KABUL, 30 May 2002 -- A ground-breaking Code of Conduct governing seed production, distribution and importation in emergency situations has been reached among International and national organisations and donors in Afghanistan, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced today.

The guidelines, which were agreed following three days of intense discussions at the end of last week in the Afghan capital, Kabul, are aimed at supporting local agricultural systems and markets, as well as the genetic resources of Afghanistan, all of which are threatened by the unregulated import of untested, and possibly useless, seeds.

The workshop, Future Harvest Consortium Workshop on Guiding Principles for Seed Sector Interventions, was organised by the Ministry of Agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research for Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). It brought together aid organisations and government agencies involved in seed production, procurement and distribution on both long-term and emergency bases.

The Code of Conduct stipulates that seed produced or supplied in an emergency situation should be of a quality required by local farmers. It should not distort the local seed systems and it should be aimed at building the foundation for a sustainable seed supply system in the future. As much as possible, says the Code, seed should be produced locally to ensure its adaptation to the local environment - a crucial point given Afghanistan's varied landscape and agriculture.

The Code will act as a framework for cooperation essential to avoid competition and duplication among humanitarian agencies, ensuring that short-term measures aimed at alleviating immediate, post-war food insecurity should not jeopardise the long-term ability of Afghan farmers to achieve food self-sufficiency and establish export markets in cereal and high-value crops such as pistachios and fruit.

Agriculture, as Afghanistan's Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Sayed Hussain Anwari, told the workshop, is the backbone of the country's economy. Wheat is the staple food for most of the country's 14 million people, followed by maize, pulses, rice and vegetables, and it is therefore at the heart of Afghanistan's post-war recovery.

"This is a really timely and important initiative," says Adji Ismet-Hakim, FAO's Officer in Charge in Afghanistan. "With the recent influx of funding it is essential to avoid duplication and competition between agencies. FAO is a neutral inter-governmental agency with years of experience in the country and special expertise in seed programme development and capacity building. The Organization therefore wholeheartedly endorses these guidelines as the cornerstone of Afghanistan's post-war agricultural development."

But, says Anthony Fitzherbert, FAO's Senior Agricultural Advisor in the country, "since September 11, the perception of an emergency seed insecurity situation in the country has led some humanitarian agencies to cut technical corners and procure and distribute seed without testing it for quality or suitability."

"Already there have been some reports of harvest failures as a result of inappropriate or non rust-resistant seed aid distributed in 2001. Not only does this lead to household food insecurity but it also undermines confidence in the quality seeds that Afghan farmers have been producing under the FAO seed multiplication scheme for the last twenty years. FAO has already started a detailed survey of the various wheat varieties distributed to farmers to try to phase out rust-susceptible varieties from the seed programme.

FAO's seed multiplication programmes have been maintained continuously since 1982, when the first in-country programme was set up with the parastatal Afghan Improved Seed Enterprise (ISE) as implementing partner. In 1986 the first wheat variety observation trials were carried out using genetic material from Pakistan and other countries.

By 1988, when a cross border programme was established to assist agricultural rehabilitation as Soviet forces withdrew, FAO was immediately able to start a seed multiplication and procurement programme based on quality tested varieties and using a network of farmers contracted to produce Quality Declared Seed, which they exchanged for food seed or cash. Between 1994 and 2001 no less than 15 improved wheat varieties and ten other crop varieties (rice, barley, chickpea and bean) were released into the fields of Afghanistan and are currently being used for seed production.

Because rural communities were involved in testing and selecting seed varieties from the beginning, a resilient nationwide seed production infrastructure was created which has survived the years of looting and upheaval. This includes six testing centres in different areas of the country, 21 seed production units managed by NGOs and communities, 14 mobile and one high capacity seed processing units which can process more than 15,000 MT a year and a National Seed Centre and two sub centres used for storing and processing germplasm.

"Thanks to FAO's activities in the country since the 1980s, Afghanistan is the only country in the world which is emerging from war still able to provide local seed for replanting," says Narindra Tunwar, FAO's Senior Technical Advisor in Kabul. "Today more than 4000 contract seed producers across the country are producing almost 10,000 MT a year of quality seed - and this despite the challenges they have faced. In 1988 the country was dependent on imported seed; today it can meet its requirements of major cereal crops and pulses, and soon we hope to see an export market established."
In 1988 the devastation after ten years of war was greater than it is today yet the country attained almost 80 per cent self sufficiency in food grains in just a decade. "Since 1999 it is drought not war that has seriously damaged agricultural production in Afghanistan," continues Mr Tunwar. "Now we have rains, we can move quickly towards sustainable food security."