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    South Asia
     Sep 17, 2010
Loaves, not bombs, pose significant threat
By Matthew C DuPee and Ahmad Waheed

Afghanistan faces a serious food crisis, especially through the southern, eastern and central regions, which is adding to the burden for a war-ravaged nation blighted by protracted insurgency, political instability and an entrenched illicit narcotics industry.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture confirmed a shortfall of 700,000 tons of wheat due to a nationwide decrease in wheat output - suggesting an estimated 4.5 million tons of wheat will be produced this year, insufficient to meet projected demand for 5.2 million tons, as extraordinary consumption makes Afghanistan vulnerable to price spikes from exporters it relies on to fill the gap.
''The government of Afghanistan needs to act quickly to control the food crisis,'' said Mohammad Eshaq Zeerak, director for the Ghazni Rural Support Program (GRSP) in the eastern province

 

that was hit by flooding in August. ''National strategic food stocks need to be completed before the winter months because remote provinces like Ghor, Daikundi, Bamyan, Badakhshan, Nuristan, and even Ghazni will be desperate following the weather-related closure of the roads two-months from now.''

Flooding has destroyed agricultural plots and food stocks in nine out of 12 provinces in the central region of Afghanistan, and the possibility of the total loss of Afghanistan's wheat industry from fungal infection looms large, with grave implications for security, stability and economy. While Afghan officials are confident in obtaining wheat imports to make up this year's projected national shortfall, traditional suppliers - Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Russia - are hard-pressed.

Severe drought has cut output in Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat producer, by one third of last year's harvest, hit production in Kazakhstan, the largest supplier to Afghanistan, while floods in Pakistan’s breadbasket left more than 3.2 million hectares of farmland underwater or destroyed.

Regional food shortages can have devastating effects because Afghanistan does not have a well-developed transportation network. Parts of the country are already dependent on food aid, so the global and regional crimp on wheat production will ultimately pose an additional socio-economic problem and affect the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Domestic wheat production has suffered this year due to recent flood and locust swarms but officials from the United States Agency of International Aid (USAID) do not expect the food security conditions to be as severe as the 2008 crisis. However, regional agricultural experts have warned that recent flooding, especially in Ghazni, has led to a decrease in local wheat output by 50%.

Consequently, in the south, the price of a loaf of wheat bread increased from 10 to 14 Afghanis last month. The price of wheat has increased from 70-80 Afghanis per seer ($1.40-1.6 per 7 kg) to 120 to 130 Afghanis per seer in there north, an Afghan resident from Kunduz told Asia Times Online. This 40% increase in price came into play after local traders heard about the effects of the Russian wheat crises on world food security.

Residents and agriculture experts want the Afghan government to fix wheat prices and are upset by its inaction. "Residents are very angry about the high prices and blame the government for not doing anything to fix it," Azizullah, a resident in Kandahar province told Asia Times Online.

If price increases continued, he added, people would definitely react strongly against the government. ''This crisis will only exacerbate the current distrust of a government unable to provide basic services to its citizens."

The average Afghan gets 60% of total calorific intake from wheat, according to surveys conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, and with 162 kilograms needed for every person annually it relies heavily on wheat imports. In 2008, the supply network broke down due to deficiencies in domestic and Pakistani wheat production and the tightening ban on Pakistani wheat exports.

Afghan wheat production rose substantially in 2009, thanks to good weather conditions and a stagnant market price for opium. But the conundrum facing Afghan farmers this year is hedging bets on a profitable and reliable crop of illicit "poppy" or growing more difficult wheat.

High opium prices and ongoing instability throughout the poppy belt of southern Afghanistan will leave opium as an enticing cash crop for many farmers. In 2009, Afghanistan had its second consecutive annual decline in nationwide opium output, to 6,700 tons from an estimated 7,700 tonnes in 2008. The downward trend has continued in 2010, with a plant disease destroying large portions of the opium crop.

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime has estimated that Afghanistan stands to lose a third, or 2,300 tonnes, of its opium output this year. However, despite repeated claims that wealthy traffickers and insurgent syndicates possess a suspected 10,000 tonne oversupply of raw opium, the market price has soared since May and is now hovering around $325 per kilogram, the highest market price in over six years.

