Man of action

Richard Byrne has been serving in Helmand province, encouraging farmers to grow crops other than the poppy

February 5, 2009

Richard Byrne, senior lecturer in countryside and environmental management at Harper Adams University College, will return to his desk in April after a sojourn that began last September.

But Dr Byrne is not on a typical sabbatical. A Royal Navy reservist for the past five years, he has been serving with 3 Commando Brigade in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

"My students know I am here - I told many of them I was going to take the rest of the term off just three days before I was deployed. I have had lots of emails - mostly supportive, but some just asking if I have gone mad!"

Dr Byrne is a rural geographer specialising in development agriculture, and won a Nuffield Award to support his research on agro-terrorism in 2007. He is now helping the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team as it seeks to develop alternatives to local opium production.

Despite what many might think, Dr Byrne says farming in Afghanistan is sophisticated and can be very productive. But without security, there is no freedom of movement or access to markets, and farmers harvest opium to ensure they can make a living. But there is huge scope for alternatives to the poppy, including dairy, beef and sheep farming, dried fruit, honey and pomegranates, he said.

If there were bulk-storage and grain-handling facilities, cereals such as wheat could be stored and sold all year, making them a more attractive proposition for farmers.

"Helmand used to be the breadbasket of Afghanistan and it can be again," he said.

But Dr Byrne, whose PhD from the University of Southampton considered the impact of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), said it was important to be realistic about the time needed to deliver change.

"You cannot create a grain market overnight. In the UK, it took us 10 to 15 years post-CAP reform to get it right."

But there can be improvements without massive investment or lengthy training. In Garmsir, where Prince Harry served, farmers had to transport their "fantastic" tomatoes to market in old sacks, Dr Byrne said.

"We helped to identify that as a problem, and now the Afghan National Army distribute all their unneeded boxes, helping the farmers and also improving its standing with the local community."

Dr Byrne praised Harper Adams for supporting him.

"I will go back in April - no doubt there will be exams to mark and dissertation scripts to review."

And he has already drafted a number of potential research papers. "I am probably one of the only academics in my field who has current experience of Afghanistan."

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