Group Struggles to Fill Afghanistan's Seed Banks

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 15, 2002

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Thirty years of war and three years of severe drought have devastated the once-thriving agriculture and livestock industry in Afghanistan. One of the biggest problems facing farmers in their struggle to replant crops is a lack of seeds.

An international consortium of research institutes, relief and development organizations, universities, and aid agencies have joined to focus a multimillion dollar effort to rebuild Afghanistan's agricultural industry.

"What exists on the ground at the present time has been severely weakened," said John Dodds, a genetic resource specialist with the International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). "The goal of the consortium is to reignite the seed system in Afghanistan. The challenge is to ensure that agricultural reconstruction efforts are based on the best science available."

ICARDA is the lead organization in the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan.

Agriculture was the largest and most important sector of the economy in Afghanistan; the country was agriculturally self sufficient until the Soviet Union invaded in 1978. Prior to that, the country exported sheep products, fruits, and vegetables. But years of strife compounded by drought have caused the loss of 50 to 60 percent of the livestock, and, far from exporting food, the country's people have been surviving to a large extent on food sent by international relief agencies.

The consortium faces a daunting task. The country's human resources have been devastated as well as the infrastructure, said Nasrat Wassimi, an Afghani scientist who helped establish the country's seed banks, only to see them destroyed during the fighting in Kabul in 1992.

"A lot of our trained people have either died or fled the country," he said. "So we will have to retrain people. The irrigation infrastructure has been neglected or destroyed. We had 21 research stations and now there are only four or five that are operable. Even the movement of plant material is difficult; it could take two to three days to get from Kabul to Bamain [a distance of less than 100 miles/160 kilometers], and you're lucky to get there." Wassimi, who now works with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the consortium partners, is getting ready to return to Afghanistan to help deal with problems.

Coordinating the science is as important as providing seed stock, fertilizer, and vaccinations, said Dodds. "NGOs (non-government organizations) and other donor agencies motivated by the best intentions often buy material that is ill-adapted to the climate, or that might introduce new plant diseases into a country. One of the strengths of the consortium is that it's engaging major NGO groups that are already in contact with people in Afghanistan, while at the same time keeping a rigorous focus on the best science available."

Devastated Seed Banks

Plant geneticists view the loss of the seed banks as a major disaster. Seed banks, which are maintained in every country and at research centers around the world, are the storehouses of a country's genetic plant heritage.

"The gene banks held seeds that had been passed through generations of farmers and were especially adapted to the growing requirements of Afghanistan, as well as seeds that had been collected of native wild plants," said Wassimi. "This is what we seek to replace."

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