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UN Seeks Cranfield University’s Assistance to Build AI to Track Afghanistan’s Opium Production

Cranfield University in the United Kingdom issued a statement on January 16 indicating a research partnership with the United Nations (UN) to assist the UN in developing artificial intelligence (AI) to support the monitoring of illegal opium production in Afghanistan.

Shivam Dwivedi
Afghanistan's opium crop was the most profitable in years in 2022
Afghanistan's opium crop was the most profitable in years in 2022

Under the research programme, the researchers will use AI to interpret satellite imagery, which will assist them in determining where crops are being used for drug production in Afghanistan. According to Daniel Simms, a lecturer at Cranfield University, the partnership between the University and the UN will last until July 2023.


According to the report, Afghanistan is still the world's largest producer of poppy cultivation. The total poppy cultivation area is estimated at 233,000 hectares, with approximately 73-80 percent concentrated in the country's southwestern regions, as reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2022.

The process will be automated with AI, allowing for monitoring of the extent and evolution of poppy cultivation in the country and assisting the government in addressing the issue of these crops. Over the last two decades, the United States has invested more than USD 8.62 billion in counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan.

Despite the investment, the country remains the world's leading producer of opium. According to UNODC research, Afghanistan's opium crop was the most profitable in years in 2022, with cultivation increasing by nearly one-third and prices skyrocketing.


Afghanistan's opium cultivation-new discoveries and emerging threats is the first report on the illicit opium economy since the Taliban, who took power in August 2021, banned opium poppy cultivation and all narcotics in April 2022. "Afghan farmers are trapped in the illicit opiate economy, while seizure events across Afghanistan indicate that opiate trafficking continues unabated," said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly upon the survey's release.

"The international community must work to address the Afghan people's urgent needs while also stepping up responses to stop criminal groups trafficking heroin and causing harm in countries around the world."

Since the announcement of the cultivation ban in April, opium prices have skyrocketed. Farmers' income from opium sales more than tripled from USD 425 million in 2021 to USD 1.4 billion in 2022, accounting for 29% of the agricultural sector's total value in 2021.


The farm-gate value of opiates in 2021 was only about 9% of the previous year's agricultural output, according to the UNODC report. However, the increase in income did not necessarily translate into increased purchasing power because inflation soared during the same period, with food prices increasing by 35% on average.


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