The country is mainly flat, except for its alpine southeast and eastern fringes. Large deposits of oil and gas are being exploited; important mineral resources are currently untapped.
Kazakhstan is 20% cultivated land. Much of the north was turned into a big wheat field by the 1950s Virgin Lands campaign, in which about 250 000 km2 of steppe were ploughed up to grow grain. It had little real success, mainly because of land erosion produced by mechanized agriculture exposing to wind and other climatic elements the thin strata of fertile soil, leading to dramatic losses. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan continues to intensively grow wheat.
However, large areas of bumper wheat harvest are being lost because of poor harvesting methods, lack of storage facilities and shortage of transport. Another problem has been that non-ethnic technicians immigrating abroad are abandoning key agricultural posts and areas.
The deterioration of cultivated land due to overall re-structuring, non-observance and violation of farming techniques, increasing area of abandoned land, alongside failure to carry out preventive measures and adverse climatic conditions, has created a favourable environment for the reproduction and spreading of harmful organisms. Cereals are thus exposed to an estimated 50 species of insects, ticks and rodents, as well as dangerous diseases (mildew, septoriosis, rust), not to mention 300 species of weeds. In July 1999, Kazakhstan suffered a widespread locust invasion of extremely serious consequence, affecting over 5 million ha. In addition to wheat, arable lands in the south produce fruit, vegetables, tobacco, rice and hemp, whereas drier areas are used for seasonal grazing of sheep, horses and some cattle.
The governments policy to re-awaken the economy has been privatization, diversification and price liberalization. Reform and diversification have proved, however, more difficult in agriculture than in most other fields. Dependency on wheat is not easily abandoned, while substantial revenue from oil will soon allow acquisition of agricultural needs at the expense of the food production sector.
Land reform in favour of small- and medium-size farms are difficult to implement and often innovations lead to a return to the old system of large collective farms. In this context, resistance to change by landowners and, more importantly, the threat of land-related ethnic strife, may play an important role in agricultural policy-making.
With the disappearance of the former collective system, farmers are left isolated and have to rely on their own resources, ability and initiative to cope with day-to-day technical and managerial problems. The situation is further aggravated by the almost total absence of any form of training or extension services or facilities, because of financial constraints.
The seed sector follows the principle of centrally planned management. The Ministry of Agriculture, through two research institutes and 86 affiliated experimental stations and seed laboratories (4) in the south and in the north, exercises in theory full control over crop breeding, research, seed multiplication, production, quality control, processing, marketing, distribution and extension.
In practice, however, because of severe financial constraints, the situation is different. As a result of lack of resources and absence of credit, farmers are unable to purchase certified seed from state entities, hence they are forced to utilize instead their own seed from now depleted and weak stock obtained from past yields. If the situation continues to persist, the informal seed supply system will spread.
Several scientific bodies affiliated to the state, such as the National Academy of Science, the National Research Institute of Agriculture, the National Research Institute of Fruit Growing and Viticulture, and the National Research Institute of Vegetable and Potato, carry out research on a modest scale. Research on wheat is shared between two ministries: that of agriculture and that of science (under the National Centre of Agricultural Research - NAZAI). The centre is responsible inter alia for the production of the elite generations used for certified seeds and intended for the market. Again, because of financial constraints, these seeds are unaffordable by farmers and serve only for experimental purposes.
The centre receives support from and collaborates with CIMMYT, ICARDA, CIP, ICRISAT and IPGRI. The national collections of plant genetic resources are located in various centres of research, botanical gardens or protected areas. Kazakhstan has no legislation on PBR and has not joined international seed organizations.