Central role for wheat flour in easing Afghan problems

by Morton Sosland
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Whenever complaints are heard about wheat shortages, erratic flour prices or disruptions in deliveries of flour, a good way of responding has been provided by a study just published by the Economic Research Service (ERS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning the central role of wheat and flour in Afghanistan. Reading this in-depth analysis of the trials in supplying a country where wheat accounts for 60% of the caloric intake, where the internal infrastructure is primitive and where terrible warfare has raged for generations provides anyone facing hardly similar problems in developed or other developing nations with a genuine reason to be grateful. Nothing could appear to pose greater challenges to orderly flour distribution — a routine business in most of the world — than what faces participants in this trade in Afghanistan.

It does not take much imagination to figure out why the ERS, which mainly focuses its research on U.S. markets as well as domestic food consumption, decided to look so intensely at Afghanistan. As a military solution to preventing a Taliban takeover seems unlikely and as an American victory appears to depend more and more on winning the support of the Afghan people, the benefits from identifying a food supply solution are obvious. This is particularly so as Afghanistan’s centrality in the training of terrorists wins attention.

While it may be over the top to say that assuring an adequate supply of wheat flour to remote corners of this mountainous country will produce the outcome eluding the Obama administration, the importance of wheat flour may not be neglected. The problem stems from wheat being the staple food in a country that has so far been unable to grow enough to supply internal needs. The result has been dependence on Pakistan for both wheat and wheat flour, meaning that whenever Pakistan is short wheat, it is the Afghan people who suffer first. That suffering has prompted dramatic price advances in times of shortage. The study says that wheat and flour prices at Peshawar in Pakistan are reasonably correlated with prices in the major Afghan markets. But when disruption occurs, the separation is dramatic. In May 2008, when worldwide markets were exceptionally strong, wheat in Afghanistan reached $751 per tonne, contrasted with $350 in Pakistan and $255 in the United States.

For flour millers, these distribution and price relationships have proved particularly troubling. It might even amuse millers not directly involved to know that the way Afghan prices soar in response to urgent food needs has led to a large share of the flour used in Afghanistan being supplied by mills built in Pakistan close to border points of entry. As the result of this flow from Pakistan, the Afghan milling industry has not expanded its capacity in response to domestic needs. In times when Pakistan mills were barred from shipping flour to Afghanistan, Afghan prices reached the point of drawing substantial quantities from Kazakhstan. This is a hugely inefficient movement across unfriendly terrain from the north. Kazakhstan has been the largest flour exporter for several years, reflecting in part its location to serve strife-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the ERS as well as military and food aid experts consider how best to solve Afghanistan’s flour problems, it should be noted that no one has suggested diet diversification as a viable answer. The people in this part of the world have survived on a diet based on wheat flour foods for a long while, and in spite of the wrenching strife that has been commonplace for so long. The most immediate answer noted by the ERS is completing a national highway system and a long-planned railroad, which would improve access to remote areas. Yes, these are the areas where the terrorist frame of mind has been nourished. Perhaps assuring an adequate supply of flour would provide what is needed to lessen tensions and make for peaceful minds.