalent to fodder quality (Abugalieva et al. 2003b). The values are the integrals of the analyses of the quality parameters transparency, gluten content, gluten viscoelastic characteristics, and natural grain weight.
Both the economic and nitrogen studies were funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research (number 0339970A-E), by the Ministry for Schools, Science and Research of the State of Northrhine-Westfalia, Germany, and the Robert Bosch Foundation. We thank the participating Uzbek farmers for their support.