Yerevan, Armenia - When international wheat prices started to rise last year, this bread-loving nation knew it was in trouble.
A small landlocked country in the Caucasus, the former Soviet republic imports 60 to 70 percent of its wheat. Things went from bad to worse during the severe 2007-2008 winter, followed by hail and floods in some districts, which reduced the national winter wheat harvest from an average of about three tonnes per hectare to one tonne per hectare, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The war in neighbouring Georgia also had an impact on food and fuel supplies. Since Armenia's borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, the country depends on the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti for most of its imported food and fuel. The railroad bridge over which most imported goods pass from Georgia to Armenia was destroyed in the fighting. As supplies must now be trucked from the end point of the damaged track in Georgia across the border and then reloaded on another train, deliveries have slowed and shipments are open to pilferage.
Rural families most vulnerable
The situation in Armenia is especially grave for many poor rural families, who grow wheat on plots of one or two hectares, mill the harvest into flour at the local mill and use the flour to bake bread for the family throughout the year. With locally grown potatoes, vegetables and fruit, and small welfare payments or pensions from the government, they can just survive. There are 340 000 smallholder farmers in this country of 3.2 million.
Life all over the country has been affected by soaring food prices, with staples such as macaroni increasing by 27 percent, pork by 35 percent and bakery bread by 40 percent, since 2006, according to official statistics.
In order to help Armenia's most vulnerable rural families, the government asked FAO to obtain and distribute good quality winter wheat seed to mitigate the negative effects of rising food and farm input prices. A Technical Cooperation Project worth US$500 000 was approved under FAO's Initiative on Soaring Food Prices, currently working in 90 countries. It paid for 645 tonnes of locally supplied high quality seed which were distributed to 4 300 farm families last September in time for planting.
"This year we had a serious problem with seeds. We know high-quality seed is crucial, but farmers can't afford to buy it," says Gagik Manucharyan, Chief of the Crop Production, Forestry and Plant Protection Department in the Ministry of Agriculture. "I think this Technical Cooperation Project will attract additional funding for Armenian agriculture, for example, for quality potato seeds, and seeds for fodder, which are also expensive for the farmer."
As for the cost of food, "the consumers are cutting back on meat, milk and other foods. If it goes on much longer it is going to be a crisis," he adds.