Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Iraqi agriculture minister, Izz Al-Din Al-Dawla, could not hide his pleasure when he announced new developments in Iraqi farming. For the first time in more than two decades, he said, Iraq had “achieved self-sufficiency in wheat production this year.”
But he clearly also had fears about the sector. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the minister spoke of the obstacles he confronted in his work, many of which were related to the political situation in Iraq. At the forefront of his concerns, he said, was the water crisis his country may soon face—and which would be a decisive factor in the future of domestic Iraqi agriculture.
Beyond the politics of the industry, however, there are also the challenges every farmer around the world faces: the vagaries of the climate, the land and the weather.
Iraq is often called the “land of black,” a reference to the rich soil that has made it a breadbasket of the region since ancient times, although desertification and dust storms are increasingly threatening its fertile soil.
It is also known as “Mesopotamia”—“the land between the rivers”—but today the country is facing the possibility of an extended drought due to a lack of rainfall and consequent desertification. On the political level, ongoing water disputes with neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran make it difficult to manage what water resources there are.
The politics of food
Since the old regime was overthrown in 2003, the agriculture sector in Iraq has met many challenges. Under Saddam Hussein, the industry went through a very different challenge to the ones it faces today. In the era of the embargoes after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq was forced to achieve a certain level of self-sufficiency in food production. Complete self-sufficiency was achieved in some fruits and vegetables, as well as with wheat, barley and rice. The siege lasted 13 years and severely damaged agriculture in Iraq. The crises it caused affected the entire economy, from agriculture to oil and water, health and education.
Iraq has managed to transition from a socialist, centralized economy to a market economy over the last 40 years. But that transformation has not affected the agriculture sector, as the Iraqi economy has also shifted to near-complete reliance on oil income.
Politics still finds its way into everything in Iraq, including food production. In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Dawla said: “The political crisis in Iraq influenced the [agriculture] ministry’s performance to a large extent. This crisis has, in many ways, derailed the ministry’s work, and of course these various obstacles are difficult to overcome.”
He added: “Agriculture is a living organism that requires prime conditions for growth, and when this is not available, growth will be adversely affected. The Ministry of Agriculture has a close association with other ministries, especially the oil, electricity, trade and water resources ministries. We also work with the ministries, as well as Parliament.”
He also spoke of the regulatory framework within which Iraqi agriculture operates. From the state’s perspective, the current situation of agriculture in the country is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, regulatory institutions are an attempt at bringing financial integrity and transparency to the sector. On the other, Iraq has well-known problems with financial and administrative corruption, and the regular audits imposed on the sector are only a small part of what needs to be done to tackle such widespread graft.
In investigating the state of agriculture in Iraq, Asharq Al-Awsat found that there has been a decline in agricultural production (and a corresponding heavy reliance on imports) in spite of the government’s efforts to increase it—even for key crops such as dates.
In response, the Council of Ministers set up the Agricultural Initiative, which is attempting to combat this trend and is chaired by the prime minister. In its daily operations, however, the group acts as a sub-unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Dawla said.
The minister said: “The initiative is ours in terms of personnel and methods, and the project is supported by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, thus expressing their understanding of the importance of the agricultural sector. This is achieved through the framework of a ministerial committee comprised of several ministries.”
“The Agricultural Initiative was created in 2008 with its own budget, and has been able so far to provide loans to farmers amounting to about 1.75 trillion Iraqi dinars (1.5 billion US dollars). About 97,130 farmers all over Iraq are beneficiaries of the project.”
As we were arranging this interview, the director of public relations and media at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the strategic objective of launching this agricultural initiative is to revive the agricultural sector as a productive economic sector by supporting the establishment and operation of new plant- and animal-related projects.”
He continued: “The agricultural loans have contributed significantly to high animal and plant production this year. We produced 3.2 million tons of wheat this year, representing a more than 50 percent increase over last year. Iraq is slowly approaching self-sufficiency in this area [in wheat production] and others, as it was announced a few months ago that we would stop importing certain vegetables from abroad. The only exceptions are various fruits that are not grown in Iraq.”
