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Britain Farmers Find Promise in a Crop Illegal in Afghanistan

  • Amy Guttman

Farmers in Britain are harvesting a surprising new crop in an effort to combat a shortage of painkillers. It is a crop that is plentiful thousands of kilometers away in Afghanistan, but there, British and U.S. troops are trying to destroy it.

One field of opium poppies is just 90 minutes west of London. Recent dry springs and early summers in England are perfect for poppies.

Farmers at more than 30 sites just like this all across England are growing them for a British pharmaceutical company to turn them into morphine and codeine.

But neither the farmers growing the poppies here nor the McFarlan Smith drug company want to talk about them -- worried about security and potential controversy. One retired local farmer had this to say:

"It's probably a better crop than growing corn. They send their own men in combines and it's transported to the factory in about 24 hours. They're good crops," retired farmer Reg Brown said.

The National Health Service thinks so, and it needs a steadier supply of opium poppies to combat a national shortage of painkillers. Indeed, there's a global shortage of drugs made from poppies, even though they're plentiful in Afghanistan. Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is director of the Royal United Services Institute, a British military and security organization. "The Afghanistan poppy crop creates about 90 percent of the heroin which is traded in Europe," he said. "It accounts for well over 70 or 80 percent of Afghanistan's income."

And because all opium production in Afghanistan is illegal, even for medicinal use, the country's poppy fields are under attack -- part of a United Nations' eradication policy, backed by the U.S. and Britain.

"The eradication policy is there to try to break the link between criminality, insecurity and poverty inside Afghanistan," Clarke stated.

But while both the U.S. and Britain help to enforce the policy, they do not necessarily agree on the approach. "The Americans have tended to say, just eradicate the poppies whether people like it or not, just get rid of them. The British have tended to say, 'If you do that, you'll make it all worse.'"

That's why British MP Frank Field says eliminating the Afghan poppy fields is counter-productive. "It gives the Taliban a hold over local people, it gives the Taliban a source of local income and it makes it easier for the Taliban to pick off our soldiers because of the lack of goodwill in villages," he explained.

Field prefers legalizing opium poppies in Afghanistan so crops can be taxed and exported, benefiting Afghan farmers, the Afghan government and the international community.

Two years ago, the late Richard Holbrooke, then the U.S. special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, considered the eradication policy a failure. "We're pushing farmers into the hands of the Taliban. It is the most wasteful and ineffective program I've seen in my 40 years in government," Holbrooke stated.

But Clarke says legalizing poppies in Afghanistan would create more problems. "It would be a drastic step to suddenly legitimize the Afghan poppy crop, which wouldn't be as simple as taking away poppies from Afghan farmers. It would actually create a revolution from inside Afghanistan which might create more instability than you could handle.// Some people say that unless you can address the poppy problem in Afghanistan, all other bets are off," he said.

Meanwhile, here in the English countryside, fields of poppies grow, and no one wants to talk about them.

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