Richard Holbrooke announced in Rome on Saturday that the U.S. will shift anti-poppy efforts in Afghanistan away from destroying crops and toward supporting alternatives. How easy is it to grow poppy?
Quite. Poppy seeds are tiny, hardy, and inexpensive. Soil preparation is minimal, and little fertilizer is required. The seeds can simply be scattered on the field rather than drilled into the ground. (Sowing most grains with this technique will result in a patchy and unproductive field.) Although poppy requires a fair amount of water, alternative crops—like wheat—will die much more quickly in times of drought.
The problem with poppy comes at harvest. Most farm work is still done by hand in Afghanistan, and harvesting anything is difficult. Take wheat, for example. Lacking a gas-powered combine, farmers reap the old-fashioned way—by swinging a scythe or an even less efficient sickle. (Most communities or extended families do share a mechanized thresher—a not-insignificant capital expense—to separate the wheat from the chaff.) But poppy is more costly by at least an order of magnitude. Workers slice into the pod, permitting the crude opium sap to ooze out and dry on the shell. They return later in the day to scrape the sap, then scrape once or twice more the next day. Because individual farmers cannot complete the process for even a small field before most of the pods die, they have to hire an army of migrant laborers from throughout South Asia. More than 350,000 workers are required for the Helmand Province harvest alone. Because the harvest is limited to about a six-week window, labor is expensive. The process is also dangerous. Most harvesters, many of them children, develop opium addictions or serious health problems by absorbing the sap through their skin. (Some farmers can tell when it's time to harvest poppy because they wake up with headaches and nausea from the fumes.)
At about $2,000 per acre, no annual crop can match poppy in terms of gross revenue. (This is an average—prices are higher for farmers closer to the Pakistan border and thus the international market.) Even at the historically high prices of 2008, wheat didn't clear one-fifth of that. This is a staggering sum for Afghan farmers, most of whom work small farms of less than two jiribs (that's about one acre). But due to the labor investment, the actual profit on one acre of poppy (about $850), while still higher than wheat ($200), is far less than for other traditional Afghan crops like grapes ($1,000), pomegranates ($5,000), and almonds ($6,000). Unfortunately, without international aid—which is difficult to deliver in Taliban-infested regions like Helmand—most Afghan farmers can't afford to wait the few years it takes to get a fruit or nut orchard up and running.
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