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Seed shortage hits Afghan wheat farmers

“…we’re promoting the use of certified seed, which means we’re only promoting about 12,000 tonnes, which is all there is available in the country.”

– LOREN STODDARD, USAID

Thousands of tonnes of wheat seed are being distributed across Afghanistan, but this will meet only a quarter of demand so Afghans will rely heavily on imports next year, a development expert said Dec. 6.

Afghanistan has been hit hard by drought and rising global food prices, making it heavily reliant on handouts and imports. An estimated 30 per cent of Afghans are considered chronically food insecure, according to the U. S. development agency (USAID).

Much of the best arable land is also used to grow opium, the raw material for heroin, adding to the food shortage. Always a wheat importer, the country should focus on high-value cash crops like pomegranates in future, the development expert said.

The Afghan government and several donor countries have launched a US$60 million agricultural stimulus program for the 2008-09 crop season.

Around 12,000 tonnes of UN certified wheat seed are being distributed to farmers, but this falls short of the 50,000 tonnes the government says is needed.

“We know it’s not enough for every farmer in every province. We know it’s not enough for all of their lands,” said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development and agriculture for USAID in Afghanistan.

“But we’re promoting the use of certified seed, which means we’re only promoting about 12,000 tonnes, which is all there is available in the country,” he said, while visiting a distribution site in Samangan, northern Afghanistan.

There are more seeds available for commercial sale in the country, Stoddard said, but they have not been certified and are of much poorer quality.

Big subsidies

The certified seeds are being distributed to those farmers considered most vulnerable, at a considerably subsidized rate. Farmers will pay around 15 per cent of the market value.

“I am happy. I can’t get it at this price from the city,” Mohammad Sadiq, a farmer waiting in line at a distribution site in Samangan, told Reuters.

“I’m happy with this amount but if they distributed more it would be better,” said another farmer, Mohammad Murad.

The Agriculture Ministry does not want seed to be imported, as this would change the genetic characteristics of the local seed, which is well adapted for Afghanistan, said Stoddard.

Drought and rising global food prices have pushed up the price of certified wheat seed, said Stoddard. “We’re anticipating this will create incentive for seed companies to grow more so we can develop this,” he said.

Stoddard believes that within two to three years, Afghanistan could grow enough certified seed to meet demand.

But while USAID and other donors are trying to stimulate wheat production, Stoddard said Afghanistan had always been a net importer of wheat and its long-term future lay in producing high-value cash crops.

“Long term, we have to focus on things like planting more pomegranate, fruit and nut trees, vineyards… that’s really where the future is,” said Stoddard.

“Wheat is really kind of a supplement to those other cash crops. We just want to make it as efficient as possible,” he said.

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