x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Salt of this earth

World Iraq's agricultural sector is in serious trouble. The crisis is much worse than one bad growing season, and the explanation goes far beyond drought.

According to Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture, the country is losing five per cent of its farmable land each year.
According to Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture, the country is losing five per cent of its farmable land each year.

Iraq's agricultural sector is in serious trouble. The crisis is much worse than one bad growing season, and the explanation goes far beyond drought. David Enders reports from the formerly fertile crescent The small Iraqi farming community of Mahaweel has existed for at least 1,000 years. It sits in the region where Sumerian farmers began to use the first ploughs more than 4,000 years ago. Traditionally, its residents have grown much of their own food and sold the surplus - especially dates and rice - across Iraq and around the world. These days, however, farmers in the area aren't planting their fields because it's profitable, but because they don't know what else to do.

"My grandfather was a farmer and my father was a farmer," says Abbas Jabbar, who grows eggplants, peppers and cucumber. "Will my son be a farmer? Only God knows." Iraq's agriculture sector - which currently employs about 40 per cent of working Iraqis with jobs - is in serious trouble. Droughts have rendered much formerly lush land salty and useless. Wheat production has dropped by over 50 per cent. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country is losing five per cent of its farmable land each year, and 2008 was the first year in modern Iraqi history that the country was a net food importer. Oxfam and the World Food Program have noted nationwide malnutrition problems.

Iraqi farmers are leaving the countryside looking for other work, exacerbating the problem of land neglect (deserted land often becomes even less productive) - and the post-invasion crisis of internal displacement. The Ministry of Agriculture is so concerned that it has been providing farmers with interest-free loans. But it remains the case that, as Jabbar puts it: "Three days of work on the farms is equivalent to one day of working construction."

This is more than a bad year, and the explanation goes beyond drought. As many observers have noted, Iraq's current agricultural disaster was triggered in part by the US occupation. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and his advisers were proud champions of the free market mentality. After taking power in 2003, they immediately set about trying to dismantle and privatise every Iraqi state industry. At a May 2003 press conference, Bremer announced the removal of all protective tariffs on imports into the country. "Iraq is open for business," he declared, and ever since the country has been flooded with cheap imports from around the world.

"Imports from Syria flood the market and we cannot compete," Jabbar says. The ineptitude of the CPA has been widely documented. But to simply blame Bremer is to overlook the nearly three-decade-long history of how greed, both international and domestic, destroyed Iraq's farms. In the 1980s, the US government was still friendly with the regime of Saddam Hussein. In that decade, 90 per cent of US rice exports went to Iraq, a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The country's wheat exports alone to Iraq were worth half a billion dollars each year. As pressure built to punish Hussein for his campaign of genocide against Iraq's Kurds, US lawmakers from rice and wheat-growing constituencies helped block the Prevention of Genocide Act, which would have prevented US growers from selling to Iraq. On the other side of the deal, cheap imports allowed Hussein to neglect the farming sector and divert agriculture money to his war with Iran.

The price of this neglect only became clear in the 1990s, after the United Nations levelled sanctions against Iraq. The sanctions blocked Iraqi farmers from exporting the profitable cash crops (like dates) to which they had shifted to avoid competition from cheap US rice. The new rules also made it impossible Iraqi farmers to import the chemicals and equipment they needed to start feeding the country again.

As a result, when the UN's oil-for-food programme began in 1995, the Iraqi government eagerly accepted cheap grain from foreign countries - and distributed it in free rations, further undermining local farmers. Iraqis continue to receive government rations to this day; many families rely on them for basic foodstuffs. In an effort to increase domestic grain production, Saddam forced farmers to plant rice and wheat again - even when their land wasn't suited for it. The sudden, heavy irrigation required would have damaging effects later, when drainage systems (neglected for over a decade) left water to sit and evaporate, leaving behind high concentrations of salt.

The oil-for-food programme was rife with corruption of all sorts. For example (a relatively quotidian one): a man named Trevor Flugge represented the Australian Wheat Board in its dealings with the Hussein government. As the Australian prime mnister, John Howard, told his parliament in 2006: Flugge was hired "to stop American wheat growers from getting our markets". In 2005, it was revealed by an independent UN inquiry that Flugge had helped orchestrate more than $200 million in kickbacks to Hussein's government, ensuring that it used its oil monies to purchase Australian wheat for the rations programme.

