The UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet recently said of Afghanistan, “In the wake of years of conflict, and since the takeover by the Taliban in August last year, the country has been plunged into a deep economic, social, humanitarian and human rights crisis” (UN News 2022a). International humanitarian agencies and NGOs have persisted in supporting the population, half of whom are suffering food insecurity, and some of whom are facing unprecedented and catastrophic levels of hunger (UN News 2022b). The conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating the crises in poor import-dependent countries and humanitarian programmes, and Afghanistan will be among the most affected (Bentley and Donovan 2022).
The rural sector underlies Afghanistan’s economic potential, with agriculture as the foundation of the economy. Wheat, both irrigated and rainfed, is the principal agricultural crop, and bread is the major component of the Afghan diet. For decades the country has relied for food security on neighbors such as Kazakhstan and Pakistan and import dependence appears to be a permanent feature of the agricultural economy (Sharma and Nang 2018).
In a recent paper published in Plants, People, Planet, CIMMYT scientists and partners from SOAS University of London, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, FAO-Afghanistan, The HALO Trust, Afghanaid and the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan call for renewed investment in Afghanistan’s wheat and agricultural sector.
Improved CIMMYT wheat germplasm has supported agricultural development
CIMMYT’s activities in Afghanistan have focused primarily on supporting the national agricultural research system through the provision of elite, widely adapted germplasm with strong disease resistance. Recent estimates of genetic gains over 14 years (2002-2003 to 2015-2016) of testing of CIMMYT’s Elite Spring Wheat Yield Trial material across 11 locations in Afghanistan documents significant grain yield progress of 115 kg/year. Average yields across 11 testing locations ranged from 3.58 to 5.97 t/ha (Sharma et al., 2021). This indicates that yield potential can be increased through introduction and testing of internationally improved germplasm.
But such investment in research has come to a halt. Local public- and private-sector wheat breeding activities have been largely absent in Afghanistan for over a decade. Hence, wheat productivity remains low due to the limited availability of improved varieties, inadequate quality seed production and distribution. Although in the short term, humanitarian interventions are likely to be the major determinant of food security, we propose that strategic rebuilding of the wheat system will lay the foundation for restoring Afghanistan’s agricultural production, food supplies, nutrition and health. Here we signal opportunities for future improvement.
Opportunities to build climate resilience and enhance seed systems
The need for climate-resilient varieties that meet farmers’ varied requirements and consumer preferences is paramount. Afghan farmers need varieties with improved traits such as heat and drought resilience, incorporating functional variation from existing landrace collections. In addition, agronomic interventions such as conservation agriculture will offer substantial benefits in buffering environmental stresses.
The technological pathways for seed (re-)distribution are a critical part of the innovation pathway from plant breeding to production and productivity. Given the particularities of markets in Afghanistan, both the public sector and the private sector often fail to reach farming geographies that are remote, diverse, and unserved by physical and institutional infrastructure. For many years, basic public services and agricultural interventions have been provided by the NGO sector, and this form of delivery continues. Hence, local ‘informal’ systems for seed and inputs are important to smallholder farmers.
Investment to support both irrigated and rain-fed wheat production
Rehabilitation of ancient irrigation practices and infrastructure could once again serve local farming in a way that supports stable production, restores Afghan heritage, and rebuilds social cohesion. However, there are no easy solutions to the challenges of increasing irrigation to boost agriculture. Although yields are lower, there is potential to optimize breeding specifically for rain-fed production. We expect rain-fed agriculture to continue given the limitations of water and infrastructure access.
Wheat improvement must be embedded in the wider agricultural environment. There is a renewed need for a deep understanding of social, political, and cultural systems and how they vary between villages, and from districts, provinces, and regions to people groups. We need to re-envision the roles of men and women in agriculture, and investment in skills and capacity building to provide a stable foundation for the eradication of poverty and food insecurity.
A new wheat program for Afghanistan
We highlight the urgent need for:
- Resumption of breeding of nutritious and climate-resilient varieties.
- Development of a knowledge base on current wheat production systems, gendered agricultural roles, farmer needs for varietal change and consumer preferences for tasty and nutritious wheat-based products.
- Development of seed information systems using new technologies to enhance farmer engagement in research.
- Expansion of appropriate irrigation systems and development of nature-based solutions to protect soil and to preserve and conserve water.
- Investment in capacity building among private, non-governmental, university and public stakeholders in seed systems and delivery of agricultural services.
These foundations will support the wider regeneration of Afghanistan’s agricultural sector and enhance food security, nutrition and health of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Poole, N., Sharma, R., Nemat, O.A., Trenchard, R., Scanlon, A., Davy, C., Ataei, N., Donovan, J. and Bentley, A.R. (in production). Sowing the wheat seeds of Afghanistan’s future. Plants, People, Planet DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10277
Bentley, A. and Donovan, J. (2022). What price wheat? Crisis in Ukraine underscores the need for long-term solutions for global food security. Retrieved 16 June 2022, from https://www.cimmyt.org/blogs/what-price-wheat/.
Sharma, R.K. and Nang, M. (2018). Afghanistan wheat seed scenario: Status and imperatives. International Journal of Agricultural Policy and Research 6(5): 71-75 DOI: https://doi.org/10.15739/IJAPR.18.008
UN News (2022a). Afghanistan facing ‘the darkest moments’ in a generation. Retrieved 16 June 2022, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/06/1120492.
UN News (2022b). Afghanistan: Nearly 20 million going hungry. Retrieved 16 June 2022, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1117812.