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Environmental Factors, Fungi Pose Major Economic Threat to Afghanistan
Matthew C. DuPee and Ahmad Waheed, 10/1/2010

With doomsday proficiency, global wheat production has declined in light of a series of catastrophes in 2010.  Severe drought and subsequent wild fires have lowered Russia’s wheat crop harvest by one third compared to last year and affected 32% of Russia’s total planted area.  Russia is the world’s third largest producer of wheat. If Russia’s drought continues deep into the fall, the 2011 wheat harvest could also be affected.  Drought has also negatively impacted wheat production in Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, while wet weather severely damaged Canada’s output.  Recent monsoons have ravaged Pakistan’s breadbasket, leaving over 3.2 million hectares of farmland underwater or destroyed.

According to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wheat accounts for approximately 60% of the total caloric intake for an average Afghan resident, or 162 kilograms per person per year. This extraordinary amount of wheat consumption makes Afghanistan a net importer of wheat and enhances the vulnerabity of price spikes from wheat exporters.  Meanwhile 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 set on war-torn Afghanistan and the international community’s involvement there. In addition to a protracted insurgency, political instability, an entrenched illicit narcotics industry, and a lagging development effort, Afghanistan now stands to face a serious food crisis, especially throughout the southern, eastern and central regions. 

Afghanistan’s domestic wheat production has suffered this year due to recent flood and locust swarms but officials from the Unites 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 in August, especially in the eastern province of Ghazni, has led to a decrease in local wheat output by 50 percent. Because Afghanistan does not have a well developed transportation network, regional food shortages can have devastating effects.  “The government of Afghanistan needs to act quickly to control the food crisis,” warned Mohammad Eshaq  Zeerak, director for the Ghazni Rural Support Program (GRSP). “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.”

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, an insufficient amount to meet Afghanistan’s projected demand for 5.2 million tons. Afghan officials are confident in obtaining wheat imports to make up the amount but the traditional suppliers for Afghanistan’s shortfall – Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia – are hard-pressed. Consequently, the price of wheat in Afghanistan has increased from 70-80Afs/seer ($1.40-1.6 per 7Kg) to 120 to 130Afs/seer ($2.4-2.6 per 7Kg) in the north, an Afghan resident from Kunduz told the Times. 

In the south, the price for each loaf of wheat bread increased from 10 to 14 Afghanis last month. This 40% percent increase in prices came in into play after the local traders heard about the effect of Russian wheat crises on the world's 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 the Times. He added that if price increase continues, people would definitely show a strong reaction against the government. According to him, “this crisis will only exacerbate the current distrust of government unable to provide basic services to its citizens.”

Afghanistan relies heavily upon wheat imports, but in 2008 the supply network broke down due to deficiencies in domestic and Pakistani wheat production and the tightening ban on Pakistani wheat exports. Proper weather conditions and the stagnant market price for opium in 2009 prompted a substantial increase in Afghan wheat production. In 2009, Afghanistan also recorded its second consecutive year decline in nationwide opium output, going from an estimated 7,700 metric tons of opium in 2008, to 6,700 tons in 2009. The downward opium trend continued in 2010, with a plant disease destroying large portions of Afghanistan’s opium crop. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime has previously estimated Afghanistan stands to lose a third of its opium output this year, or 2,300 metric tons of opium. However, despite repeated claims that wealthy traffickers and insurgent syndicates are in possession of a suspected 10,000 ton oversupply of raw opium, the market price for opium has soared since May and is now hovering around $325 per kilogram, the highest market price in over six years.

The conundrum facing Afghan farmers this year is hedging bets on a profitable and reliable crop – poppy – or a licit but difficult crop wheat. Undoubtedly, in light of the agricultural destruction in Pakistan and the crimp in wheat supply from Kazakhstan, the largest exporters of wheat to Afghanistan, the demand for domestic wheat will be substantial. Afghanistan’s underdeveloped transportation infrastructure will continue to hinder the country’s ability to diversify its sources of imported grain. High opium prices and ongoing instability throughout the poppy belt of southern Afghanistan will leave opium as an enticing cash crop for many farmers.

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 has destroyed thousands of acres 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 Pakistan’s breadbasket. In the first nine days of August, flash floods and heavy rains destroyed agricultural plots and food stocks  in 9 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 then scientists projected the strain to hit Iran. 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 percent of Afghanistan’s sown wheat fields. The possibility of a total loss of Afghanistan's wheat industry has grave implications on Afghan security, stability, economy and the international community's efforts there. “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 the Times.

The looming threat of Ug99 and this year’s devastating poppy-blight, a plant eating disease that destroyed upwards 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 the Times. “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 for 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.

About the Authors

Matthew C. DuPée 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.