When the CPA was set up, one of its first jobs was to make sure the rations kept being distributed. Bremer's team decided to extend Flugge's bribe-won contracts until 2005, ensuring that Australian wheat farmers profited from his underhand dealings for another two years. Then they had to staff Iraqi government ministries with "advisers" - interim ministers with control over purse strings and day-to-day operations. The Bush administration picked two men: one was Dan Amstutz, a former employee of Cargill and Monsanto, two of the world's largest agribusiness firms (Oxfam, responding to the appointment, compared it to "putting Saddam Hussein in charge of human rights"); the other was Trevor Flugge.

From the start, the CPA refused to disburse money to any of Iraq's state company or industries, including the Ministry of Agriculture. "The CPA was composed of people who were basically food traders from the US and Australia. The agriculture sector was basically sabotaged, they weren't interested in getting the food sector going again," said one former US government contractor who was familiar with the CPA's agricultural efforts.

"Bremer took all the money, and refused to give any of it for agriculture," the contractor said, claiming that Bremer refused to work with USAID and other groups tasked with rebuilding the country. "Eventually we got it, after the CPA disappeared and Bremer left." Today, American supplies somewhere between one-third and one-half of Iraq's wheat. (Australia has struggled to sell wheat there since the oil-for-food scandal).

"I think in the high prices of last year, it was probably up to around about a billion dollars," said Alan Tracy, the president of the US Wheat Association, which assists US exporters in dealing with foreign governments. "One of our top five or six markets." In addition to the elimination of protective tariffs and the total lack of investment in Iraqi farming infrastructure, the CPA made one more concession to foreign agribusiness: a change in Iraqi agriculture law referred to as "Order 81".

Order 81 codified, among other things, the sort of intellectual property protections for seed and plant products that producers of genetically modified (GMO) seeds rely on to make money. When it was issued, the law raised little concern except for among avid members of the antiglobalisation movement. The law does not, as has been widely misreported, force Iraqi farmers to use patented, genetically modified seeds produced by international agribusiness concerns like Cargill and Monsanto. But it did proclaim Iraq open for genetic agribusiness.

Some observers are worried that desperate Iraq farmers will take out loans in order to buy expensive patented seeds that might or might not produce increased yields. Under Order 81, patented seeds can only be reused if the farmer pays a relicensing fee each growing season. For a poor Iraqi, a single failed GM crop could be economically devastating. (In India, thousands of farmers have committed suicide after falling into deep debt when their genetically modified crops failed.)

Of course, seeds have a natural tendency to blow from field to field; crops, genetically modified or otherwise, intermingle. Normally, this is a healthy guarantee of biodiversity. Monsanto, however, has successfully sued farmers in the United States and Canada for unknowingly selling seeds from crops sowed by Monsanto originals that wind carried onto their property. Thanks to Order 81, Iraqi farmers could end up in similar positions: paying for expensive, patented and potentially risky crops they didn't want in the first place.

The Minister of Agriculture, Ali Bahedeli, told me he is worried about controlling seeds and other organisms that are being introduced to Iraq, not always with his knowledge. "We have a committee for registering seeds and pesticides in Iraq," he said. "Until now, we find some of these organisations and the [US reconstruction teams] bringing seeds from farmers from abroad. We ask them, if you want to help the Iraqi farmers, let us know what you are planning to do."

But for now farmers in Mahaweel said they were happy to get their hands on the GMO seeds. "The yields are larger and the vegetables are bigger," said Hamid Majeed, a farmer whose land is near Abbas Jabbar's. But it's still not enough to get by. Majeed works as a teacher and uses his income to plant fruit and vegetables on the land his family has farmed for generations. "We used to plant grapes, oranges, apricots - but during the embargo we were forced to plant wheat and rice ... This affected our lands, and these days we can't grow the things we used to plant."

In the last year and a half, farmers in the eastern and southern parts of the country have turned to another new crop, one previously not grown in Iraq: opium. Wheat and rice, however important, just aren't feasible anymore for most farmers. At the Jamila market, Baghdad's largest wholesale market, Umm Sattar sells sacks of flour and rice. "There used to be a lot of Iraqi rice in the market," she told me. "But now there is very little. It is 70,000 to 80,000 dinars for a bag of the Iraqi rice, and the Vietnamese rice is 25,000. The imported flour is 20,000 and the local flour is 25,000."

David Enders, the author of Baghdad Bulletin, is a New York-based freelance television and print journalist.