Stealing a march on winter, UN pre-positions food aid for hungry Afghans

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The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has already delivered 23,000 tons of food for nearly 1 million Afghans, some of whom will be cut off from supplies once winter's bitter cold arrives and heavy snows set in.

This represents nearly two-thirds of the 36,000 tons that WFP plans to deliver during the winter, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) spokesperson Nilab Mobarez told a news conference in Kabul, the capital.

Between January and 13 November this year there have been 25 armed attacks against commercial vehicles carrying WFP food, resulting the loss of some 870 tons of food worth about $520,000 - enough to have fed almost 100,000 vulnerable people for one month.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called for more investment in agriculture throughout Afghanistan. "At the moment investment in agriculture is very little," FAO country representative Tekeste Tekie told the news conference, noting that because of drought this year's harvest was 38 per cent lower than in 2007, which itself was not a good year.

"FAO's message for the donor community and the Government of Afghanistan is that preventing shortages of food in the future requires investing in irrigation and high-yielding crop varieties, to help Afghanistan produce the food that it needs. Although emergency measures for drought and winter-affected farmers are essential, FAO always emphasizes food production for humans as well as animal feed inside the country. And this means more investment in agriculture."

Such investment would also reward farmers who switch to wheat from cultivating opium poppies, the source of heroin, with Afghanistan producing over 90 per cent of the world's supplies of the drug.

"This year I expect that the plantation of wheat is more attractive as the price is very high," Mr. Tekie said. "Even without the current good price of wheat one can show that if we increase yields of wheat and use the irrigation effectively and double it, wheat cultivation can be more profitable than poppy cultivation."

He noted that Afghanistan has potential, with very good land and plenty of rivers and water. "So if we expand irrigation and use certified seeds we can double current yields and minimize the food requirement from outside," he added, referring to quality seeds.

The current supply of certified seed accounts for only 5 per cent of the total annual wheat seed requirement of about 300,000 tons.