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Space Harvest

Where to plant 200 billion seeds headed for Afghanistan? Ask the satellites.

Satellites helped the U.S. wage war in Afghanistan, gathering reconnaissance and guiding unmanned drones. Now, they are helping to rebuild the devastated nation.

In January, the United States began distributing more than 7,000 metric tons of improved varieties of drought-resistant seeds to farmers in the war-torn country, where agriculture is the primary industry and wheat the staple crop (see sidebar: “Seeds of Hope”). To decide where to send seeds, relief workers are-for the first time in Afghanistan-using satellite imagery to distinguish fertile regions from drought-stricken ones.

“We want to make sure that we’re getting the improved varieties of the seed to areas where there is moisture in the soil,” says Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is responsible for American aid to developing countries.

Relief workers will use satellite imagery to help farmers cope with the worst drought in the country’s memory, which has turned vast swathes of arable land into parched desert. The drought is so severe that Ross Wherry, a USAID rural development specialist, likens it to the dustbowl that struck the southern U.S. in the 1930s. “It’s a crushing blow,” he says, heaped on top of the destruction and dislocation of Afghanistan’s 20 years of civil war.

As refugees return home from Pakistan and elsewhere, farmers will attempt to replant crops on the land their families have worked for generations, Wherry says. But no seed-not even the drought-resistant ones provided by U.S. authorities-will grow in some areas. “It doesn’t do people any good to bring them seed they can’t use,” Wherry says. “It just makes them angry.”

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