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Separating the wheat from the chaff in Afghanistan

Wheat production is on the rise in Afghanistan (CIMMYT)
Wheat production is on the rise in Afghanistan

From snowy peaks to rushing torrents, canyons to deserts, Afghanistan has a bewilderingly fractured landscape in which there an array of microclimates exist and where conditions can change from one valley to the next. In this harsh and unforgiving environment, nature acknowledges the existence of human life grudgingly, and settlement and cultivation represent a triumph of human endeavour and labour.

Despite it's apparent hostility, over many generations agriculture and livestock husbandry have provided a hard won means of living from the land, forming the character, resilience and independence of a population adept at exploiting the constraints of the landscape and turning them into opportunities. Perceived as a population of subsistence farmers the reality is of a dynamic, adaptable and mobile rural population that, over the past three decades, has been effectively thrust into the heart of the international market economy.

A country of extremes

Two decades of war have clearly had an impact on livelihoods, even in Afghanistan's most accessible and fertile regions, which were once renowned for its exports. Damage to irrigation systems and the demise of government agricultural services have reduced both the amount of cultivable land and yields harvested. Shortages in basic agricultural inputs, such as improved seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, have led to further declines. The collapse of physical infrastructure, including roads, and growing insecurity has resulted in international and regional trade losses, limiting on farm and non-farm income.

In just one year, wheat yields have nearly doubled in parts of Afghanistan (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
In just one year, wheat yields have nearly doubled in parts of Afghanistan
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

With less than five per cent of the country under perennial, irrigated agriculture, complex cropping systems are essential to optimise productivity and enhance rural livelihoods. Wheat is the main staple and provides the majority of grain production in the country. It is cultivated in rotation with a rich mixture of crops, including other grains, grapes, legumes, potatoes, pulses, oil seeds, orchard fruit and vegetables. Despite the many challenges, production of wheat has consistently risen since 2000 from 1,469 to 3,114 thousand tonnes, although the north is the only region where there is a surplus of wheat; the rest of the country suffers a deficit and is dependent on domestic and international market links, including with Iran and Pakistan.

Seeds of hope

Despite the lack of inputs, average yields of irrigated wheat in Afghanistan in recent years have been considerably above those of previous decades. This can be attributed in part, to a long-term wheat improvement and seed production programme, led by FAO and implemented with CIMMYT and local partners. Through this, improved high quality wheat seed has been distributed to farmers. Feedback from farmers on the characteristics of improved varieties and farmer preferences helps guide further development.

Take up of improved varieties can be limited because consumers value the taste of certain local wheat types and this is reflected in a premium being paid by local traders. Critics also point to a loss of genetic diversity as some previously valued indigenous varieties of wheat have already become extinct. However, improved wheat varieties can contribute to the development of the countries economy and a move away from simple subsistence, especially as better milling facilities come on-line allowing competition with imported flour.

An alternative to opium?

Although opium poppy cultivation has boomed since the fall of the Taliban, wheat may provide rural communites with an alternative source of income (Barry Pound)
Although opium poppy cultivation has boomed since the fall of the Taliban, wheat may provide rural communites with an alternative source of income
Barry Pound

In the northern province of Kunduz, wheat yields are reported to have increased from 66,000 tonnes in 2006 to 116,000 tonnes in 2007. In a country struggling with the rise in opium production, this is a notable increase. Weak governance, insecurity and cheap labour with few alternatives are all factors that have encouraged cultivation of the poppy and on marginal, low-yielding land in areas still suffering from conflict, there appear to be very few viable options for farmers to grow other crops. However, Kunduz is one of the few provinces where opium has not been grown this year and this, reports the department for agriculture and irrigation, is due to the availability of improved seed and irrigation. Others claim that the climate in Kunduz is ill-suited to poppy production.

Nevertheless, more than 250 tonnes of seed have been distributed in Kunduz this year. Many farmers still access their seed informally but the quality of seed cannot be guaranteed. In response, the Afghanistan government has requested assistance from FAO and partners to help establish a plant health testing and seed multiplication system in the country. A new seed law regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock will govern how new varieties are released into the market. FAO is also currently nurturing small start-up seed companies; eight so far, where farmers are contracted to produce certified seed that growers can depend on. Making that seed system sustainable, while providing seed at an affordable cost is a challenge but, for any Afghani farmer, achieving improved yields and a better income may be worth the price.

Written by: Benjamin Mackinnon

Date published: November 2007


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good initiative but this should be publicized to the common ... (posted by: Mansoor)


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