Improving lives in Mongolia
MONGOLIA is a country averaging 257 cloudless days a year. The sun rises over the barren Gobi Desert in the southeast, shines on the rolling plains of the grass-covered steppe, and sets behind the rugged mountain ranges in the west. As the world’s most sparsely populated sovereign state, Mongolia hosts a population of around three million people in a landlocked nation about twice the size of Texas.
Short summers and long, frigid winters define Mongolia’s extreme continental climate. Average temperatures sit below freezing from November through March, and frost is common from April to October. In January and February, vast fronts of cold, dense air seep in from Siberia, dropping the temperature to negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
But it’s not just the air that’s cold. More than half of Mongolia is covered by permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year. Thus, only 0.3 percent of Mongolia’s land is arable. Between the freezing temperatures and frozen ground, the frost-free growing season totals only 97 days.
Though the people of Mongolia have embraced the harsh environment by fostering a rich nomadic culture that thrives on meat and milk, the short growing season means agricultural pursuits, including the harvest and storage of plant foods, operate in a small window. This time constraint, combined with ineffective food preservation techniques, results in poor production, ineffective storage, food wastage, and significant micronutrient deficiency levels.
A 2017 National Nutrition Survey Report revealed that micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in all Mongolian population groups. The highest deficiencies exist in children under five years of age, with 27 percent anemic, 21 percent iron-deficient, 70 percent insufficient in vitamin A, and 90 percent insufficient in vitamin D. Micronutrient deficiencies affect the physical growth, cognitive development, physical work capacity, and risk for several chronic diseases in children.
In order to address the nation’s nutrition and agricultural situation, the Mongolian government approached Deseret International Charities for support. The government believes outside expertise can provide insight on how to better preserve and store food to extend the value of Mongolia’s food production and increase access to safe produce.
In February 2018, the Mongolian government’s inquiry was answered by Sister and Brother Harmon, a full-time humanitarian missionary couple serving as the Asia Area Welfare Specialists for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sister Harmon reached out to the College of Life Sciences at Brigham Young University to see whether any faculty could explore sustainable, low-cost solutions to Mongolia’s food challenge.
They could, and they did—committing to assist a country set on improving its condition.
Located in the Buyant River valley on the edge of Western Mongolia, the city of Khovd sits quietly beneath the foothills of the Altay Mountains. Khovd is a 40-hour bus ride away from the capital of Mongolia and home to Gerlee Enkhgerel Dandar, an agricultural teacher at Khovd Polytechnic College. An engaging professor, Dandar earned her master’s degree in vegetable and fruit preservation so she could teach her community how to incorporate these foods into a well-rounded diet.
“In the Mongolian daily diet, there is not enough variety of foods for vitamins and minerals, depending on where you live,” Dander says. “In the capital city, they have access to choose to include veggies and fruits in their diet. In small towns, after harvest, they don’t have as many options.”
During harvest season, Dandar offers free classes to unemployed farmers and small business owners who want to learn how to handle, preserve, and store their produce safely. Learning food preservation techniques enables farmers to extend the storage life of their produce past harvest season and allows fruits and vegetables to stay in their diet year-round.
One evening in September 2018, Dandar led a class experiment. Harvest was in full swing, and farmers had more produce than they could sell, particularly watermelon. As Dandar and her students set out to find the best way to increase the value of their fruit, a group of strangers walked into the back of her classroom. It was Brad Taylor and Frost Steele, associate professors of food science at BYU, along with a few students who had journeyed to Mongolia to assess the state of food preservation and make connections with local leaders and educators. The group had been directed to the college by a local government representative. After meeting with the college director, Taylor’s team arrived at Dandar’s class just in time to contribute to the experiment.
Taylor shared with the class how to make ice cream and juice out of watermelons, a value-added approach Dandar appreciated. His creative solutions involved techniques her students could utilize immediately during the regional watermelon harvest. She wanted to learn more. So Taylor proposed hosting educational webinars as a way to connect BYU’s College of Life Sciences and Deseret International Charities with Mongolian city government representatives, teachers, and agricultural specialists to further develop, share, and implement the principles of food safety and preservation in the country.
The Train-the-Trainer program proved effective. Soon, representatives from four Mongolian regions were joining the webinars.
But the program didn’t stop there. Taylor’s team extended an invitation to receive hands-on training in the United States. Twelve Mongolian representatives, including Dandar, accepted the invitation. In August 2019, they traveled to Utah and Idaho to learn laboratory techniques and observe postharvest storage practices and facilities.
