Friday, February 5, 2010

Afghan Poppies, the "Mellow Yellow" solution: I'm just wild about Saffron

Donovan might dig it, but methinks the economists reading this AFP story about Poppies may want to reintroduce us to some basics about market forces:

Some stats from the story:

Afghanistan still produces more than 90 percent of the opium base used to manufacture heroin worldwide -- worth some 2.8 billion dollars in 2009, according to United Nations figures.

While the use of intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs is forbidden under Islam, the religious leaders of the Al-Qaeda-linked Taliban have found the cash from the opium trade irresistible, analysts say.

One cannot help but note that the moral qualms of the Taliban to some degree parallel those of American organized crime families when prohibition was lifted. Business was bad, yet they had moral qualms about getting into the illicit (non-alcoholic) drug trade, but the lucre was too much to resist. Funny that murderous bastards have moral qualms about creating addicts, but so it goes..

The article rehearses the standard solution, and the main standard problems with that standard solution, and provides a hopeful alternative.

Standard solution: Burn the, and provide alternative Crops.

Burn baby burn:

We make concerted efforts to eradicate poppy crops, and in the process make the farmers very uncomfortable. It will pay them to move to alternate crops. Continued pressure of this sort would reduce the amount of poppies harvested, and reduce the amount of protection Taliban collects.

Alternative crop, hopeful hippy edition:

Since most alternate crops are poor substitutes financially, we should expand an extant but smallish program, introducing farmers to mellow pays more than the poppies, and obviously has less deleterious effects on the world. Also, since it is legal, the farmers will not have to go through the Tallie protection racket to get their product to market. Win for us, win for the Afghan farmers, who raise poppies only because they have no realistic alternatives.

What is more, the marketing campaign practically writes itself. Have Donovan come out of retirement, (is he still with us?) brand the Afghan saffron "Mellow Yellow" and use his song as centerpiece of a catchy ad campaign that would launch on Super Sunday, with a spectacular halftime show, hosted by Wavy Gravy, and featuring the lesser lights of 60s counterculture music... Can you see it? Donovan singing "Mellow Yellow" followed up with a bit of Canned Heat "Going up the Country" with vid shot in Afghanistan.. I'm sure the Rice-a-Roni folks might have some ideas. "Rice-A-Roni, the Afghan Pakee Treat"

But, this is where the parade may very well receive some unwelcome precip. Note these figures from the Dutch, who hatched this clever solution:

The chief civil representative on Task Force Uruzgan, Michel Rentenaar, says the Dutch aim to encourage farmers to turn to alternative crops, such as saffron and fruit and nut trees.

"Our effort is to supply an alternative livelihood. We have had success with introducing saffron in the province, the harvest has increased every year for the past three years.

"Saffron is incredibly expensive and its yield is about two to three times higher than poppy. But it is slow to convince farmers to change."

The 2008/2009 harvest was 50 kilogrammes (110 pounds), while this year's is expected to be almost double that, and of better quality.

While the figures are small, saffron has long been the world's most expensive spice by weight and a total of some 500 farmers are now growing it in Uruzgan, with a Dutch firm buying a large chunk of the harvest.

In comparison, however, 1.6 million people were involved in producing 6,900 tonnes of opium in 2009, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says -- mostly in the southern provinces worst hit by the insurgency.

US President Barack Obama in November committed more than 38 million dollars to finance development projects or alternative crops in provinces that cut poppy production.

The Dutch have started the ball rolling. Now, suppose though, that some significant portion of the 1.6 million farmers now growing poppies flip, and join the 500 saffron growers. What would happen? That 50 kilo (110 pound) figure will no doubt increase, probably not anywhere near the neighborhood of the "6900 tonnes" range (given that saffron is basically very tiny reproductive flower bits), but there would be an uptick. Assuming demand remains unchanged, market forces will behave as they usually do, the price for saffron will go down. The incentive disappears. If demand were to increase, then the prices would not drop as much, perhaps not at all. We don't really know which scenario is more likely.

A way to avoid this would be for western governments to in effect subsidize the crops, paying artificially high prices. But, then again, that could be done with poppy crops as well. Buy 'em up, and use what we can for legitimate medical purposes, and burn the remainder.

In any case, their is a growing connection between illicit drug trade and Islamic militant activity. Room for moral argument within a Muslim framework? For, even if the Taliban and Al Qaeda have no qualms about addicting westerners, they no doubt end up contributing to the addictions of fellow Muslims, about whom they allegedly care. What would Allah say to that?

Death Storm Approaches Annapolis...

Oh Boy. Now I'm really afraid. You know it's bad when the Naval Academy closes early.

From email:

Effective noon today, 05 Feb 10, the Naval Academy will be open under modified operations due to inclement weather. This means all non-essential employees are excused for work and receive Administrative Leave for the remainder of their scheduled work day.

All employees essential to Naval Academy operations will remain in a duty status until the end of their scheduled work shifts. Exceptions to this will be made on a case-by-case basis by individual Division/Department Heads based on mission requirements.”

I just hope I can make it home before Death Storm strikes me down in its wrath.