Agriculture in Afghanistan: Restoring alternatives to poppy

News and Press Release
Originally published
High-value horticultural crops possess the best potential for replacing the lucrative opium poppy crop in Afghanistan, but there are no quick or easy solutions in sight. Decades of war and four years of drought have left the agricultural infrastructure in a state of collapse. To achieve food security, Afghan farmers need adequate, safe and secure water supplies as well as ready access to credit, fertilizer, and quality seed. In the meantime, poppy production is still seen by many Afghan farmers as the only means of providing their families with food and shelter.
Essential data on the state of agriculture has been gathered directly from Afghan farmers by a series of need assessments carried out by the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan. Led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the Consortium efforts are primarily funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Teams of field workers and scientists braved considerable danger to interview farmers throughout Afghanistan over the past 12 months.

Prior to the prolonged war and drought, Afghan households were able to produce about 86 percent of their food; now they expect to cover about 59 percent of their total food requirement. Access to quality seed of improved varieties would greatly reduce rural poverty and hunger, according to the findings of the crop improvement and seed assessments.

Following the departure of the Taliban, poppy production in Afghanistan has rebounded to levels that re-establish the country as a leading producer of opium for the illegal drug trade. A recent report released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime indicates that opium production in Afghanistan is estimated at 3,400 metric tons. Poppies are estimated to earn approximately eight times more income per hectare than wheat with less water, less labor and fewer inputs.

The cultivation of opium poppies is concentrated more in the southwest, particularly in Helmand Province, although it is also fairly common in Nangahar and Badakhshan. Farmers in other provinces also grow poppies to some extent.

Poppy has been a source of credit to offset the losses caused by drought and to get farming operations back on their feet. The high value of the crop allows farmers, particularly returning refugees, to raise capital for buying livestock and other inputs for farming.

Horticultural crops like pistachios, citrus fruit, figs, dates and almonds once accounted for 30- to 50-percent of Afghanistan's export earnings. Because the typical Afghan farmer owns less than 2 hectares of land, horticulture fits the need for high value crops that can be grown on small landholdings.

Today, horticultural exports are negligible. As the agricultural sector recovers, it will still have to contend with increased global competition. The high expectations for global products require greater focus on quality, consistency, packaging and marketing.

Dr. Patrick Brown of the University of California, Davis, presented many of these findings as part of a horticultural needs assessment. Fruit and nuts hold considerable potential for improving the nutrition and incomes of farm households, and could provide an alternative to poppy cultivation in the future.

For example, Afghanistan is the country of origin for over 60 different varieties of almonds. There may be considerable value in protecting and developing these unique almond varieties for international markets.

However, many of the Afghan horticultural operations no longer exist. Entire orchards have died due to lack of water and the trees burnt for fuel. Nurseries need to develop saplings for native varieties, which will take years. Training on advanced horticultural practices and techniques is necessary. All of this depends on better water management, deeper wells will have to be dug and irrigation systems built. Even after new trees become established, considerable investment is needed for storage facilities, transportation and marketing.

Much has already been done by the Future Harvest Consortium to meet the Afghan emergency. ICARDA provided more than 3,500 tonnes of improved, high-quality wheat seed to farmers in time for spring planting in 2002, and local growers were contracted to produce 5,000 tonnes of seed for the fall planting. Still more seed of other crops, including native Afghan crop varieties lost during the recent drought were repatriated from ICARDA's germplasm collection and are being evaluated by Afghan crop scientists for potential release to farmers.

The International Potato Center (CIP) provided 22 tonnes of quality seed of adapted potato varieties from Pakistan and India for evaluation and multiplication. CIP is also providing training to local farmers in quality seed production. To date, more than US$1 million has been injected into the economy of Afghanistan as part of the Future Harvest Consortium's seed procurement, cleaning, and distribution process.

Representatives from the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, United States universities, non-governmental organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the private sector, and member centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research took part in reviewing the assessments and making recommendations for rebuilding Afghan agriculture. The meeting was held at ICARDA headquarters in Aleppo, Syria on November 18-20, 2002.

While it is doubtful any crop can compete with opium poppies for profit potential, rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure of Afghanistan will provide economic alternatives for farmers. Once they know that they can support their families, the transition to other crops is at least possible.


ICARDA's ( mission is to improve the welfare of people and alleviate poverty through research and training in dry areas of the developing world by increasing production, productivity, and nutritional quality of food, while preserving and enhancing the natural resource base. ICARDA is a Future Harvest Center supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

The International Potato Center (CIP) ( seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweet potato, and other root and tuber crops, and on the improved management of natural resources in the Andes and other mountain areas. CIP is a Future Harvest Center supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.

Future Harvest ( is a global nonprofit organization that builds awareness and support for food and environmental research for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment. Future Harvest supports the 16 food and environmental research centers that are primarily funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (

USAID is the government agency providing U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years (

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) ( is a strategic alliance of 58 members and 16 Future Harvest Centers that mobilizes cutting-edge science to promote sustainable development by reducing hunger and poverty, improving human nutrition and health, and protecting the environment.

For further information contact:

Jason Wettstein, Communications Officer
Future Harvest Foundation
+1 202 473-3553