All hopes pinned on Kazakhstan wheat

Tens of thousands of tons of wheat flour will be imported from Kazakhstan by the private sector to alleviate food shortages before the winter, officials say.

Pakistan, the main, traditional exporter of food to Afghanistan, has banned wheat exports after catastrophic floods; Russia has done the same.

"We face a deficit of over 700,000MT of wheat this year," Majeed Qarar, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), told IRIN, adding that the government was encouraging traders to import wheat from Kazakhstan.

Domestic wheat production this year is estimated at 4.5 million tons thanks to good rains, but the country needs more than 5.2 million tons, MAIL said.

Kazakhstan has announced it will export more than eight million tons of grain in 2010.

However, concerns are rising about a change in Kazakhstan's position as demand for wheat grows in the region.

"We're concerned that Kazakhstan may halt wheat exports due to the Russian impact," said Ghulam Mohammad Ayelaqi, Afghanistan's deputy minister of commerce, adding that such a move would cause serious problems.

Food insecurity

Despite massive foreign aid since 2001 and good agricultural outputs over the past two years, Afghanistan is ranked highest on a food-insecurity index by a UK-based think-tank, Maplecroft.

Widespread poverty, conflict and recurrent natural disasters are among the main causes of chronic and prevalent food insecurity in Afghanistan, it said.

At least 36 percent of the population (about nine million) cannot meet basic needs and the food consumption of 61 percent of the population is characterized by "low" and "very low" food diversity, according to the National Risk Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) 2008.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
Food prices have steadily gone up pushing more vulnerable people into food insecurity

Chronic food insecurity causes major health problems and leads to maternal and infant morality and morbidity, experts say.

An estimated 45-60 percent of under-fives suffer from micronutrient deficiency diseases; almost half of non-pregnant women are iron-deficient and 25 percent suffer from anaemia; more than 70 percent of under-fives are iron-deficient, and up to 70 percent of seven to 11-year-old children and women of reproductive age experience iodine deficiency, according to the NRVA.

Market volatility

Food prices have increased gradually over the past several months, largely due to the floods in Pakistan, making food even more unaffordable for the poor.

In August, food prices were 6 percent higher in Afghanistan than a year previously, according to a market price bulletin released by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in September.

"Volatility in regional grain markets has complicated WFP's procurement as prices have gone up and availability is uncertain," said Challiss McDonough, a WFP spokeswoman in Kabul.

She said the organization had adequate food in warehouses in Afghanistan to meet current needs but warned about future shortages.

"The floods in Pakistan - where we lost stocks in transit to Afghanistan - have disrupted our food pipeline. Although the loss did not have an immediate impact on our programmes in Afghanistan, it will be felt in the coming months," said McDonough, adding that the organization would need to pre-position food in areas that would be inaccessible in winter.

WFP plans to feed about seven million people in Afghanistan in 2010.

To help stabilize prices, MAIL officials said they would encourage traders to buy wheat in provinces with surpluses and sell in areas facing deficits.

WFP also said it was "attempting" local procurement in some areas.