KABUL, Afghanistan – This ancient land is telling the world that it has a trendy, new replacement for its dreaded poppy crop: sweet, juicy pomegranates.
The country will stamp a logo on all boxes of the pomegranate for export: a drawing of the sliced, red fruit with seeds spilling out and a label that announces, "Anar, Afghan Pomegranate." Anar is the word for pomegranate in various regional languages.
Afghanistan officials hope the Western-style sales savvy will raise the pomegranate's cachet and provide its farmers with a lucrative alternative to growing opium poppies.
It's the latest step in a $12 million, U.S.-funded initiative to modernize and expand Afghanistan's pomegranate industry, which has long depended on domestic sales and small-scale exports to nearby countries. Even these exports have been severely hit by years of border fighting.
Even though the Afghan pomegranate is considered one of the best in the world, it has been very much a local delicacy. The fruit is about the size of an apple, with a thick, reddish skin and hundreds of seeds embedded in tough, white pulp. This time of year, the red seed casings are consumed everywhere in Kabul — as juice, spooned straight from the fruit, or piled on a tray and sold by the scoop to picnickers in parks.
Pomegranates are riding a wave of popularity in Europe and the United States, where they are celebrated for their high levels of antioxidants, which protect cells from damage by compounds called free radicals. U.S. domestic supply comes largely from California's San Joaquin Valley, augmented by imports from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and Mexico.
Last year, Afghanistan exported its first pomegranates to outlets of the French chain Carrefour in Dubai. The fruit, larger and redder than many pomegranates imported from Turkey or North Africa, was a hit. Carrefour quickly placed orders for all its Middle East stores, according to U.S. funders and Afghan officials.
"They found out that Anar from Afghanistan is probably the best tasting. It's sweet; it's juicy," Afghanistan Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asif Rahimi said at the launch ceremony at a Kabul hotel Wednesday.
Afghanistan's most successful export — agricultural or otherwise — is opium.
It produced 8,200 tons of the drug in 2007, up 34 percent from the previous year. Though opium production is expected to drop back this year, Afghanistan will remain the world's largest producer of the crop by far.
Yet farmers willing to put in the extra care and investment required for fruit trees can make more money growing pomegranates, said Loren Stoddard, USAID's head of alternative development and agriculture.
On average, farmers make about $2,000 per acre with pomegranates, versus $1,320 per acre growing poppies, Stoddard said.
But in a country where large regions are still very much a war zone, there are still major barriers and high costs to creating any sort of sustainable export business. Trucks on major transit routes are subject to frequent attacks. Last year's test run of pomegranates were flown out on cargo planes that supply the U.S. military.
Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warned that Afghanistan lacks the security, infrastructure and oversight to make projects like the pomegranate initiative realistic.
"Almost all of the measures that people suggest — buying the crop, introducing alternative crops — depend on there being a government presence and a police presence in the field that is honest," Cordesman said. "At this point in time, that's impossible."
He added that many of the alternative crop schemes being introduced in Afghanistan already were tried and abandoned as failures in Latin America.
"That was in countries with far more effective market systems. Reinventing the wheel isn't going to eliminate drugs," he said.
Even Wednesday's launch event — with pomegranate juice stations, color banners proclaiming the arrival of Anar, international speakers and a dinner finishing with pomegranate ice cream — required security on the level of a military base. Bomb-sniffing dogs inspected cars and guests were frisked.
And pomegranate crops are much riskier for farmers than poppy, which is supported by a sophisticated system put in place by drug traffickers.
"The benefits of poppy go beyond just what the farmer can get when he sells it at the farm gate," said Joel Hafvenstein, author of "Opium Season," a book about working on a poppy alternative crop project in southern Afghanistan. "Traffickers provide advance payments, credit, contract farming arrangements, technical advice, a whole package of benefits that don't come with any other crop in Afghanistan."
Still, the pomegranate experts are optimistic.
William Phillimore, executive vice president of Paramount Farming Co., whose Pom Wonderful helped sparked the jump in U.S. demand, called Afghan pomegranates "as good as anything I've tasted." He was in Kabul for the launch.
U.S. pest control regulations mean that Afghan pomegranates won't be showing up in New York or California anytime soon, but even if they did, Phillimore said he believes the market would be big enough to accommodate more of the fruit, which his company grows in California.
If the pomegranate marketing succeeds, it could end up boosting the brand name of Afghanistan itself.
"Afghanistan has a mixed-brand heritage," Stoddard said, noting that while the country currently invokes thoughts of war and extremism, it's still exotic to the Western mind.
Among Afghanistan's 48 different types of pomegranates, there is one that has survived all the years of Afghanistan's negative press. The Kandahari pomegranate, named after the southern Afghan province where it is grown, is one of the most sought-after in India.
Stoddard said those shipped to India will be labeled the "Kandahari Pomegranate" because of the popularity of the brand.