The 2012 wheat harvest in Afghanistan is shaping up to be one of the best in the last 35 years, according to a new report by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture.  This is fantastic news for the Afghan people and economy. Afghanistan has been one of the least food secure countries in the world due to a combination of drought, conflict, and low productivity. In 2002, under famine conditions, 10 million Afghans required substantial food aid.

With an eye to the future and to overcome these perennial challenges, USAID and the Government of Afghanistan have made support for agriculture a top priority of our efforts in Afghanistan. This support has been instrumental in enabling Afghan producers to capitalize on favorable conditions through programs that increase farmer’s productivity. For example, our IDEA NEW (Incentives Driving Economic Alternatives-North, East, West) program has trained over 300,000 Afghan farmers on agriculture productivity and provided technical expertise for almost 6,000 businesses. Watch this short video.

Afghanistan requires an estimated seven million metric tons of wheat to feed its population. Wheat is especially critical in Afghanistan as it accounts for a substantial proportion of average nutritional intake. Without enough wheat, Afghans are either forced to purchase more expensive imported wheat or reduce their consumption. Reduced consumption leads to widespread undernourishment which in turn affects child mortality and growth, educational attainment, and worker productivity.

The Big News: the prediction for this year’s harvest is 6.7 million tons of wheat, or 94% self-sufficiency. A primary reason for this record harvest is favorable weather conditions and rain and snow melt at the right times in the planting cycle. Significant investments by American taxpayers in Afghanistan have also been critical. Improving irrigation has allowed farmers to get more water to their fields at the right time. Improved seed distribution and hands-on programs to introduce improved cultivation techniques has made the land more productive. And improved storage and transport infrastructure allows a lot more of the produce to get to market. Each of these improvements adds up to a big difference, and Afghanistan’s farmers increase their crops and their family nutrition and income.

Now the challenge is to make these gains sustainable. In Nangrahar, USAID is working with “agro-entrepreneurs” to build packaging facilities and pave the way for increased exports. In the south, melons are being exported to India and Pakistan thanks to improved roads and trade agreements that allow for transport of goods where before most produce spoiled on the way to market or didn’t have markets to reach.

This year of success does not diminish the need for the US and Afghan governments to stay focused on addressing the long-term food security challenge in Afghanistan.  USAID’s agriculture strategy is working to reduce the influence of weather and increase the self-sufficiency and resiliency of Afghanistan’s farmers.

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.