In Utah County, the delegation toured food processing and evaluation facilities, visited local food production and distribution facilities, and explored a U-Pick farm featuring fruit in a setting similar to the Mongolian steppe. In Salt Lake City, they toured Welfare Square, the Bishop’s Central Storehouse, the Humanitarian Center, and Temple Square.
The delegation traveled to Idaho to check out current best practices in harvesting, handling, and storing root crops, especially potatoes. Faculty from Idaho State and BYU–Idaho’s food science program met with the delegation to share insights on vegetable processing, food storage, and the application of quality-assurance principles in food production.
Dandar was impressed, especially with the efficiency of American food production. The idea of a U-Pick farm was particularly intriguing and practical. U-Pick farm operations grow large quantities of produce that is harvested by customers—food isn’t wasted, the farmer doesn’t have to hire people to harvest the produce, and consumers know exactly where the produce is coming from.
Knowing where produce comes from is important to Mongolians, a cultural value shared by Kai Mashlai, an adjunct professor teaching continuing education and food science at BYU.
Mashlai grew up in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, and spent her summers in the nomadic countryside. She remembers her extended family’s limited consumption of vegetables and other produce: “With plentiful local meat sources and dairy products . . . Mongolians have no food sovereignty issues. It’s getting the fruits and veggies that’s hard; those resources are very limited. They primarily have to import them from other countries; most of them come from China.”
The food systems in China, though improving, leave much to be desired concerning global food safety practices. It is unclear whether improving food regulations and practices in China are benefiting food quality and safety practices in Mongolia because there doesn’t appear to be consistently enforced standards or regulations. Thus, the historical lack of trust along with cost and availability of local or imported produce, including long periods of scarcity in the country, contributes to the lack of essential micronutrients in the traditional Mongolian diet.
"My research and outreach team is leading a project designed to improve sustainable food production and prevent foodborne illness in Mongolia. Though our team is small in number, we were fortunate to recruit and enroll versatile and determined Mongolian partners advancing science-based food production and preservation techniques that work in the ecosystems and unique culture of ‘The Land of The Eternal Blue Sky.’ This includes working with dynamic collaborators in multiple regions of the country and starting with small practical applications and web-based communication/training. In our in-person visits and hosting, we programmatically trained partners on ‘best practices’ for the quality and safety of meats, vegetables, and fruits. After prayerful consideration, we recently decided to pivot towards an emerging opportunity to engage in food safety training on meat inspection and processing for regional facilities currently under construction located on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar that include laboratory facilities. Later, this will be followed by training on vegetables and fruits at a sister facility currently in the planning stages and involving multiple government agencies. We have identified and initiated work on specific training for vegetable and fruit growers via polytechnic colleges/institutes in other regions."
The exchange of information facilitated through the Train-the-Trainer project confirmed that many families simply go without fruits and vegetables. In general, families consume what they know, trust, and can afford—primarily meat, and milk. In the absence of affordable, trusted alternatives, the gift requested by Mashlai’s family members in Mongolia is multivitamin dietary supplements.
“Everyone is trying to live,” she says. “Everyone is trying to feed their family. In the big picture, it’s all about the Mongolian people’s health. If the farmers know more about improved storage practices that keep their food safe and that enable them to sell their produce year-round at a reasonable price, most Mongolians will feel comfortable buying from Mongolian producers.”
Thanks to the Train-the-Trainer program, Mongolian producers are learning how to minimize the adverse effects of a largely unregulated agricultural economy. One such producer, Baatar Byambaa, acknowledges, “Right now there are problems with food hazard safety in Mongolia. A lot of small factory producers make a lot of products, but standards are not adequately controlled or systematically minimized.”
Byambaa is from Selenge, a strategically important province that provides almost 50 percent of wheat and 70 percent of fruits and vegetables for all of Mongolia. Byambaa’s family farm primarily grows grain, mostly wheat. At the introductory meeting on the first day in Provo, he said, “Americans are recognized experts in farming and growing crops. I would like to learn more about how they store their produce and extend the shelf life. I want to implement that in my work and share it with the people around me.”
Byambaa is now sharing what he learned from his participation in the delegation with his own community. By prioritizing quality and sanitation in food processing, he will deliver high-quality food to his customers and augment their trust in local grain and produce. To ensure his employees have access to healthy fruits and vegetables, Byambaa intends to set aside land for his employees and their families to grow their own produce. He knows these residential crops will empower his employees.
“There is joy,” Byambaa says, “in witnessing the growth and development of plants.” In Taylor’s experience, there is also remarkable fulfillment in empowering the growth and development of sustainable food systems in Mongolia: “Improved food safety and sovereignty is evident in the priorities of Mongolian technical and political leaders who are striving to serve their population while working towards a sustainable future for food systems that honor Mongolia’s beautiful and connected heritage.”