| Iraq's winter rains have yet to arrive
and the country's Northern provinces are suffering from a drought,
Iraq's agriculture minister announced in January. The drought adds
to the burden of farmers already dealing with poor soil, a lack
of power and equipment, and other difficulties.
"Production will be down. Definitely there will be a great
impact," Agriculture Minister Ali al-Bahadili told the Agence
economy is now synonymous with oil, but it wasn't always so. Since
ancient times, the land -- typically watered by rain in the North
and irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the middle
-- has been a center of agriculture in the Middle East, producing
wheat, barley and dates, among other crops.
Agriculture is the second-largest contributor to Iraq's GDP behind
oil. It employs a significant percentage of the labor force, although
estimates of that percentage vary. Kirk Miller of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service put it at 25 percent
in recent testimony before Congress, while a 2006 report from
the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimated
But decades of mismanagement, shifting land policies, neglect
and international sanctions strained Iraq's agricultural sector
even before 2003, and five years of war has taken a further toll.
Slide from self-sufficiency
In the 1950s, Iraq was self-sufficient in agricultural production,
according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report. But
by the 1960s it imported 15 percent of its food, by 1980 it imported
half, and by 2002 it relied on imports for 80 to 100 percent of
many staples, including wheat, rice and vegetable oil, under the
United Nations oil-for-food program.
Part of the reason for that slide from self-sufficiency was a
rapidly growing population that outpaced production capabilities.
Throughout the 1980s the Iraqi government heavily subsidized agricultural
production. But by the mid-1990s economic problems related to
international sanctions ended much of that support, and lack of
resources such as fertilizer, farm machinery and pesticides meant
production dropped. Also, water pumps and irrigation canals --
which are essential to most farming in the country and which must
be cleaned and repaired each year -- were neglected, leading to
problems with soil salinity.
Since 2003, the war has only made things worse, according to
Iraq's agriculture minister in the AFP interview.
"There are so many other problems related to the farming
-- lack of electricity, poor roads, the security situation,"
he told the news agency. "The soil in most of the areas from
the southern and middle part of Iraq is saline. You cannot use
fertilizer if you have bad soil. That is why we are not getting
enough yield. We also need new machinery and better varieties
of plant. The roads are not safe for farmers to get their produce
Kamil Mahdi, an Iraqi economist who teaches at the University
of Exeter, said that the only reason agriculture survives in Iraq
-- usually as a local, isolated enterprise -- is that people have
no other opportunities.
"The subsidized inputs have essentially disappeared, and
there's been a complete failure in carrying out public projects
like irrigation and drainage," he said. "It's really
a dire situation for agriculture. It survives only because there's
nothing else -- no other potential for employment."
Some U.S. and international organizations are working to help
rehabilitate Iraq's agricultural infrastructure.
Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural
Service has sent employees to Iraq to serve on Provincial Reconstruction
Teams -- groups of civilians that work with military units on
reconstruction projects. As of late January, 23 USDA agricultural
advisers were working across Iraq.
"Part of what we're trying to do is work with the Iraqi
government to help them provide the kinds of services they would
in any country," said Grant Pettrie, who recently completed
his tenure as the U.S. agriculture adviser liaison in Baghdad.
That effort includes agricultural extension services such as
introducing new products and training farmers on how to use them,
and basic infrastructure upkeep such as cleaning and repairing
irrigation pumps and canals.
"The idea is to work closely enough with the Iraqi government
that they can do it themselves," Pettrie said. "Because
when we do it, who's going to do it in a year?"
USDA advisers also are working on local projects, such as developing
a beekeepers association in Babil province.
"Honey is actually a good moneymaker, and a good way for
farmers to diversify their income," said Pettrie.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture organization also is
funding and carrying out a variety of projects, from fish farms
to the date palm industry to rehabilitating food processing plants.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, meanwhile, has
shifted the focus of its reconstruction efforts. From 2003 to
2006, the agency's program was called Agriculture Reconstruction
and Development in Iraq. It focused on restoring and providing
basic agricultural needs such as seeds, veterinary services and
Many of these projects are ongoing, but they are now under the
umbrella of a program called Inma, which is the Arabic word for
growth. Inma is focused on developing the business side of Iraq's
agricultural sector -- trying to revive private businesses such
as date processing plants, restoring and reopening wholesale markets
in Baghdad and other projects.
"We're trying to get private businesses back up and running
in Iraq," said Ron Curtis, program manager for Inma.
Both Curtis and Pettrie say the biggest challenge they face is
the security situation in the country, which can make it difficult
to reach the places and people that they want.
"Violence levels are down, but it's still dangerous, and
we don't have the freedom to travel as much as we'd like,"
Curtis said. "When we go to a factory -- we have people who
are very experienced in canning, say ... if they can walk into
a facility, they can identify problems immediately. Reading reports
is a second-best way to do it."
Iraqi economist Kamil Mahdi said he is worried that long-term
issues are being ignored, such as the fact that the water that
irrigates Iraqi fields is affected by dams in Turkey and Syria.
"The conditions of war and sanctions, over a long period
of time when Iraq was isolated, made it impossible for Iraq to
argue effectively for long-term water security," he said.
"So there is a question of how that is going to be managed
in the longer term."
And he questioned some of the agricultural laws put in place
by the coalition provisional authority in 2004, which he said
could pave the way for international agribusinesses to enter the
Iraqi market in a way that would be detrimental to the average
"I think the challenge for Iraq is to develop the agricultural
sector as a broad sector that encompasses large numbers of workers,
large numbers of producers, that would have a broad product mix,"
But Pettrie and Curtis said they are starting to see some positive
changes even at the most basic level.
"I'm already seeing interest [in agriculture] increasing,"
Pettrie said. "People are waking up to the idea that there's
more than just oil here -- agriculture is the second-largest employer
in the country. ... I can see that we've really started down a