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."

Whether or not poppies can effectively be turned into fuel, another option is persuading farmers to switch to more recognised biofuel crops, such as switchgrass and other "second-generation" biomass products. Many of these crops can grow in unforgiving conditions -- an essential requirement given that much of Afghanistan's farmland isn't particularly fertile. And because they're inedible, as long as they replaced only poppies, their cultivation wouldn't have a detrimental effect on food prices. You can read more about the prospects for the production of biomass in both Afghanistan and Pakistan here.

There's no reason why Afghan farmers can't be persuaded to give up cultivating opium poppies if they're presented with a better offer. They don't grow opium because they're eager to meet the needs of Western heroin addicts. They grow it because it's profitable, and the fact that rising grain prices are causing some farmers to switch from poppies to wheat shows they're perfectly receptive to market forces. And even if the profit margins from biomass crops were roughly the same as those from poppies, farmers would surely rather grow a crop the West wants than one that's the subject of eradication efforts by NATO.

If the production of biomass could be made viable, it wouldn't be just the farmers who would benefit. Refineries to turn the crops into fuel could be built locally, providing much-needed jobs, while the Afghan economy as a whole would benefit from lower fuel costs. And if production reached sufficient levels the country could move into the export market, lessening its dependence on foreign aid.

It's a bit of a stretch to start talking about Afghanistan as the Saudi Arabia of biofuels. And it might seem an unfortunate analogy, given the precarious position the west is in with its reliance on Middle East oil. The fact is that oil wealth has rendered a generation of young Saudis feckless and open to radicalization, and Saudi money is financing terrorism. However, in this case the Afghans would be producing the raw materials themselves rather than growing corrupt, idle and embittered while foreigners do all the work.

The transformation of Afghanistan's agricultural practices, and the construction of a new industry from scratch, aren't going to happen overnight. Years of trials will likely be needed to develop crops that provide sufficient biomass yield, and markets would probably have to be regulated for a time to ensure that biomass crops were more attractive to farmers than poppies, but not so lucrative that food production suffered. (Regulation and subsidies are an anathema to many, but whatever policies the international community pursues in Afghanistan are going to entail large measures of both.) A fraction of the millions of dollars currently being pumped into the country by the international community would pay for further research and the establishment of trial farming and processing schemes.

Security would of course remain an issue. Neither the Taliban nor Aghanistan's criminal gangs are going to take kindly to the prospect of a major source of funding drying up. But they have to be tackled regardless, and no new policy could be less effective than the current one of eradicating the poppy without necessarily providing alternative sources of income for farmers: not only is it ineffective, it drives those who depend on the crop to make a living into the arms of our enemies.

Difficult as the task of turning Afghanistan into a major biofuels producer would be, the potentially huge benefits of creating a booming legitimate industry that could help to meet the world's energy needs while at the same time undermining the narco-terrorists of the Taliban, demand that we at least try. The West has nothing to lose, and possibly a great deal to gain.