AFGHANISTAN: Wheat Production Recovers in 2009/10 Season
Afghanistan suffered a severe drought last year which decimated its 2008/09 winter grain crop and caused an acute food and feed-grain shortage throughout much of the country. Wheat production is estimated by USDA to have fallen 55 percent from the previous year. This major shortfall in production of the nation’s staple grain crop was also exacerbated by disruptions in regional grain trade (export bans) and increasing conflict in major transport corridors along the Pakistani border, resulting in record high domestic food grain prices and increasing food insecurity.
With a seriously diminished supply of wheat in the country, officials have been particularly concerned about the outlook for the 2009/10 wheat crop. This crop was sown in the autumn of 2008 and will be harvested from May-August 2009. It is readily apparent from seasonal satellite image analysis that a major recovery in wheat growing conditions has occurred this year and that production potential is expected to reach near-record levels. The USDA currently forecasts Afghanistan’s 2009/10 wheat crop at 3.4 million tons, up 1.9 million or 127 percent from last year. The sharp rebound in wheat production should help alleviate existing regional grain shortages, assist the government in building emergency stocks, help reduce imports to more normal levels, and cause a significant decline in persistently high food grain prices in the country.
The 2009/10 growing season did not begin in a promising fashion, with extremely dry conditions persisting throughout the entire autumn grain planting period. Despite this, Afghan authorities reported that record high domestic wheat prices had encouraged farmers to increase sown wheat acreage in hopes that adequate rainfall would arrive when needed. Recent official crop reports from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture indicate that much of the increase in sown area occurred outside the primary northern wheat growing provinces, such as the southwest, south, east, east central, and west central regions. These growing areas are primarily irrigated, and have reasonably assured water supplies for major grain and cash crops.
What was critical for a recovery in overall grain production in the country, however, was the fate of the nation’s major rainfed crop regions that stretch across most of northern Afghanistan. Non-irrigated wheat area typically accounts for 55 percent of total sown area, and bumper national harvests generally occur in years when beneficial spring rains drench the predominantly upland rainfed wheat crops. The majority of the 2009/10 growing season was particularly dry in much of the primary northern rainfed regions, closely following the trend from the devastatingly poor 2008/09 growing season. However, in March 2009 significant rain-bearing weather systems began to sweep through Afghanistan, blanketing major rainfed wheat regions with unusually beneficial moisture at a time when crops were in vegetative growth stages. The rains recharged regional soil moisture supplies in previously bone-dry producing areas and caused a remarkably strong resurgence in crop growth and development all across northern Afghanistan. The timing of the rains could not have been better, catching most grain crops well before critically moisture sensitive reproductive growth stages. The enhanced vegetative development that occurred in recent months is expected to lead to higher than average yields, and a near-record national harvest.
Recent satellite image analysis over Afghanistan’s wheat growing regions clearly indicates a major recovery in vegetative crop development has occurred, with many areas showing well above normal (above average) crop yield potential. In particular, the major producing areas throughout northern Afghanistan are showing extremely strong vegetative development. This compares favorably to conditions evident at the same time last year, when drought had clearly devastated crops over vast areas. Vegetation index data from a variety of satellites are routinely analyzed by USDA crop assessment specialists for the purposes of evaluating crop conditions and forecasting crop production. This data is particularly useful in gauging annual crop yield potential in major grain producing regions. In extremely good cases, such as that evident in Afghanistan this year, they can provide vivid confirmation that growing conditions have changed and that grain production potential is dramatically improved.
What the vegetation index data have shown in Afghanistan over the entirety of the 2009/10 growing season is that the irrigated wheat regions generally experienced nearly to slightly better than normal growing conditions. However, over the bulk of the winter and early spring months, crops in the major rainfed areas were struggling, and the national production outlook was uncertain. But as a result of the highly beneficial rains received in March and April 2009, the vegetation index data in late April and May over the northern rainfed regions began to show that dramatic improvement in crop development and vigor was occurring, and that potential crop yields would be substantially improved this year. Owing to its consistent monthly monitoring efforts during the entire growing season, USDA was able to evaluate changes in the production outlook on a real-time ongoing basis, and confirm that prospects in Afghanistan had dramatically improved.
The remarkable recovery in national wheat production this year in Afghanistan is largely a result of the surprisingly favorable growing conditions over the majority of the country’s primary non-irrigated crop land. The maps above illustrate in more detail the scale of the favorable crop conditions by focusing on Afghanistan’s leading grain producing region, the North Region. This region encompasses five provinces and normally accounts for 35 percent of national wheat area and 30 percent of production. Irrigated lands typically lie in lowland areas and on valley floors, whereas rainfed wheat is cultivated in upland or highland areas. Non-irrigated crop lands form the vast majority of this regions agricultural land base, with 75 percent of the wheat crop sown being completely reliant on timely rainfall. This region was severely impacted by drought last year with widespread reports of crop failure in both rainfed and irrigated grains. However, this year the wheat crop is developing especially well, and should produce above-average yields.
*Nearly 70 percent of the country's wheat is produced in the northern provinces.
* According to Afghan government statistics there is at least 1.25 million hectares of non-irrigated wheat land in the three major northern wheat producing regions, accounting for roughly 52 percent of total national wheat area.
*Rainfed wheat area is well distributed across a vast area of northern Afghanistan.
Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.