Opium more profitable than bread for Afghan farmers.

According to the 2010 Afghan Opium Survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in September the sharp rise in the price of opium, combined with a drop in the price of wheat, suggests that many farmers will switch back to cultivating the illicit crop.

'None of Afghanistan's licit agricultural products can currently match the gross income per hectare from opium.' said the survey.

In 2009 a fungus devastated Afghani opium crops, and this year bad weather and conditions further increased the potential for a cut in opium production. The symptoms seen in the late stages of the plants' growth are consistent with last year's fungus. In the south, 42% of the area under cultivating is reported to have been damaged. “Due to the high price of opium in 2010, the gross income for farmers per hectare increased by 36% to US$ 4,900.”

In Afghanistan, a country mired in violence and poverty, the high price was cited by almost half (47%) of farmers asked as the most important reason for cultivating the opium poppy in 2010, whilst a government ban and religious belief are the top two reasons for never having cultivated the poppy, or for having stopped cultivating it in 2010.

Cultivation levels remain the same but production levels have almost halved, leading to the price increases. The figures remain high in the southern and western provinces of the country such as Hilmand and Kandahar, which are dominated by insurgency and organised crime. The price of cannabis resin has also doubled since last year.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Kabul, told news agency Reuteurs that cultivating opium was an “income addiction” but said that any solution must involve improving the quality of life for farming communities, providing secure access to markets, food and health. He also cited security as a necessity, given the high correlation between security incidents and opium cultivation this year. "Security and stability will take the main incentive away,” he said.

A possible explanation for the high correlation between security incidents and poppy cultivation could be the gang-led security surrounding opium crops which can be sold at the farm-gate. Licit crops such as wheat or onions, where they can command a good price, are at risk of theft or destruction on their way to market, and so do better in stable and secure areas.

The other enduring factor driving opium production cited by the survey was demand.