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What does the food crisis mean in Afghanistan?

NATO Review speaks to the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan about the effects of the food crisis in the country, and what it means for the security situation there.

Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on Earth, has already suffered due to the food crisis. The country’s most important staple food, wheat flour, has increased an average of nearly 60 per cent in one year.

Seeing the effects of this on the country’s poor, the Afghan government requested assistance from the international community to help Afghan households with low purchasing power. An Afghan joint appeal was launched on 24 January by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme for $81 million to assist the 2.55 million Afghans most affected by the price rises.

The country’s most important staple food, wheat flour, has increased an average of nearly 60 per cent in one year

The World Food Programme has been distributing food aid over the past months to the most vulnerable segments of the Afghan population, aiming to reach a total of 2.5 million Afghans in urban and rural areas within the first half of the year under this programme.

In a separate development, Pakistan agreed on May 6 to export 50,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan to avert a food crisis there, and said it will reach an agreement on further exports with the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, discussions between the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan are ongoing to look what steps need to be taken once food from this appeal comes to an end. These include importing wheat to meet short-term food needs, looking at the viability of creating strategic grain reserves in the medium term, and building the capacity of Afghanistan's agricultural sector in the longer term, so that Afghanistan can become self-sufficient in food, with the assistance of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

NATO Review asked the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – which leads the efforts of the international community in Afghanistan together with the country’s government – what these developments have meant for people and security on the ground in Afghanistan, where NATO leads the International Security Assistance Force.

NATO Review: What practical security issues have you seen raised by the shortage of affordable food in Afghanistan?

UNAMA: As a result of the higher food prices, meeting basic food needs is extremely problematic for millions of Afghans. Practical security issues include demonstrations (resulting also from a lack of awareness by the general public in Afghanistan that the rising food prices are part of a global phenomenon) and possibly increased vulnerability of young men to recruitment by anti-government elements. Attacks, both by criminal groups and by anti-government elements, on food aid convoys are a problem in many areas.

NR: The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s representative in Afghanistan has said that the higher price for wheat and lower price for opium could encourage Afghan farmers to switch from growing poppies to food crops. What evidence have you seen of this?

UNAMA: It is too early at this stage to say whether the higher food (wheat) prices will lead to a switch from poppy cultivation to licit crops. On the one hand, the higher prices may provide an incentive; on the other hand, there is a wide range of factors that will influence this. For instance, poppy tends to be more drought resistant than wheat; high fertilizer and fuel prices are making it expensive to plant and transport wheat, and in some cases, farmers are coerced into growing poppy and do not have a choice in the crop they grow.

There is a possibility that high food prices may be making young men more vulnerable for recruitment by anti-government elements, including the Taliban

NR: Are the worst affected areas of Afghanistan also the most volatile?

UNAMA: We have not observed a direct correlation. Generally, the population in isolated, drought-affected areas is the most vulnerable to high food prices. However, the delivery of food aid to areas with a poor security situation is of course more difficult. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), more than 30 attacks against commercial vehicles or convoys carrying WFP food were reported in 2007. In total, 870 tons of food, valued at $730,000, were lost as a result of these attacks.

NR: Do you feel that the Taliban are, or could be, taking advantage of the insecurity caused by food price difficulties?

UNAMA: There is a possibility that high food prices may be making young men more vulnerable for recruitment by anti-government elements, including the Taliban.

NR: Have you seen any evidence of the 'Comprehensive Approach' (designed to ensure civilian and military agencies work more closely together) in the response to the food situation in Afghanistan?

UNAMA: The United Nations agencies have met regularly with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) to share information on the food security situation in Afghanistan and on what measures the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan are taking to mitigate the situation.

Questions & Answers

Why are food prices suddenly going up so quickly?
What are the principal concerns regarding food and security?
Is there an end in sight?
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