Iraq’s farmers struggle despite bumper harvest
Jamal Mukhlif Naif and his family were harvesting a bumper crop on a May night in northern Iraq, their best in years. But the celebratory mood was shattered when gunfire erupted around them.
Isis fighters stormed Mr Naif’s harvesting party, killing five people. The youngest was 18 years old. The jihadis set fire to the field and machinery, then gloated about the attack online, posting pictures and videos.
“It was an excellent harvest,” said Mr Naif. “But we lost all our product for the year . . . [and] I’m very scared to go back to my land.”
This winter’s rains brought severe flooding but also relief to Iraq’s fertile soil after a period of drought. But even absent the acute challenges posed by climate change, the windfall harvest could not paper over the structural problems that plague Iraq’s agricultural sector, the country’s second largest after oil and the biggest provider of rural employment, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Not only do people in Iraq’s countryside remain vulnerable to extremists, but cultivators and experts say mismanagement is pushing farmers to the brink.
Farmers are expected to bring in 4m tonnes of wheat this year, according to the US government’s Global Agricultural Information Network — up 32.5 per cent on last year.
Swaths of fields have burnt across Iraq and neighbouring Syria this season, devastating individual farms. Not all fires are caused by Isis, which still has cells lingering on though they lost control of the area two years ago. Some are blamed on arson or accident.
Wim Zwijnenburg, a project leader for NGO PAX, estimates that about 1,000 sq km of Iraq’s agricultural land was scorched this year. The unusual abundance of vegetation made it easier for fire to spread.
The higher production has overwhelmed state silos in northern Iraq, resulting in miles-long queues of trucks. Drivers told the Financial Times they had waited for more than 20 days and had been turned away from other silos.
Shirqat’s silo, one of the area’s biggest, is only working at about 30 per cent capacity, according to a guard. Ventilators that were damaged during the fight to liberate the area from Isis still have not been fixed.
The healthy crop has come although Iraq’s cereal fields are shrinking, according to UN data. The peak cereal harvest area of 4.6m hectares in 1993 had fallen to less than a third of that area by 2017. Shirqat is in Salahuddin governorate, which contains a tenth of Iraq’s arable land according to Iraq’s agriculture ministry.
Much of the problem lies in the failure of successive governments to adequately manage agriculture, said John Schnittker, an agricultural expert and former ministerial adviser. Much of this land should be put back to pasture to reduce desertification, yet farmers are only incentivised to plant, not conserve, by the government’s demand for wheat distributed through a social welfare programme.
Iraqi shoppers will generate little demand for the plentiful wheat crop. Iraq imports about 2m tons of higher quality flour per year — mostly from neighbouring Iran and Turkey — to satisfy consumer demand, said Mr Schnittker, an amount which has more than doubled since 2012.
Iraq could instead provide farmers with direct payments rather than buying their crops. “Then the farmer makes the decision whether he plants or not,” he suggested. If conservation efforts are not made, he warned, Iraq could resemble the American dust bowl of the 1930s.
Farmers warn that erratic rainfall and rising temperatures are pushing them off rain-fed land. Irrigation using water from the Tigris river is also becoming a problem due to upstream damming in Turkey and Syria. Government subsidies have also dried up, while Iraqi farmers’ products face competition from cheaper fruit and vegetables imported from Iran, Turkey and Syria.
“My father used to plant 60 acres by the river,” said melon seller Hani Atiab, 33. But without government help to buy seeds and other inputs such as fertilisers “it’s not profitable to plant. Now we buy these melons wholesale in Mosul. Of course, if we planted ourselves we’d make more money.”
Some farmers are giving up. Only one-fifth of the arable land around his village is planted now, said Mohammad Saleem, 60, a landowner and local tribal sheikh, at a meeting of the area’s elders. “Soon there will be no more farming left,” he sighed.
Their traditional industry eroded, unemployed men are quitting farming for jobs in the police and military. Some may choose a darker path. With agriculture in decline and “for lack of job opportunities, there were people who joined [Isis]”, farmer Nizar Ramadan, 65, warned.