Green grass “conveyors” in Kazakhstan keep soil and bee conservation moving ahead

April 20, 2022

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

Any postcard of Kazakhstan's landscape would be incomplete without its signature vast and rolling pastures. In 2015, permanent pastures and meadows accounted for 68.5 percent of Kazakhstan's total land area of 186.7 million hectares. Not surprisingly, the agricultural sector in Kazakhstan remains the country's industrial and economic backbone, employing nearly half of the population. However, it remains vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks. Therefore, it is important to support farmers and businesses to make the right choices for land restoration, pollinator protection and sustainable agriculture.

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is receiving the BES Solution Fund to bring together science, policy and practice communities into awareness-raising and training, particularly on issues related to pollinator conservation and land restoration. The fund is provided through UNDP’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Network (BES-Net), a joint initiative with UNEP-WCMC and UNESCO, funded by the German Government and SwedBio, which aims to translate lessons learned from IPBES’ global, regional and thematic assessments into tangible solutions on the ground.

Bakhtiyar Sadykov, an academic at the Kazakh Livestock and Forage Breeding Research Institute notes how farming communities have evolved in the last few decades. “In the past, when we had Kolkhozes (collective farms) and Sovkhozes (state-owned farms), we had a group of experts who guided the production process. Since the beginning of the agricultural reform after Kazakhstan's transition to a market economy, many more people have become farmers. Accordingly, demand is ever growing for more guidance on land management and farm business management, including what crops to grow, what to do against pests and diseases and how to limit destructive farming practices.” 

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

The project’s awareness-raising and training activities for farmers, academics and policymakers, have already achieved tangible results. More than 700 farmers have increased their incomes by 30-79 percent thanks to workshops on increasing land productivity, such as efficient pasture seeding and management, cultivation of crops with high fodder value, improved livestock management, and other sustainable land management practices. In the Almaty and Kostanay regions, 19 farming families have created more than 300 jobs in forest nurseries and in restoring land for vulnerable populations, including women and displaced persons. The new organic farming methods, which eliminate chemical pesticides and fertilizers and rely on pollination, have reduced levels of hazardous pollutants in the air, soil and water. This has helped improve the health and well-being of more than 74,000 people in the Aral region.

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

The green honeycomb conveyor: a 3-in-1 solution

The project has developed an approach called the "green grass/honeycomb conveyor" that serves three main functions: conserving land resources, providing sustainable forage for livestock and bees, and sustaining pollinators. Simply put, a green grass/honey conveyor provides a continuous supply of pollen and efficiently keeps bees in the field.

Growing forage grasses and beekeeping are often thought of as two different agricultural fields, but their symbiotic relationship can complement each other and lead to higher honey production and forage productivity. In addition, such an approach enriches the soil with natural humus and nitrogen elements and keeps pollinators busy with their vital cross-pollination activities.

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

In Turgen district of Almaty region, the project established a demonstration plot where a belt of green grasses was planted alongside pollinator-friendly crops such as legumes, apples and sunflowers. Planting green grasses that have high nectar production year-round helps improve bee productivity. This green promotion pattern keeps bees active throughout the year and has a positive effect on the quality and flavor of the honey.

One solution, many advantages

The availability of a honey base near the hive is the most important condition for the success of beekeeping. The versatile use of such mixed crop belts (with cereals, legumes and shrubs) allows farmers to use green grass as feed for their livestock all year round. In addition, cross-pollination by bees increases crop productivity and improves their flavor and commercial qualities. For example, sweet clover yields have been increased by up to 50 percent after pollination, sunflower and canola yields by up to 20-30 percent, and apple yields by up to 17-30 percent. When fruits and berries were fully pollinated by bees, yields increased by 30-50 percent. This effect was also observed in vegetable crops in other parts of the Almaty region. 

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan, Cross-pollination by bees increases crop productivity

It also contributes to the fight against climate change. Researchers from Kazakhstan's livestock sector have estimated that, between 2020 and 2024, an equivalent of 6 million tons of СО2 (an average of 1.2 million tons of СО2 per year) can be sequestered in the soil thanks to a green grass conveyer. If such a cultivation model is maintained in the period 2026-2030, emissions will be reduced by 60.5 mln/t of СО2-equivalent (on average 12.1 mln/t of СО2 per year).

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan, Green grass conveyer contributes to the reduction of CO2

The good thing is that this solution is scalable. "The crops that make up the honey band should not necessarily be limited to a certain hectare area. It is quite possible to plant 40-50 thousand hectares or more with different crops. The bees will have enough work at this scale," says Sadykov.

Using technology for greater impact

For BES-Net and its partners, learning is an ongoing process. To improve the honey areas adjacent to the hives, it is essential to plant honey crops such as linden, willow, chestnut, buckthorn, and other tree and shrub species. For each plant, exceptional agricultural techniques must be applied, such as irrigation (depending on the plant and the region), collection of the mature inflorescences, drying and threshing, so that they can be resown the next year.

Mixed or combined seeding is important, for example, by harvesting one crop when the other crop is halfway through flowering so that bees can bring honey throughout the year. Ideally, bees have a supply of nectar and pollen from March to the end of November. Technologies and methods like these manage to unite the interests of researchers and farmers.

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

In addition, the stable yields of this method help increase the return on loans paid by farmers.  It promotes the effective use of subsidies and market saturation from pollinator products and reduces market price volatility, while maintaining the ecosystem health. With access to a promising technology, farmers can convert fallow land into productive landscapes, achieve stable yields and diversify their income basket, including tapping into non-traditional markets.

Speaking of the potential, UNDP Technical Advisor, Firuz Ibragimov adds, "The green grass conveyor belt has proven its efficiency in all areas. It helps to maintain beekeeping throughout the year, increase farmers' yield productivity and, most importantly, prevent soil degradation and improve biodiversity conservation. The BES-Net project offers a platform where scientists, farmers policymakers and farmers can collaborate, learn from such examples and scale up."