Afghanistan Should Grow Fuel, Not Drugs

In the US, gas prices are topping $4 a gallon, and the Democrat-controlled Congress continues to oppose efforts to increase domestic oil production. In Europe, farmers, fishermen and truckers have been taking to the streets to protest against rising fuel prices. And with the demand for oil from China, India and other developing nations continuing to grow, there's no prospect of a meaningful reduction in prices any time soon.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Nato troops and Western aid organizations are battling to wean farmers off the cultivation of poppies as their primary source of income. Opium, which is leached from domesticated poppies, accounts for as much as half the country's legal GDP and provides the raw material for some 90 per cent of the world's heroin, with the proceeds helping to fund the Taliban and various affiliated warlords.

While "energy security" is often cited as a key factor in the campaign to defeat Islamic terrorism, the connection between rising fuel costs and the struggle to bring stability to Afghanistan may not be immediately obvious. But these apparently disparate problems could, in part, be addressed by a common solution.

The push to generate alternative sources of energy -- initiated to address concerns over climate change but given added impetus by rising oil prices -- has seen governments rushing headlong to increase the production of biofuels. And because some of the crops from which biofuels are produced are also grown for food, the policy has contributed to a dramatic increase in global food prices, while any notional environmental benefits are being offset by the clearing of forests to grow the newly lucrative crops.

The production of crops for biofuels is already being talked about as a means of lifting some African nations out of poverty. What if Afghanistan's farmers could be persuaded to stop growing opium poppies and produce crops for biofuels instead? Such a move could have multiple benefits; reducing demand for oil without diverting land from food production, decreasing the supply of heroin, cutting off funding for terrorists and boosting the country's economy in one fell swoop.

The farmers wouldn't necessarily have to stop growing poppies . The poppy can itself be converted into "biomass," which is the raw material for biofuels. But the fact that biomass can be produced from strains of poppy engineered to be opiate-free would remove the risk that poppies grown for fuel might be diverted to the heroin trade -- one of the principle objections of the US State Department to suggestions that Afghan poppy farmers should be encouaged to "go legit" by supplying their crop to the pharmaceutical industry. (State also points out that demand for pharmaceutical opiates is already fully met by production from countries such as Turkey and Tasmania, making the idea a non-starter.)

The poppies for fuel proposal is being looked at seriously by academics and policy think tanks. Australian plant geneticist Philip Larkin has been working on the science with San Diego State University's Homeland Security program (you can read Larkin's detailed proposal for Afghanistan here.) And, in an article for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Marc Grossman, former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs writes:

"There is a potential opportunity to connect the fight against poppy cultivation and the need for new sources of energy. To test this hypothesis, the United States should fund a crash program of international research to determine whether the opium poppy can be turned into biomass for the large scale production of biodiesel and design the necessary technology to do so."