Scientists Plow Through Obstacles to Restore Afghan Fields

ALEPPO, Syria, February 14, 2002 (ENS) - Millions of hungry people across Afghanistan who are now dependent on food aid from international donors could be self-sufficient within five years as a result of a new global effort to rebuild the country's agriculture announced here today.

boy

In Afghanistan today, few have a full cooking pot. (Photo courtesy Pavarotti and Friends)
The newly formed consortium of research institutes, relief and development organizations, universities, and aid agencies will undertake a multi-million dollar effort called the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan.

"Agriculture in Afghanistan is going to need a lot of help," says Adel El-Beltagy, PhD, director general of the International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) based in Aleppo, the lead organization in this new initiative.

Scientists, development experts, and representatives of U.S. universities recently met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to initiate the consortium and develop plans for the recovery effort. In addition to ICARDA, initial consortium members include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), CARE International, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Canadian based International Development Research Center.

Future Harvest, the consortium partner that gives the group its name, is a global nonprofit organization that builds awareness and support for food and environmental research. Future Harvest supports the 16 food and environmental research centers that are primarily funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Agriculture is the largest and most important sector of the economy in Afghanistan, a country of about 22 million people. Of Afghanistan's 65 million hectares of land about half was once rangeland for livestock and eight million hectares were cultivated.

trees

Orchard of Golden delicious apples in Afghanistan's Chak Valley, Gazni Province, 1994. (Photo M. Griffen courtesy FAO)
Once a fertile land, growing wheat, maize (corn), barley, chickpeas, lentils, carrots, potatoes, melons, apples, and pistachios, Afghanistan has suffered prolonged war conditions. Constant strife, plus three years of the region's worst drought in 40 years, have depleted critical seed stocks and damaged land and water resources.

The Future Harvest consortium will provide farmers with seeds to plant for the upcoming spring and fall growing seasons and vaccines to prevent disease in Afghan livestock. About 3,500 metric tons of seed will be made available in the spring and about another 10,000 metric tons in the autumn.

In 1992, Afghanistan's national agricultural genebank, a facility used to safely store seeds and other plant material, was destroyed during the civil war, and there were fears that Afghanistan's agricultural heritage had been lost.

But samples of many, of the seeds and other plant genetic resources were collected in the early 1970s by scientists in Afghanistan. They are safeguarded in genebanks maintained at ICARDA, CIMMYT, and other Future Harvest Centers, principally in India, Mexico, and Syria. All of these plant materials will be available for repatriation to Afghanistan.

The consortium will reintroduce traditional wheat, maize, barley, chickpeas, lentils, and other seeds that have been used by Afghan farmers for centuries, and also introduce seeds that have been improved through breeding to be more productive and disease tolerant. They will offer new seed varieties that have been bred to grow in conditions similar to those in Afghanistan, helping to introduce crop diversification.

"Right now the seed situation in Afghanistan is critical," says El-Beltagy. "We believe the majority of the country's seed was lost when farmers planted the 2001 crop. When the rains failed for a third year in a row, it put an end to their ability to stay on the land."

"Our highest priority will be to revitalize wheat, which makes up 80 percent of the nation's grain production," he said.

FAO and international aid organizations have already begun the process of producing seed in Afghanistan.

poppies

Itinerant poppy harvesters collecting opium in Nahr-e-Saraj, Afghanistan (Photo courtesy UN Pakistan)
The new Afghan government is committed to eradicating poppy cultivation that keeps the illegal drug trade thriving. But, says John Dodds, PhD, a Washington based representative of ICARDA, it will have a hard time achieving that goal unless it can provide alternatives to help farmers earn cash.

"Afghanistan will need to move quickly to provide farmers sound alternatives to displace poppies," says Dodds. "Fast-growing fruits and vegetables, like carrots and melons, are a good way to do that because they can be grown quickly and command a higher return than most other food crops."

Dodds says if the focus is kept on seed production, food aid programs can gradually phase out their operations over the next few years. It will be essential to phase out food aid while farming activities increase so that markets are not distorted by aid supplies, he advises.

Scientists estimate that almost half of the nation's livestock has been lost. An immediate goal is to help farmers keep their remaining animals alive to regain the desired animal population and provide milk and other basic animal products for immediate domestic consumption and trade by Afghan families. The consortium will also supply vaccines for cattle, sheep, and goats to prevent diseases.

vaccination

Blackwater vaccination supported by FAO, at Dehdadi Village near Mazar-i-Sharif. 1994 (Photo by M. Griffen courtesy FAO)
Abdul Raman Manan, former director of Afghanistan's national agricultural research service now working on Afghan issues with FAO in Pakistan, says Afghanistan's agriculture is experiencing an unprecedented challenge. "It is not just a matter of repatriating traditional food crops or providing fertilizers and other agricultural inputs," Manan says. "The country's entire agricultural production system has been disrupted.

The consortium will send teams into Afghanistan to visit farms and villages to gather information and evaluate the current situation in order to develop the best course of action for long-term sustainability. The first team is expected to visit Afghanistan in March, with other teams to follow during the next six months.

Mana says, "With the consortium's collective scientific expertise and available resources, we can bring significant progress to Afghanistan more quickly."