04/18/2008, 00.00
AFGHANISTAN
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Afghanistan could feed its population and avert the world food crisis

All it would have to do is replace its massive opium production with wheat, and it could feed the Afghan population, 70% of which suffers from hunger. A study by the FAO, the UN food and agriculture agency, has revealed that by devoting more money to irrigation systems, this dream could become reality.

Kabul (AsiaNews/Agencies) - If instead of the fields of poppies there were expanses of wheat, 18 million Afghans who today suffer from hunger would have enough food.  With these statements - which appear a bit naive - the experts of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have declared that by better using international funds, the development of new irrigation and technology systems for agriculture could be realised.  But the most difficult thing is convincing Afghan farmers to change their extensive opium cultivation to the production of wheat, fruit, and vegetables.

According to data supplied by the UN, Afghanistan uses 193,000 hectares of land for the cultivation of poppy, and produces more than 90% of the opium in circulation.  The estimates reveal that by the end of 2008, the country will produce more than 8,200 tonnes of raw opium.

According to some experts, the world economic crisis and the dizzying rise in food prices everywhere could prompt farmers to convert their poppy fields to wheat.  In fact, the price of wheat has risen from 157 dollars per tonne in January to 500 dollars in April of this year.

Tekeste Ghebray Tekie, the FAO representative in Afghanistan, is certain that by growing wheat with the appropriate irrigation systems, more than two and a half tons per hectare could be produced. "If you use this land for high cash crops like vegetables, fruit or cotton", Tekeste says, "then the contribution to food security will be enormous".

Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan had much more irrigated land, but the irrigation systems were destroyed during the war.  After the United States military intervention in the country, begun in October of 2001, 15 billion dollars in international aid was invested.  But according to Oxfam, only 300 million of this has been earmarked for agriculture.

"The impression one gets from outside", Tekeste comments, "is that Afghanistan is a mountainous, hilly country, that it does not grow any crops, but if you go to the west of the country, the south, north and northeast it's a food basket, it could even export food".

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