Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fighting Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan

Even as NATO proposes troop drawdowns in three years as the Afghan army gains strength, they know they may be leaving behind a major problem in establishing order and stability in the region. Afghanistan produces 93% of the worlds opium. Efforts to erradicate the poppy production have utterly failed.

As illustrated in the book Freakonomics, it's always helpful to approach these types of problems by looking at incentives. Why do so many Afghans risk the wrath of authorities to continue to produce poppy seeds? That's an easy one: money. The solution: money. Not a hand-out, a switch-out. New technologies have made a vast variety of agricultural products suitable for producing fuel. Amyris Biotechnologies has developed genetic engineering techniques that allow microbes to convert plant products into a number of commodities, including fuel.

NATO should consider appropriating funds to research the optimum agricultural product to commodity formula for the terrain currently being used for poppy production. It doesn't have to pay as well as the opium trade. Just enough to make the risk/reward ratio for poppy growing much less attractive.

Such technologies are already transforming Brazil into an alternative fuels powerhouse. When you factor in the cost of fighting poppy production by force alone, helping the locals get rich from other crops could be a real money saver as well as a path to peace. Who knows, Amyris may even come up with a way to turn poppy plants into fuel, or medicine or something much more productive than opium.

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