Undoubtedly, in light of the agricultural destruction in Pakistan and the crimp in wheat supply from Kazakhstan, the demand for domestic wheat will be substantial. Afghanistan’s underdeveloped transportation infrastructure will also continue to hinder its ability to diversify its sources of imported grain.

Prior to the monsoon disaster that struck Pakistan in July, Pakistan’s government allowed the All Pakistan Flour Mills Association (APFMA) to export wheat to Afghanistan, fixing the export quota at 200,000 tons. This may change however in light of the recent monsoons. Pakistan produced an estimated 23.687 million tons of wheat during the 2009-2010 seasons and has a 3.5 million carry-over stock from 2008. Pakistan’s domestic wheat consumption hovers around 23 million tons. The monsoons have destroyed an estimated 600,000 tons of wheat and that number is likely to increase.

Afghanistan itself is not immune to the various natural catastrophes ravaging this year’s wheat output. In northern Samangan province, located in Afghanistan’s traditional wheat belt, a locust swarm destroyed thousands of hectares of wheat in the first two weeks of August. Torrential floods destroyed farm plots throughout eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border where monsoons laid waste to wheat fields. In the first nine days of August, flash floods and heavy rains destroyed agricultural plots and food stocks in nine out of 12 provinces in the central region of Afghanistan, resulting in the destruction of thousands hectares of agricultural land and inflicted human losses.

Additionally, current projections tracking the devastating plant virus Ug99, a black stem fungus that leeches the nutrients from the crop and kills it, has moved steadily eastward from its origin in Uganda and into the Middle East. Due to its lightweight and ability to travel for miles after becoming airborne, scientists discovered Ug99 in Iranian wheat fields in 2007; a full two years earlier than they projected the strain to hit.

With little access to sophisticated farming equipment such as fungicides and herbicides, Afghanistan’s domestic wheat industry will be severely damaged once Ug99 penetrates the farmland of northern and southern Afghanistan. Scientists familiar with the Ug99 fungus have projected a 90% to 100 % loss in Afghanistan’s wheat production if the fungus arrives before so-called ''rust resistant'' wheat seed varieties are introduced into at least 10% of Afghanistan’s sown wheat fields.

''While an outbreak of Ug99 in Afghanistan has not been reported yet, it’s very likely that the fungus will reach Afghanistan very soon because of the ineffective quarantine system of Afghanistan,” Abdul Saboor Jawad, an agricultural expert working in Kabul, told Asia Times Online.

The threat of Ug99 and this year’s devastating poppy blight, a plant-eating disease that destroyed upward of 2,200 tons of Afghan opium output, further exasperates the challenges associated with improving Afghanistan’s rural economic infrastructure. In this sense, environmental factors and agricultural challenges like virulent fungi may indeed pose a more significant threat to a greater swathe of the Afghan population than bullets or bombs. The growing discontent over government inefficiency and is growing by the day.

"Some agriculture and economic experts had warned the Afghan government to be prepared with the right means to face this huge challenge, but all their warnings fell into the deaf ears of the government authorities," Nasrullah Aman, an Afghan Fulbright scholar from Kunduz province told Asia Times Online.

"Now the problem is here. The most serious impact of the wheat crisis in Afghanistan is the further widening of the gap between the government and the people. People have already lost faith in this government due to the widespread corruption and absence of law and order. So, this crisis will exacerbate the situation and may even take things to the exploding point."

With wheat representing between 2.1 and 2.5 million hectares of farmland in Afghanistan, or nearly 60% of the country’s entire farm plots, securing Afghanistan's wheat industry is critical in stabilizing the country over the long term. The United States and the international community may be under considerable pressure to make headway against a burgeoning Taliban-led insurgency, but a vigorous and serious attempt must also be made to stabilize Afghanistan’s rural and agricultural sectors.

Matthew C DuPee is a senior research associate and Afghan specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Ahmad Waheed is an Afghan Fulbright scholar and research analyst for the Program of Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Taliban soften as talks gain speed
(Sep 15, '10)

Helmand's poppy growth surges
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