24 July 2003, Rome -- Farmers in Afghanistan are about to harvest the biggest wheat crop in two decades, said Serge Verniau, Representative of FAO in Kabul.

"This is a very encouraging development considering that the country suffered greatly from armed conflicts and a four-year drought," Verniau said in a statement released today. "We are expecting that the harvest will amount to more than 4 million tonnes. The country will still need to import an estimated one million tonnes."

An assessment report prepared by FAO and the World Food Programme will soon be published with more detailed information.

The crop situation improved after good rains, much better access to seeds and fertilizers and a more stable security situation.

Agriculture should become a main priority

"I would say that FAO's emergency activities, such as the delivery of seeds, fertilizers and tools and the successful control of potentially damaging locust outbreaks in the North, contributed to this success," Verniau added.

Around 85 percent of the Afghan population depend on agriculture. Agriculture should become a main priority regarding funding and political support. "Unfortunately, some key players still have not realized that Afghanistan's future depends very much on the development of the agricultural sector," Verniau said.

Poor diets

Chronic undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency disorders continue to be a major problem in Afghanistan, according to FAO. Particularly hard hit are small children, women, refugees and people in remote mountain areas.
"The diets of many people are unbalanced," Verniau said. "They lack energy, but most often variety. The diets are poor in micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and iodine. There are also pockets of scurvy due to vitamin C deficiency affecting people in the northern mountains during winter months."

Poverty is still widespread in the country and people have no access to a nutritious diet, or simply cannot afford it. They often live just on bread and tea, small quantities of milk and yogurt and some legumes. The intake of fruits, vegetables and meat is still very low. People are not starving, but diets are not rich enough for children to grow and to develop mentally and for adults to be productive, Verniau said.

Livestock diseases are still a threat

The situation of Afghan livestock farmers has not really improved. The outbreaks of livestock diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and peste des petits ruminants are still considerable and do pose a serious threat to neighbouring countries, according to FAO.

"It is clear that without a sound animal health strategy run by farmers and livestock agencies, livestock production could remain low and constrained by disease. FAO will run a livestock vaccination campaign to keep the worst outbreaks in selected areas under control," Verniau said.

FAO has also undertaken a country-wide livestock census to get a clear picture about how many farm animals remain after the conflict and drought in Afghanistan and under what conditions farmers are producing. This is the first census for many years.

Alternatives to poppy

Poppy production has increased by almost 20 percent compared to last year, the head of the FAO Office in Kabul said. The possibilities of introducing alternatives to poppy production such as the rehabilitation of fruit tree nurseries and vegetable seed production do exist.

"The country could, for example, try to gain market shares in niche markets such as organic and horticulture production. However, there is no immediate solution to the problem. Poppy production offers income and employment opportunities. It will take time to build credible alternatives. In addition, the conditions for law enforcement and controls have to be created."

FAO said that it has received fresh funding commitments from donors but that it is still facing a gap of $10-15 million to provide a comprehensive programme of rehabilitation of agriculture in the coming months. The European Commission, USAID, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK are the main donors.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105