Afghan agriculture improvement efforts

Agricultural improvement efforts through the Norman Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture and other Texas A&M System experts are helping bring economic and social stability to Afghanistan, said Dr. Edwin Price, the institute’s director.

“In President Obama’s recent national address on Afghanistan, he said the U.S. would also be focusing on non-military assistance to that country and specifically mentioned agriculture as a way to improve the lives of the Afghan people,” Price said. “I’m proud to say that for more than seven years the Borlaug Institute has provided in-country agricultural support to the Afghan people, plus has recently been involved in efforts to help the Department of Defense assess Afghanistan’s agricultural sector.”

The Borlaug Institute, named after the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the green revolution, is part of Texas A&M University, where Dr. Borlaug served as a distinguished professor of international agriculture from 1984 until his death in September. The institute continues Borlaug’s mission of improving agriculture in poor and developing nations.

Since 2002, the institute has been involved in agricultural development efforts in Afghanistan, including leading a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project to help Afghanistan’s traditional nomadic herdsmen, known as the Kuchi, Price said. Partners in that project include Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Texas AgriLife Research Center for Natural Resource Information Technology, University of California-Davis, Mercy Corps, and the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Temple.

“More than 80 percent of Afghanistan’s livestock production originates with the Kuchi, who number about 3 million nationwide,” he said. “Our Pastoral Engagement, Adaptation and Capacity Enhancement, or PEACE, project has been helping them improve livestock production, manage rangeland and natural resources, and use modern technology to their advantage.”

Price said not only has the project helped the Kuchi improve their livelihood, it also has helped them address tribal clashes by introducing them to conflict resolution techniques.

“For years, the Kuchi and Hazara have had conflicts over access to important rangelands in Afghanistan which are vital to supporting irrigated agriculture in its lowlands,” he said. “Project personnel, working with one of President Karzai’s advisors and the Independent Department for Kuchi Affairs, have provided several conflict resolution workshops to Kuchi and Hazara tribal leaders.”

He said the workshops address effective communication skills and mediation techniques for settling disputes.

“Basically what we’ve been doing through the project is helping the Kuchi reduce the variety of risks associated with their livelihood, which is producing and selling livestock,” said Dr. Michal Jacobs, a research scientist with Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the in-country chief of party.

“Years of conflict and drought have severely affected Afghanistan’s livestock sector,” Jacobs said. “Improving it depends on helping the Kuchi develop better rangeland management techniques, enhance their animal production practices and improve how they market their livestock.”

The project also has been successful at employing new technology to help the herders make better decisions regarding their livestock, he added. One example is the use of a livestock early warning system originally created by Texas A&M rangeland and livestock specialists for use in another USAID-funded project serving East Africa and Mongolia.

The most recent institute efforts in Afghanistan include coordinating the activities of five Texas A&M faculty and others associated with the university assigned as a team of agricultural assessment specialists to help evaluate Afghanistan’s current agricultural situation.

“We were asked by the Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations to do a rapid agricultural assessment, which we did for the Afghan provinces of Kabul, Herāt, Nangarhar and Balkh,” said Dr. Glen Shinn, the team’s leader.

Shinn, a professor and international agriculture development specialist at Texas A&M, estimates that 80 percent of the workforce in those four provinces is involved in agriculture.

His team’s three-week assessment included a review of the provinces’ agricultural capacity, production, processing, distribution, and marketing. Their efforts included assessing agricultural colleges and faculty and their “knowledge delivery systems,” determining potential agriculture ministry support for needed improvements, understanding existing agricultural practices, and evaluating the quality of agricultural extension education.

“We looked at all links in the agricultural value chain from gate to plate to see where Afghan producers might improve their agricultural practices,” he said. “The Afghans we met in those provinces were very receptive and interested in suggestions or advice we had to offer.”

Shinn said the team addressed issues ranging from developing agricultural capacity, to natural resource use and conservation, crop variety and selection, improving production practices and value-added processing.

“One of the things people may not realize is that the quality of most of the vegetables grown in these provinces is excellent, but there’s no ‘cold chain’ for refrigeration so they can’t get them to distant markets while they’re still fresh,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that should be implemented before the Afghan farmer can export products.”

Shinn said he hoped the efforts by his team would help the Afghans become better stewards of their soil and water resources, benefit from improved crop genetics and overcome limiting factors such as outdated technology and limited access to credit at the farm level.

He added that the team’s report, including specific recommendations on how Afghanistan might improve and expand its agricultural sector, is being used to focus assistance that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

“From what we experienced with the farmers we visited with in Afghanistan, they are open to new ideas and receptive to collaboration,” Shinn said. “They’ve been through a lot, and now they’re ready for something better.”

“We hope the agricultural efforts through the Borlaug Institute and supported by other university entities, faculty, staff and project partners will help in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and create a better future for the Afghan people,” Price added.

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