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Afghan agriculture official visits St. Louis, looks for help to grow food, not poppies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 21, 2009 - Taliban terror has done more than try to keep Afghanistan residents from going to the polls in this week's election. It has also kept them from becoming self-sustaining agriculturally by growing more food and fewer poppies to be turned into opium.

As ballots were being counted in the presidential election in his home country, the director of agriculture in Nangarhar Province was finishing up a visit to Missouri, which has taken the lead in trying to help Afghan farmers grow strong again.

Director Safi Mohammad Hussein, who toured the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur on Friday, begged off answering questions about politics, saying he is not at a level to judge whether the results of the balloting will be rendered accurately.

"The one thing I can say is that more than 60 percent of the population went to vote, and that is the main achievement," he said in an interview following his tour.

Similarly, he said, with the help of teams from the Missouri National Guard, Afghan farmers have been able to shift from poppy production to growing a good variety of food crops.

The transition hasn't always been easy, Hussein said, because the Taliban has paid farmers good money to grow poppies, and the ability to leave poverty behind has been a powerful incentive.

Still, he said, food security is also a big lure.

"It's not that difficult to change," Hussein said, "if someone can exchange poppies for good crops that make money."

The first 60-member Missouri National Guard team went to Afghanistan in 2007 to help with the agricultural transition. A second team is there now, and a third one will replace it this fall.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Schulte, who has served in the effort, noted that three years ago, Nangarhar was judged the second-largest opium-producing province in Afghanistan. Now, he said, the United Nations has said the eastern province that is home to 1.3 million people is poppy-free.

The road back after decades of fighting has not been easy, Schulte said.

"Everything they had and exported prior to the Soviet invasion was destroyed," he said. Now, production of crops such as wheat, rice, and corn has grown, though problems persist; with no way to export what they grow and little electricity for preservation, too much of the crop is left to rot in the field.

Roger Beachy, president of the Plant Science Center, said he hopes the research done there can be transferred to places like Nangarhar Province, so farmers can make the most of the resources they have.

For example, Beachy said, "How can we help them do things better, not with more water but with new genes that can use less water?"

He also hopes that the presence of the National Guard as agricultural advisers helps ease the image of the U.S. military as only a source of might.

"This is an American vision that says we're here to help as well as to protect," Beachy said. "We are friends that care and don't want to dominate but want to help you become self-sufficient."

The voting in this week's Afghan election was uneven, with Taliban disruptions causing turnout to be lower in some areas than others. That may make a difference in whether President Hamid Karzai wins a new term or is defeated by challenger Abdullah Abdullah, said Thomas Schweich, a law professor at Washington University with long experience in Afghanistan.

"Low turnout in the south and high turnout in the north plays into Abdullah's strengths," Schweich said. "If he wins or comes close and wins a runoff election, Karzai's forces will be very reluctant to give up power. That could be extremely problematic.

"If Abdullah wins, I think that Karzai is going to cry foul and there is going to be a serious constitutional crisis for that country."

Fahime Mohammad, owner of Sameem restaurant in St. Louis, said he has been closely following reports of the election in his native country, and while the results are not yet clear, in one respect it has been a milestone event.

"Given the situation," he said, "the number of people coming out and voting was pretty good."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.