Pointing to his flourishing wheat field in the western Afghan province of Herat, Abdullah says he regrets cultivating the crop.
“Wheat is very cheap,” he told IRIN, adding that he would hardly make 50,000 Afghanis (about US$1,050) from his two hectares. “I won’t be able to feed my family properly with this income.”
Several farmers contacted by IRIN in Helmand, Kandahar and Balkh provinces had similar sentiments.
Wheat is considered a strategic crop and a staple food, but imports are always required, even when there is a bumper harvest.
About seven million (over 24 percent of the country’s estimated 27 million population) are food-insecure and many others are highly vulnerable to food price fluctuations, according to aid agencies.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) distributes certified wheat seeds to encourage cultivation in rain-fed areas where other crops cannot be cultivated, but in irrigated areas it is not pushing wheat.
“We don’t encourage farmers to grow wheat because it’s not a lucrative crop,” Majeed Qarar, MAIL spokesman, told IRIN. “We encourage them to produce fruit and saffron instead.”
A farmer can earn $500-600 per hectare of wheat but the same land area can yield $25,000 if saffron is cultivated, $16,000 for pomegranates and $13,000 for almonds, MAIL officials said.
However, not all wheat-growers can easily switch from wheat to more lucrative crops: Only about a third of farmland in Afghanistan is irrigated. The rest is only suitable for rain-fed wheat cultivation, experts say.
Of the 5,064 tons of wheat produced nationwide last year 1,677 was from rain-fed fields, MAIL says.
For high-profit fruit and saffron production farmers need to invest in irrigation systems, use more labour and seek processing and marketing opportunities for their products.
Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
|WFP says it procures wheat from international markets taking into account quality and pricing|
“Our fruits are well-known for their high quality in international markets and the government is striving to facilitate better and wider export opportunities,” said MAIL’s Qarar, adding that the country could become a major exporter of fresh and dry fruit, but not a big wheat exporter.
Donors such as the US Agency for International Development have been encouraged by MAIL to fund fruit growing and exporting projects as the country tries to enter regional and international markets.
Humanitarian wheat procurement
Aid agency operations can seriously affect wheat farmers: They can help them by purchasing their grain, or they can drive down local prices by importing huge quantities from abroad. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it procured food aid items mostly from abroad in order to avoid distorting local markets.
Afghanistan is largely a food-deficit country and millions of its people have been recipients of food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), other aid agencies, and the ICRC for many years.
To respond to the needs of Afghans affected by drought, conflict and high food prices WFP distributed over 212,000 tons of wheat in 2009 - almost all of which was imported and dispatched to the different provinces along insecure routes.
In a bid to help vulnerable farmers MAIL bought 100,000 tons of wheat from provinces with a surplus in 2009, and called on WFP to follow suit.
WFP initially agreed to procure 20,000 tons from Afghan farmers but could not do so because the prices quoted by local vendors were considerably higher than international prices, Challiss McDonough, WFP’s spokeswoman in Kabul, told IRIN.
However, WFP is still keen to buy local wheat through a five-year programme called “Purchase for Progress”.
“In 2010 WFP plans to procure 10,000 tons of wheat directly from farmers’ organizations,” said McDonough, adding that other products such as fortified biscuits could also be considered for local procurement provided quality and pricing standards were met.
In March WFP purchased wheat from Kazakhstan at a cost of $255 per ton including transportation (about 25 US cents per kg), while in the same month prices were 24-34 US cents per kg in Afghanistan.