Speaking about the government’s policy toward the initiative and how it relates to the ministry’s work, Dawla said: “Our policy is to support farms and farmers by providing seed, fertilizer and water. One of our most important responsibilities is to reduce the red tape that still forms an obstacle to development.”
He cited an example from the agricultural loan sector, saying that “the lending process is very complex and used to have approximately 22 stages. This is a killer for farmers and farms. We managed to cut down the process as much as possible in order to increase lending. This has clearly been a positive change, as we achieved self-sufficiency in wheat production this year, one of Iraq’s most strategically important crops. Production numbers have reached 4.2 million tons, which is how much wheat Iraq consumes annually.”
When asked about the fact that Iraq still imports fruits and vegetables from countries that do not have the fertile soil or water resources of the country, the minister said: “We have practically achieved self-sufficiency in a number of vegetables, as no one has requested a license to import them for seven months, with the exception of onions.”
Speaking of the Jordanian, Syrian and Iranian tomatoes and cucumbers that are available for sale in Iraq—and which the minister himself eats—he said: “The ministry responsible for [agricultural] production is not responsible for marketing or border crossing points, which should be monitored in order to encourage domestic production and reward farmers.”
Of course, it is not possible to discuss agriculture in Iraq without mentioning dates and the palm trees that produce them. Iraq is known as the land that first produced date palms, and there were 30 million trees within the state’s borders in the 1960s and 1970s. But the various wars, diseases, droughts, dredging operations and construction projects the country has witnessed in the past 40 years has led to there being only around 6 million trees today. The ministry “hopes that number will reach 20 million,” says Dawla.
Statistics prepared specifically for Asharq Al-Awsat by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department for Planning and Follow-Up “indicate that there has been a recent increase in the number of palm trees in Iraq. This is attributed to several government initiatives, among them a clear encouragement of palm cultivation and support for date production.”
The minister said that the ministry supports the date industry mostly through loans supporting palm tree cultivation, as well as through encouraging manufacturing industries that rely on dates.
Even though Iraq is a natural agricultural center, the economy today heavily depends on oil resources. Many in the country fear the consequences of this trend. There is still much to be done to make the industry profitable, including improving the political and administrative situation with regards to agriculture, more effectively managing water resources, and encouraging investment in the sector.
Dawla said: “The political dimensions of this issue go back to the state, but especially concerning is the fact that there is a fundamental issue regarding infrastructure for collecting surface water and ground water. These things must be addressed.”
In saying so, he illustrated how Iraq’s future in relation to water is also unclear. The annual floods of the Tigris and Euphrates are no longer enough to meet the country’s needs, thanks to both the drought and Turkish and Iranian projects that utilize water. Electricity production has also been slowed due to a lack of available water.
Dawla indicated that “alternatives include adopting sprinkler and drip methods [of irrigation], as well as promoting covered cultivation and the purchase of drought-tolerant seeds.”
On the political level, Iraq must pursue “a balanced foreign policy with neighboring countries concerning water, and ratification of the Supreme Council’s ruling on water by Parliament”, he said.
But the country also faces increasingly difficult weather patterns: a report submitted by the UN Secretary-General’s office this year showed that it is one of the most vulnerable countries to dust storms in the world.
That report predicted that Iraq will be exposed to 300 dust storms over the next 10 years. But perhaps worse, that Iraq will be a source of many of those storms due to the ongoing environmental degradation in the country.
But in summing up the state of the Iraqi agriculture sector, economic expert Majid Al-Souri told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we can say definitively that the agricultural sector’s role in the economy has risen in recent years to 7 percent of national income, as opposed to 2 percent in the past.”
Souri added: “This is a positive development, but it is not enough; Iraq’s economy used to be based on agriculture, not oil. Iraq’s huge annual budget can play a role in aiding agricultural development, both plant- and animal-based.”
Dawla said: “We are aiming for self-sufficiency, and that will not be achieved so long as many parts of our country lack logistic, production and marketing support.”