Here's a radical solution to poverty in Afghanistan: grow GM opium

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The Independent Online

Poor old Afghanistan. It has emerged from being the focus of the "war on terror" only to find itself the focus of the battered old war on drugs. Even the UN, not usually celebrated for its love of immediate physical action, is demanding what it calls "radical" measures against the country's burgeoning opium-growing industry.

Poor old Afghanistan. It has emerged from being the focus of the "war on terror" only to find itself the focus of the battered old war on drugs. Even the UN, not usually celebrated for its love of immediate physical action, is demanding what it calls "radical" measures against the country's burgeoning opium-growing industry.

The suggestion is that American and British soldiers ought to be brought in to destroy this year's massive crop before it can be harvested. Mr Bush himself is said to be more than enthusiastic about such a course. But with one in 10 Afghans estimated to be reliant on the opium crop for their livelihoods, this solution seems short term to say the least.

Attempts to work out a truly radical solution would surely take into account the reason why it is that Afghan farmers keep on defying the law to grow opium instead of any other crop, and act accordingly. Market forces - the fact that opium is worth 10 times as much as any other crop - account for their choice. Any bunch of neo-liberals or neo-conservatives worth their salt should therefore logically concede that Afghan farmers, obeying the laws of the market, ought to be supported rather than attacked.

There are many ways in which a "coalition of the willing" could establish an opium-growing industry in Afghanistan that forms a legitimate and positive sector of the country's economy, rather than an illegal and disruptive one.

A solution for this year, for example, would be for coalition countries simply to buy the farmers' crops rather than destroy them. There is, after all, plenty of demand for morphine and codeine, both of which come from the opium poppy. It may upset the traditional growers of the world's medically sanctioned opium. But since Tasmania - producer of 40 per cent - is so much a part of the war on both terror and drugs you'd imagine that it might be willing to adapt.

If not, then it might be worth looking at massively expanding the role of pharmaceutical heroin in drug treatment, since it is much less toxic than the present preferred substance, methadone. Legitimately produced heroin could be prescribed by doctors to Britain's addicts to save them the bother of having to purchase their drugs at the base of an international pyramid of crime, violence, corruption and death. The medicalisation of heroin addiction hardly has utopian appeal. But criminalisation of heroin addiction is hardly prelapsarian either.

Finally, the best and most radical solution is for science to give Afghanistan the status as the world's premier producer of genetically modified opium. Researchers in Australia and in Canada have already worked out how to adapt opium poppies so that instead of producing opiates they produce substances which can combat malaria and cancer.

If the UN felt like calling together a coalition of the willing to thrash out how this could be done, that would be a lot more useful to Afghanistan and the whole of humanity than the scorched earth policy that is now being contemplated. What a pity about the snag - reluctance to transfer the power and profit knowledge confers from those who have everything to those who have nothing.

Rumble in the jungle

Until this week, I laboured blithely under the misapprehension that I worked for the newspaper least likely to provide a reality television contestant from among its ranks. How could I have forgotten that Janet Street-Porter can be relied upon for one thing only - being totally unpredictable.

I've known Janet for about 15 years now, although she's known me for only half that time. For the first seven years of my acquaintance, I was introduced to her every three months or so by several tons of mutual friends and colleagues. But I was deemed so uninteresting by her that she would never acknowledge that a boring nugget of information like my identity could possibly have lodged in her great mind.

Then, one day, like a switch had been thrown, she decided that I could visit Planet Janet after all. I know I should have told her to sod off. But when she decides you're in, she's so disarming that you forgive her everything.

The idea of watching her in the jungle, manipulating her fellow contestants in a similar sort of way, fills me with the joyful anticipation that only another helpless victim could really understand. Though it's likely to make great television from any perspective.

There won't be enough Carole Caplins to go around

On the whole, I think the Government's proposed measures on public health are cautious rather than bossy. But one aspect of the planned revolution in health fills me with horror. This is the prospect of fitness advisers offering one-to-one counselling to those who need to increase their physical activity.

No doubt this is a fair-minded idea which seeks to offset the fact that the poor cannot pay for Carole Caplin to motivate them thrice a week. But the concept will be so watered down by the time it reaches the public that it will be useless.

I despair at the idea of Caplinesque young women being given taxpayers' money in order to pat people's hands and say: "But wouldn't it be lovely, Morag, to be able to wear the fashionable clothes you like ...", when they really should be saying: "I want you doing 10 press-ups by the end of the month, because if you can't you'll be dead by the time Jimmy's voice has broken."

Under the Labour Government the number of people working in the public sector has massively expanded. But as Gordon Brown is discovering it is much easier to hire people than to get rid of them.

The head of the Child Support Agency, employing 12,000 people to assist unsuccessfully in the handing of cash over from fathers to their children, has just resigned. So has the head of another huge bureaucracy marking endless examinations.

Can't we, instead of employing yet more people to be ineffectual at the impossible, just run Open University-style fitness shows on public service television that doctors can advise their patients to record and tackle? Or give the chronically unfit, who need to take immediate affirmative action, vouchers for free classes at the local council leisure centre?

¿ It's a tribute to the decency of the British that even though Prince Charles has seen fit to slag off all our children, few people have been low enough to respond in kind. Can I just ruin all that though? It was ghastly modern child-centred education of the most expensive kind that enabled William and Harry to scrape the qualifications in Mickey Mouse subjects they needed in order to do what was required of young men of their station. Just like their father before them.