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ISAF Loves High Grocery Bills: The Silver Lining in the Upcoming Food Riots

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


Last week the UN Food and Agriculture Agency issued a warning that food prices had reached dangerously high levels, surpassing the previous highs of 2007-2008, which sparked several riots all over the world and left many dead.   While we haven’t yet seen wide-scale demonstrations like last time, neighborhoods in Algiers have been overrun by protestors chanting “bring us sugar” and burning government buildings.  Further riots in a number of developing countries could happen at any time.

Trying to put a positive spin on higher food prices takes us to the southern poppy fields of Afghanistan.   As mentioned below, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan cultivates more poppy than all other countries combined (they’re pretty good at growing pot, too), and has the highest relative rates of opium addiction in the world.  Poppy cultivation, production, refinement, and trafficking all provide a major sources of funding for the Taliban and Afghan warlords, and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime has linked high areas of insecurity with the densest areas of opium cultivation.  In some of the poorest places in the south, poppy has become a kind of currency of its own.

The thing is, a lot of poppy farmers don’t actually want to grow poppy.  Most devout farmers follow an interpretation of the Koran that prohibits opiates, and have seen the lives of their friends and family devastated by addiction.   They also understand its illegal, and don’t want to run afoul of ISAF and Afghan forces.  But for some, it’s the only living they can make–much like Wallace from The Wire .  Others are simply terrorized into growing drugs for the Taliban.  In other places, the soil is too poor and barren to support any other crop but the sand-loving poppy or that bushels of poppy are used for interest payments on loans.

NATO officials have long been frustrated by a number of obstacles to successfully combating poppy growth.   Poppy cultivation was initially dismissed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the aftermath of the ISAF invasion (which kept the Secretary’s record of pithily dismissing really important things intact).  When poppy cultivation and heroin production became too large to ignore, ISAF officials tried a number of tactics to halt the massive increase in growth, including alternative livelihoods, interdiction, eradication, increased law enforcement, and better education.

It didn’t really work.

In fact, the major determent to poppy cultivation rates since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, was the spike in food prices in 2007-2008.  For the first time in a long time, desperately poor Afghan farmers could get more at market for growing grains than poppy, and planted their crops accordingly.  Where the ISAF program failed, the invisible hand succeeded.

The ghost of Adam Smith was also present in supply factors contributing to poppy reduction.  The Taliban had grown so much poppy in the previous years that they had exceeded world demand for heroin.   Yes, that’s right, the Taliban had made more heroin, the most addictive drug on the planet, than world demand.  And while the Taliban doesn’t really get women’s rights or the innate human desire for music, they sure understand basic economics.  The oversupply of heroin caused prices to fall, and it was cutting into the insurgents’ bottom line.  So in 2007, instead of intimidating, terrorizing, and forcing farmers to grow poppy, which would drive prices even lower, the Taliban let people grow grains and pay off debts in other ways.

Since then, opium production has declined, and several of the ISAF’s tactics, especially peer-pressure from local shuras (local governing religious councils), has played a role in keeping opium production down.  There’s also simply more areas under government control, which makes it easier to enforce the domestic poppy ban.  In the end though, the UN concludes that market factors play the largest part in discouraging farmers from poppy cultivation.  And for hundreds of service men and women working to fight opium production in Afghanistan right now, higher food prices probably sound pretty good.


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