Mongolia: Amazed and Inspired

This past fall I had the incredible opportunity to visit the far-off country of Mongolia for the first time. I had visited its closest neighbors, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China, but I couldn’t turn down my son, Adam’s, invitation to accompany him. This was Adam’s second trip to Mongolia with his major professor, Dr. Taylor, as part of a Deseret Charities project to aid the country with food safety and preservation. And when my son’s group discovered that Mongolia’s national policy was to promote organic agriculture, I was invited to accompany them.

Growing up, I recall history lessons about Mongolia, which had once conquered much of the known world at the time. And, even centuries later, the country’s culture and traditions reflect that diverse background. What I hadn’t expected were the similarities between this ages-old country and the hi-line area in Montana where I have lived most of my life.

Mongolia sits at the same latitude as Montana and much of the country looks like the rolling plains and prairie of the hi-line area where I live in northern Montana. So my experience in a similar climate and landscape was my ticket to this fantastic and interesting country. Mongolia is 4-times the size of my home state with 3-times the population, but half of these folks live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which means the countryside is even more sparsely populated that Montana.

From the capital city, we drove north to Darkhan and Suhbaatar, where most of the roads cut across the sod and when the ruts get too deep, vehicles simply shift over a bit to start a new road. With few fences, the open range was dotted with little more than isolated yurts and scattered livestock, making me wonder if this was what Montana had looked like 130 years ago after the ranchers had arrived but before the farmers had taken up their homesteads.

I was particularly surprised to learn that, even though Mongolia now grows enough wheat for their own use, this crop had only been introduced to their country 60 years ago. Now, they are interested in expanding small fruit and vegetable production to decrease their dependency on foreign foods as more people transition from their traditionally meat-based diets. And the best part is most of this new production is organic! While wheat production, for the most part, is not produced organically, they expressed great interest in both converting to organic as well as my soil-building rotations, which make organic possible here in the northern Great Plains.

But, by far, my biggest surprise, and epiphany, came in the office of a vice president of one of the universities we visited. Following the usual introductions, Dr. Taylor asked what their greatest food safety concern was. And without hesitation, this gentleman responded: “The growing rate of cancer in our country.” I was astounded! I had to clarify: “Do you mean you are concerned about possible chemical contamination on your food causing cancer?” When he responded affirmatively, he added, “That is why we have a national policy to promote organic agriculture.”

Folks, I have been promoting organic for most of my adult life. I have shaken hands with enough politicians, university presidents, and food leaders to understand the impact this man, who held such a high-ranking position, and his matter-of-fact statement regarding food safety could have. In my experience, if a person in his position in America were to make such a claim, his job would be forfeit by the next morning. Americans don’t see food as a cause for diseases like cancer and therefore it can’t be a solution either.

To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Here we were, in what most Americans would consider a third-world country—underdeveloped and even backward—and what I found was the courage and vision to make good choices for the future of Mongolia and the health of their people. In America, chemical agriculture and biotech companies rule; it’s advertised, sold and believed to be the future, necessary to feed the world, and anyone who questions this dogma is either dismissed or ridiculed.

What a paradox! While we in America, one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, keep charging forward supporting the chemical production of cheap food and reaping the result of ever-increasing chronic disease, supposedly backwater countries like Mongolia are building food systems that promote good health for their people and their country. As American’s fortunes and power begin to decline under the ever-increasing cost of health care, Mongolia’s choices will be taking them in the opposite direction. It is my very real belief that if nothing is done to change these directories, our paths of prosperity and health will one day cross. And it will be Americans who will be looking up to our Mongolian neighbors.