Iraq: From breadbasket to dust bowl

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The World

ABU KHAMEES, Iraq — When Iraqi farmer Amir Yass Kadyar returned to his fields this time last year, after 12 months languishing in Baquba as a refugee, the land was barren.

Agricultural problems had been building in the years before he left, but with his fields lying derelict the challenges compounded. Now Kadyar says he can’t compete with cheap, imported produce, so he has stopped growing food altogether.

“The government doesn’t support the farmers,” Kadyar said, explaining that without government subsidies it is impossible for local farmers to compete with foreign producers that charge as little as half Iraqi market price for their fruits and vegetables.

Known for centuries as the breadbasket of the Middle East, Iraq has become a net importer of food for the first time in recent history, mainly due to decades of war, sanctions and ineffective government policy.

Agriculture experts say that with time and sufficient resources, Iraq’s farms can overcome substantial technical problems. But creating an effective government policy for the nation’s agricultural industry may prove a bigger hurdle.

“There are policy issues that need to be resolved, and then there are structural issues that need to be resolved," said Russell Williams, senior agricultural adviser for the U.S. State Department’s provisional reconstruction team in Diyala Province. "There’s nothing here that can’t be resolved, but it’s time and money. At the current pace it’s going to take a while.” 

If Iraq does not move to repair its farming sector, it could face a food supply emergency. A USAID study predicts that Iraq will face a major food crisis within a generation unless the government undertakes a significant reallocation of oil revenue to fund imports and food production. Additionally, Iraq’s rapidly growing population and expanding middle class will also place significant strain on the nation’s food supply.

Despite being situated in the heart of an area known from antiquity as the fertile crescent, Iraq has been in an agricultural demise for the last several decades.

Though the decline in the sector began under ineffective socialist farming practices implemented by Saddam Hussein, the real problems came shortly after the first Gulf War. The oil for food program flooded Iraq with free food in the form of rations, forcing many Iraqi farmers out of work.

Coalition forces, after their invasion of 2003, established the Coalition Provisional Authority to temporarily assist in governing the country. Seeking to end decades of close government oversight, the authority drastically reduced funding to most government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture. Subsequently, Iraqi farmers lost government support and many were unable to make a profit farming.

A bad situation was made worse still when violence began driving farmers from their homes. Without regular irrigation, water evaporated from the soil leaving behind high concentrations of salt. Irrigation channels fell into disrepair, and without anyone enforcing regulations some farmers upstream began taking more than their share of water, leaving downstream farmers with little or no water. A three-year drought has exacerbated the problem.

Turkey’s ambitions to expand its agricultural sector and dam rivers that flow into Iraq further exacerbated the water shortage.

“There are so many problems for our farms,” said Makky Ali Hussein, a representative for the Ministry of Agriculture in Diyala Province.

In Diyala Province, Iraq’s agricultural heartland, the mineral deficiencies in the soil often mean that local fruits and vegetables have blemishes and diseases that make it difficult, if not impossible to compete with imported goods.

However, even if the government tried to give local farmers a boost by reducing imports, it remains unclear if they’re in a position to provide enough produce to meet the needs of the nation. The United Nations recently listed Iraq as one of 32 nations requiring food aid.

“It’s very hard to control our borders,” said Hassan Al-Wan Sayeed, the mayor of Buritz, a large town in Diyala Province. “Even if we stopped produce coming in from Iran, Syria and Turkey, Iraqi farmers aren’t producing enough.”

But if necessity is the mother of investion, then there is glimmer of hope for Iraq: Williams says that Iraqi farmers may find success by focusing on niche markets, such as organic food. With limited access to pesticides and chemical fertilizers, many Iraqi date and pomegranate farmers are already producing produce that can easily be certified as organic.

“We’re trying put things together and help farmers form farming organizations, when they form an organization they have a greater ability to attract capital and have the ability to pool their resources in the market,” said Steve Gregory, an agriculture expert from the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture working with the provincial reconstruction team in Diyala.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Iraq:

Iraq marks full sovereignty with a parade

Iraqi "independence day" arrives

In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings

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