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Afghanistan’s Food Crisis Could Have Been Avoided

As an Afghan citizen who has been living in the US since 2021, I have watched with dismay as the situation in my country deteriorates. The nation’s growing hunger is particularly distressing — Afghanistan is on the brink of famine, with 9 out of 10 families unable to afford enough food.

The lead-up to this crisis has been long and complex. But as the country’s former director of agricultural extension, tasked with modernising its subsistence farming system, I can’t help but look back at all the missed opportunities, especially when it comes to food. 

The US spent two decades in Afghanistan and yet there are many ways in which America, its allies and aid groups could have better supported agricultural growth. After the Taliban fell in 2001, agriculture was not prioritised, even though farming forms the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy. Under-investment in the sector, compared with spending on the military, infrastructure, and others, held back progress, especially in the first decade of the US occupation. 

In addition, not enough development projects focused on wheat, Afghanistan’s staple food crop. Afghan wheat yields are considerably lower than the global average, contributing to chronic hunger. Conflict drives low productivity, but even in times of relative stability farmers in the country lack high-quality fertiliser, improved seeds and training.

America’s longstanding policy against helping nations develop crops that could compete against US exports may have contributed. This policy was modified in 2011 but, in my experience, it left a legacy of bias against staple Afghan crops.

Agricultural projects in Afghanistan have also been plagued by other inefficiencies stemming from state corruption, miscommunication and poor understanding of local needs. During my years with the country’s ministry of agriculture and the provincial government in Herat, there was no meaningful data exchange or co-ordination between international groups and the government. This led to low-impact projects while important needs, such as quality controls for fertilisers, went unmet.

Hunger forced many Afghan farmers to turn to more profitable endeavours. In Herat, I witnessed the Taliban’s recruitment drive in rural areas, where fighting paid more than farming. Some farmers also resorted to growing opium poppies, which fuel the illegal drug trade.

Today, with the Taliban in control, applying these lessons is extremely challenging. But they also affect other fragile states. I recently co-authored a report, commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation, which found that increased spending on agricultural research and development would mitigate geopolitical risks such as extremism and poverty in poor countries.

The US and others must prioritise agricultural development in their foreign policy agendas. Support for developing countries needs to go beyond emergency food aid. In particular, America’s Feed the Future initiative requires continued robust funding to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.

America and its allies should also increase financial support for national agricultural research and extension systems in developing countries and scientific organisations such as CGIAR. This would help countries develop tailored solutions for their own challenges, such as seeds bred for specific climates and soils. It would also enable local farmers to access training on irrigation methods and planting.

Agriculture-led growth is one of the most effective ways to lift people out of hunger and poverty. Conflict is a major driver of hunger and Afghanistan is not the only country struggling with these challenges. Increasing support for agricultural research and development is vital for preventing food crises and promoting security on a global level.

Source : FinancialTimes