As recent battles raged in Afghanistan’s north the news arrived about the country’s need to import food. Kunduz area, in particular, is Afghanistan’s breadbasket and disruption to the harvest and distribution of grain is a major issue. This news reminded me again about the role industrial hemp can have on the path to security and stability.

Population can greatly benefit from utilizing hemp as human and animal food, building material, fuel, textile, production of industrial materials, and a tool in environmental protection. All this is of vital importance in rebuilding Afghanistan.

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Figure 1. Afghan-style intercropping with a combination of vegetables and marijuana (Cannabis Indica). I kept returning to this field to monitor growth progress. (Photo by the author.)

With more than 20,000 applications industrial hemp is an ideal agricultural and industrial resource. It has no hallucinogenic value and pollinates marijuana plants in nearby fields, thus reducing their levels of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). In an ironic way hemp can represent a valuable weapon in the war on drugs. Yet, to my knowledge, Afghans do not plant and process hemp. Meanwhile, their children remain malnourished.

“We Tried Everything”

Several years ago, I had a meeting at the Kandahar Air Force Base (KAF) with USAID’s main agriculture expert for the ISAF’s Regional Command-South (RC-S). My research at the time was about counterinsurgency efforts in Arghandab River Valley, Kandahar Province.  During the conversation he said, “We tried everything possible in order to help the people” and proceeded with the list of crops, then added “If anyone would tell me what else to do, I would love to hear it, because there is nothing else to try.” Knowing well that Afghans are already experts in growing its cousin marijuana, I asked him if he tried to plant hemp. Expression on his face changed and he muttered “No,” then followed with “But, we do have an experimental farm run by the Canadians where we can try it.”

A couple of days later, I went to a base in Kandahar City to meet with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and hear about their efforts in improving local agriculture. On the helicopter ride back to KAF we flew along the Arghandab River Valley, from one small base to another, some of them adjacent to lush poppy fields. I could see the results of Afghan farmers’ skills. After my research was completed I returned to Kabul City never to hear again from the south about the prospects of growing hemp in Kandahar Province. That prompted me to publish a paper outlining the potential benefits of hemp cultivation in regard to counterinsurgency efforts, which was distributed within ISAF.

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Figure 2. Sitting atop the mountain taking this photo and looking at a sea of brick factories manufacturing bricks of questionable quality, I could not avoid thinking about alternatives and environmentally-friendly methods of construction for residential buildings. Kabul City’s population has quadrupled since 2001 and other urban areas follow a similar trend. (Photo by the author.)

The Benefits

With so many possibilities the list of benefits is long, so I will only introduce a handful that can make a major impact with modest financial input (particularly compared to many other expensive reconstruction projects):

  1. Hemp seeds, powder, and oil provide an essential Omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids and a wide range of minerals. As human or animal food hemp’s benefits are exceptional.
  2. Dried and baked bricks of questionable quality can be easily replaced with blocks of hempcrete, which is a mix of water, lime, and hemp stalks. Buildings made of this material are healthy, breathable, and warm in winter and cool in summer.
  3. As fuel, hemp burns clean unlike cheap coal Afghans use to heat their homes. Anyone who spent winter in Kabul City inhaling local air knows the impact of coal and generators on residents’ health.
  4. Textile production from hemp—and Afghanistan can produce the world’s best quality hemp—is a relatively inexpensive venture, particularly compared to many failed reconstruction projects. For the cost of several million dollars an operating facility can be built, just like one of those currently operating in Canada. The leftover from production is excellent for animal bedding and reduces infestations and other problems for domestic animals.
  5. Substandard flood-irrigation methods have left many acres of prime agricultural land unusable, with significant salt deposits. Hemp requires less water, grows rapidly (more than one harvest per year is attainable, particularly in southern Afghanistan), shows no need for pesticide, and releases beneficial nitrogen into soil. It also prevents soil erosion.

Where There is Will…

Upon my return to Kabul City I went to see the officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock and ask if anything was or could be done to bring hemp on the main agricultural stage. The answer was not positive.

As we talked and drank tea I wondered if my hosts knew that we were surrounded with hemp. It was present in our suits, jeans, military gear, shoes, and furniture. A thought crossed my mind that we could sooner win unwinnable war than have Afghans benefit from their home-grown hemp. Years later the war continues, Afghanistan still imports food, and children remain malnourished. Knowing the benefits of something unfortunately does not always translate to beneficial actions.

Hemp for Afghan Victory
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