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Global Ideas

Tapping Afghanistan's crop diversity to feed the world

Decades of war have had a huge impact on biodiversity and agriculture in Afghanistan. Efforts are on to tap farming knowledge and preserve ancient crop varieties that are key to securing the world's food supply.

Fruit vendors pulling carts loaded with brightly colored fresh fruits deftly weave between cars on Kabul's traffic-clogged streets. Wooden stands covered in blue tarpaulin display huge mounds of pomegranate, grapes and apricots -- the city’s slums fanning out behind them up into the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

Fruit vendors on Kabul's traffic-clogged streets

Fruit sellers are often seen on Kabul's busy roads

In the West, Afghanistan is usually associated with the arid desert, guns and war. But, what's often forgotten is that the country is rich in biodiversity and well known among its neighbors for its delicious fruit and agricultural produce. Afghanistan is also thought to be one of the first places on earth where ancient humans farmed the land. And, it's home to ancient crop varieties important for maintaining the diversity and security of the world's food supply.

"The founder crops all come from this part of the world, in an area from Tajikistan down through Uzbekistan into Afghanistan and down into Pakistan," said Andrew Scanlon, country program manager for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Afghanistan. "The original wheats that were developed when humans first settled on the land, are still grown in villages here."

Agriculture is hugely important to Afghanistan with some 70 to 80 percent of the population involved in the sector. But 30 years of war and conflict have not only taken their toll on Afghanistan's population, they've also had a huge impact on biodiversity and led to a loss of important traditional farming knowledge.

"The conflict also led to a breakdown in memory and understanding of local, traditional knowledge about very complex and ancient systems of agriculture – knowledge that was being passed on from the grandfather, to the father, to the son," said Scanlon.

For instance, during years of war, knowledge of companion cropping was lost, as was much of the country’s ancient irrigation system known as "karez". The karez transport water underground from mountainous regions, avoiding evaporation in Afghanistan’s arid environment, and were traditionally maintained on the village level. About a quarter of these are still functional, but Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock is planning to revive the rest rather than turn to other irrigation methods.

International and national NGOs, universities and the Afghan government are now working to regain that knowledge through education programs and cultivation of Afghanistan's endemic crops.

Feeding Afghanistan and the world

World agricultural production depends on a surprisingly small number of crops. About 150 crops are cultivated on a significant scale globally, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization that seeks to maintain crop diversity by storing seeds from around the world.

Kids peering at huge slabs of naan bread

Wheat is a staple in Afghanistan famous for its naan bread

These crops comes in different forms, both domesticated and wild, and can vary in ways like color and flavor, but also in tolerance to disease, pests, and differing temperatures depending from where they originate. These traits can be combined in "an almost infinite number of ways", according to the trust – something which humans have been doing for millenia by keeping the best seeds and breeding and cross breeding them to bring out different characteristics.

Many varieties have disappeared as farmers turn to those with higher yields and bigger profits, but it is necessary to maintain crop diversity to ensure food security in the future. One way of doing so is returning to the origins of farming, said Scanlon.

"The only way to get the genetic diversity required by large agricultural producers and to avoid [crops] getting diseases, is by coming back to places like this and developing local variations of the original species," added Scanlon.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock is currently working on a seed certification system mainly for endemic varieties of wheat – an important crop in Afghanistan for both economic and cultural reasons – to promote the use of good seed in local varieties among farmers.

Farmers working on on vineyard

The Afghan government and NGOs are working with farmers to cultivate new and old farming knowledge

"The government is able to give every year between 5,000 and 10,000 of certified wheat seeds to farmers," said Javid Qaem, director general at the agriculture ministry."They can increase their yields per unit of land like this. But there are examples of where farmers prefer their own seeds or the seeds of their local areas or their neighbors and they want to use it, so we need to do more awareness here."

Still, wheat is not the only crop organizations are working on. Roots of Peace, a US-based NGO that works to unearth landmines and build sustainable agriculture in post-conflict countries, is collaborating with Afghan farmers to develop and maintain old local fruit varieties and orchards in the country rather than bringing in species from outside.

"In the west, we produce fruit that looks good on the shelf but you buy tomatoes and they have no taste at all,” said Gary Kuhn, the organization’s president, adding that the "old world" or heritage fruit found in countries like Afghanistan taste much better than modern variations in the US and Europe.

When the organization first arrived in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after the Taliban were ousted, many farmers were unable to access their land because the countryside was blanketed with mines. The largest orchard they found had just 35 trees and in many cases the they were barely alive, said Kuhn.

In 11 years, the organization, which employs mainly Afghans, has established 25,000 orchards with about 150 trees each. This may be small by western standards, but farmers have seen their earnings jump from around $1,000 to $3,000-5,000 a year, said Kuhn.

Tapping traditional knowledge

Apart from rehabilitating farmland degraded and neglected through years of conflict and the perils of demining, educating and learning from Afghan farmers has been another major challenge for organizations working in the country.

"What happened is that there was fighting for 27 years -- that's a whole generation," said Kuhn. "The typical scenario was the father had been killed and now the son was there trying to get the vineyard going. He was maybe five years old when he was running around the vineyards before the fighting started and now he is trying to recollect what his father did in the vineyard. So, he kind of knew he had to do certain things but they were a little bit off on everything."

Roots of Peace and others are working to recover this lost knowledge and introduce appropriate new farming techniques as well as providing agricultural information to farmers. This provides ample input for Afghanistan's Ministry for Agriculture which is now creating its own local language information system with the support of the University of California, Davis and is improving its agricultural extension initiatives as a way of pushing information on new agricultural practices out to farmers.

"We have an extension directorate that goes out to farmers and tells them about new technologies, how to fight pests and diseases," said Qaem. "Or if we have a new (crop) variety from our research department."

But, Qaem says local conditions and traditional farming methods need to be considered too.

“For example, we did see a couple of examples where machines were brought from outside but they were not that useful or efficiently used here either because of the terrain or because the farmers didn’t want it,” said Qaem.

Challenges remain

Qaem said the government has big plans to further improve agriculture in the country, particularly in the area of post-harvest activities. A plan for a network of cold storage units would help farmers to keep their harvested crops fresh, for example.

Still, ongoing problems with landmines, deep corruption, the international military withdrawal and threat of insurgency could make progress patchy. Farmers working with the government, NGOs and women all face threats and it can be difficult to travel to certain areas for those reasons.

“Those are challenges for the whole country, but they are our challenges as well,” said Qaem.