With the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the international "war on drugs" and its apparent inability to stem the tide of narcotics is back in the limelight. Heroin use, which claimed the life of Hoffman, has been on the uptick in recent years, driven in part by a crackdown on prescription pill abuse, and by ready availability and extremely low prices for this illegal opiate.

But what if we could stem the supply, not through law enforcement crackdowns, but by encouraging farmers to grow something different?

Plant for Peace, a nonprofit operating in Afghanistan, has been working to provide viable economic alternatives to growing opium poppies for the nation's rural farmers. Considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and more recently trumpeted as a miracle food to Western consumers (albeit using some deceptive and hyperbolic claims!), pomegranate is an extremely high-value crop that grows well in Afghanistan. It's among the crops that Plant for Peace has been promoting, focusing on an agro-ecological approach that works closely with traditional community structures of rural Afghanistan. Here's how the strategy is described on the organization's website:

The Plant for Peace strategy builds on the strong values of traditional farm communities, which provide a solid foundation for the effective identification, design and implementation of sustainable, localized farming systems. The strategy adds international experience and knowledge to this foundation in order to ensure that the restoration of agriculture is sustainable in terms of human, natural and economic resources.
It's an idea that's been around for some time, and one that has received some support from both development charities and the U.S. government, as seen in this AFN report from 2010.
And here, a USDA representative works with Afghan farmers to salvage pomegranates damaged by heavy rain, working with them to sell the crop as a feedstock for juicing, rather than simply using it as animal feed. (The British armed forces have also been promoting beekeeping and honey production as an alternative to poppies.)
Such support is vital if Afghanistan is ever going to move away from the dangerous but extremely lucrative opium trade. Yet significant challenges remain, not least the unpredictable nature of international funding priorities and the upcoming pull out of NATO troops. In an interview with The Star, James Brett of Plant for Peace is adamant that a very small capital investment could go a long way toward building a real, long-term export economy based on delicacies, not drugs:
“I’ve been here for six years and the donor support we’d need to do this is less than one per cent of the billions that have been spent over the last decade. The Pakistanis store the fruit in cold storage and when it is out of season sell them back to the Afghans at a higher price. This is the best place for horticulture in the world but the Afghans are importing fruit from places like China; it’s absurd.”

This is a matter that should be of concern to all of us. With Western military involvement in Afghanistan drawing down, there's been much talk in recent months of an "unprecedented increase in opium production." It doesn't take an expert economist to know that increased supply usually results in lower prices. And lower prices mean higher demand.

I'd much rather see cheaper pomegranate juice being sold on street corners here than cheaper smack. If we're serious about curbing heroin addiction at home, we'd do well to support sustainable agriculture abroad.

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