Afghanistan: Global Food Shortages Prompt Taliban to Outlaw Wheat Exports

Farmers harvest a wheat field at Zhari district on the outskirts of Kandahar on May 10, 2022. (Photo by Javed TANVEER / AFP) (Photo by JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images)
Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban terrorist organization announced a ban on exporting wheat out of Afghanistan Thursday in response to concerns that the country may soon face critical food shortages.

International aid organizations and United Nations agencies have been warning since the Taliban seized power in the country in August that the majority of Afghans are facing some form of food shortage and that civilians face the risk of famine. Taliban leaders, in turn, have asked the world to fund their regime, claiming that the success of the severely repressive Sunni jihadist organization would result in a better quality of life for average Afghans.

After 20 years of war and the replacement of food crops with lucrative poppy cultivation for the production of opioid drugs, Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s direst food supply problems, and now much of Africa and the Middle East is similarly confronting the threat of food shortages as a result of two of the world’s largest wheat exporters, Ukraine and Russia, being at war with each other. In addition to Afghanistan, India announced it would ban wheat exports this week, though Taliban leaders said India had provided wheat to them as humanitarian aid.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced the ban on wheat exports on Wednesday.

“All customs offices in the country have been instructed by the Ministry of Finance to stop the export of wheat,” Mujahid wrote in a message on Twitter. “This was done to prevent a shortage of wheat in the country.”

Unverified videos began circulating on social media in the immediate aftermath of the edict. They allegedly show large shipments of wheat stalled on the Afghan border, potentially leaving the profits of the farmers who cultivated it uncertain.

The Taliban has yet to elaborate at press time on what it will do with the excess wheat supply in the country, particularly if it has planned a humanitarian relief program to have it reach Afghanistan’s poorest citizens. The United States has estimated that as much as 97 percent of the country is enduring food shortages, according to reports in Afghan news outlets in early May. In November, the Taliban’s own Public Health Ministry estimated that 1 million Afghan children at the time were suffering from malnutrition.

Afghanistan is in a particularly vulnerable position regarding food security, but it is far from the only country facing a potentially grave food crisis triggered largely by a prospective shortage in wheat. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted on Wednesday that “the number of severely food insecure people had doubled in just two years,” citing Chinese coronavirus pandemic lockdowns as contributing to that number, and he warned that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could greatly exacerbate the problem.

The Ukraine war, the U.N. quoted Guterres as saying, could send “tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”

“In the past year, global food prices have risen by nearly one-third, fertilizer by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds,” he observed.

Russia and Ukraine combined produce nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley supplies, and Russia is a key source of fertilizer, which aids the production of food crops around the world, the U.N. noted.

Skyrocketing wheat prices have added to the woes of Afghans. The country’s Pajhwok news agency reported on Thursday that wheat prices had increased by 50 percent in Kandahar province, home to the country’s second-largest city, in the past season. Pajhwok noted that Afghan farmers largely eschewing wheat cultivation for poppy was also contributing to shortages.

“Wheat was cultivated on a small swath of land in Kandahar this year, farmers preferred poppy instead of wheat. This year crops were affected by drought,” an Afghan farmer identified as Shah Mohammad told Pajhwok.

An official in Afghanistan’s Agriculture Department told the network that the Taliban regime “could not even estimate how many hectares of land was cultivated with wheat” this year.

The Taliban claimed to have banned poppy cultivation in April. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims to have provided major assistance in the form of wheat seed to Afghanistan. About 50 kilograms of seed, it claimed in a post on Thursday, could help Afghans grow “enough yield to feed a family of seven people for at least one year.”

Afghanistan followed India in banning wheat exports. New Delhi’s Directorate-General of Foreign Trade announced its ban last week, baffling international observers who had taken note of the Indian government advertising itself as a suitable replacement exporter for Ukraine and Russia in the immediate aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor.

“Export will be allowed in case of shipments where an irrevocable letter of credit is issued on or before the date of notification,” the Indian government allowed. “Export will be allowed on the basis of permission granted by the government of India to other countries to meet their food security needs and based on the request of the governments.”

Afghanistan appears to have met the qualifications to be an exception. Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi told India’s World Is One News (WION) on Wednesday that it had received a commitment from India to send over 50,000 metric tons of wheat to the country.

“We appreciate the humanitarian assistance provided to the Afghan people by India and see it as a goodwill gesture towards Afghanistan,” Balkhi said. “India offered to provide wheat as Afghanistan faced a challenging winter due to international sanctions. We will always remember those who helped Afghanistan in times of our need.”

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