DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - As the United States struggles to end the longest war in its history in Afghanistan, agriculture is becoming a crucial part of its long-term strategy.
Donors, government officials and food industry executives say the United States, the world's most productive grower and exporter of food and fiber, is making progress in efforts to reestablish Afghan agriculture ravaged by decades of war.
"The most important determinant of peace is food security. When people are starving it leads to a lot of instability. And food aid in the traditional sense is not the answer," Jeff Raikes, chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in an interview at the annual World Food Prize Forum, a conference on food issues.
"The answer is to equip people to be able to grow their food and feed themselves. I'm glad to see the U.S. administration appears to be really coming around to this idea," said Raikes, whose foundation is one of the world's biggest philanthropies.
In interviews at the food conference, leaders said hopes that Afghanistan's farm sector can lead the country's recovery focus on growing fruits, nuts and livestock, with Pakistan eyed as a primary export market.
The U.S. strategy intends to undermine Afghanistan's poppy growing, which became a huge cash crop for traders and militants that keeps the country atop lists of leading opium producers in the world.
Mohammad Rahimi, Afghanistan's agriculture minister, told the forum that 30 years of warfare starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979 had gutted the nation's food and farm exporting capacity. Afghanistan at one time supplied 20 percent of the world's raisins.
"But in 30 years of war our agricultural production dropped by 3 percent a year. In 2001-2007 drought caused the majority of livestock to perish," Rahimi said.
"The war and drought stopped the nonfarm economy and ended our onfarm jobs. Many Afghan farmers had to plant poppy or watch their children starve," he said.
But Rahimi said that farmer aid and education programs were starting to make real headway in cutting poppy cultivation.
In 2007, he said the Afghan poppy crop was estimated to cover 193,000 hectares, producing 8,200 metric tons of poppy seeds for opium production. By 2009, plantings were down to 123,000 hectares yielding 6,900 metric tons of seed. In 2010, production is expected to fall nearly in half to 3,600 metric tons of seed, he said, although a fungal blight also affected this year's crop.
"We try to encourage Afghan farmers to convert from growing something that is not legal to something that is. We are trying to make the case to them economically there's profit to be made," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview.
"The challenge is in poppy production there is very little risk. There is no input cost, no transport expense because the product is picked up at the farm gate. If you are going to grow pomegranates or grow saffron or apricots, you have to put the crop in, harvest it and transport it. That involves risk."
But Vilsack said USDA staff working in Afghanistan had made inroads with local farmers, both in educating them on returns, on supporting production and cultivation, and on marketing.
In 2009, he said, estimated net returns for Afghan farmers producing poppy averaged $2,390 per hectare. By comparison, wheat returns were only $320 per hectare. But returns for pomegranate were $12,828 per hectare, almonds $16,068, and trellised grapes $18,194.
"It shows there is greater profit to be gained from the production of other cash crops other than poppy," Vilsack said.
"Our challenge is to reduce the risk and then make farmers aware of the great reward," Vilsack said. "We are seeing more and more acceptance. It is central to the security of Afghanistan and to our success there."
Both Rahimi and Pakistan Agriculture Minister Nazar Gondal visited with university agricultural extension specialists at Iowa State University during the forum, studying the U.S. model of public-private support for farming research that is a backbone of U.S. food productivity, the world's highest.
Private firms express interest in developing producers and marketing in Afghanistan. But many say security remains too uncertain to make substantial commitments.
"Clearly there are security issues," Greg Page, chief executive of global agribusiness giant Cargill Inc, told Reuters in an interview.
"Crops like pomegranate, we don't have expertise. But there are other things that go on a big scale in Afghanistan particularly on livestock, where we have made it clear through the Department of Defense and through US AID that we are prepared to bring those people out and put them into our businesses for six months or longer. Those are things we can do in the near term."
Raikes of the Gates Foundation said private firms will increasingly have to play such roles for strategy to work.
"If you think of it not just shipping surplus food to these countries but if you think of it as what is an appropriate set of our research work that we can share that will help lift up their own agricultural sectors, then I think you're building something that is sustainable for the long term."
Reporting by Christine Stebbins, Editing by Peter Bohan and Cynthia Osterman