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Afghanistan’s relentless opium woes have a 'new seed in town,' and it comes from China

An Afghan farmer collects raw opium as he works in a poppy field in Khogyani District of Nangarhar province on April 29, 2013.
Noorullah Shirzada | AFP | Getty Images

A problem that Afghanistan and international governments have tried to eradicate for decades is only getting worse, and China is a big reason why.

Last week, Afghanistan released new data showing opium production is surging, information that dovetailed with a widely circulated 2016 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report that showed similar findings. The primary problem is a new strain of genetically modified seed that comes from China, which allows poppies to be grown year round. The so-called Chinese seeds began appearing in 2015, according to the UNODC, leading to a massive 43 percent surge in production last year.

According to a separate report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the growth cycle of opium in Afghanistan is now around two months, when it used to take three times as long to grow the crop and process it into heroin. That means heroin can now be cultivated on a year-round basis, the report noted.

"We are aware of the new seed in town," Afghan government spokesperson Javid Faisal told CNBC in an interview. The war-torn country is working to gather more information about the new opium seed, and the government is in "search to find ways to avoid its traffic," Faisal added.

Although the plants are farmed legally for pharmaceutical purposes in China, the appearance across the border in Afghanistan has exacerbated a long-running headache for Afghan officials. For years, the country and international organizations have struggled to contain the ceaseless cultivation and multi-billion dollar sales of opium, widely considered to be Afghanistan's biggest source of economic activity.

The Afghan government said most of the opiate produced within the country is being sold in the global drug market, with Russia and Pakistan absorbing much of those exports. Europe is also a prime destination, as is North America. More than 47,000 people died from prescription and illegal opioids overdoses last year, according to the CDC report.

In 2007, UNODC data estimated the Afghan export value of opiates to be around $4 billion. Ten years later, that number has only gone up as the Taliban continue to use opiate revenue to fuel its insurgency against the Afghan government and NATO forces.

Faisal told CNBC that Taliban forces "cultivate themselves" with the opium, and that a whopping 90 percent of poppy fields are "in the areas which are under the Taliban control. They get a tenth of the opium produced in Afghanistan."

The opium problem has mushroomed despite the U.S.'s best efforts to eradicate poppy crops. In a January report, the Pentagon's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. oversight agency for Afghan reconstruction efforts, said the U.S. has committed more than $8.5 billion to counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. Still, Afghanistan remains the world's top opium producer.

Pentagon representatives declined to comment to CNBC about the rise of the new Chinese seed.

The Afghan opium trade remains a key source of funding for the Taliban, which is also benefiting from an influx of money from Saudi Arabia. The conundrum is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, as Taliban forces recently gained a key district in Helmand — a major hub for poppy production — ahead of the plant's peak season.

"We once again ask our international partners to close the international [opium] market" said Afghan government spokesperson to CNBC. The opium problem in Afghanistan is a global concern.