Sunday 30 December 2012

Reviving the Agricultural Sector in Iraq

By:Jamal Fuad, Ph.D.*
Background information:
The agricultural sector, in Iraq generally, and in Kurdistan in particular, has greatly suffered under the rule of the Ba’athist regime. It has been subjected to a number of distortions of unequal input supply, preferential subsidies, and import irregularities that overlooked the rules of supply and demand while a heavy dependence on imports further undermined local production. The regime further minimized support to research and extension while keeping farmers ill informed of technological developments and thereby keeping production at subsistence levels. The two devastating wars again diverted much of the country’s resources to the defense sector, leaving the agricultural sector wanting for investment and improvement. These factors forced the farmers to migrate to the towns to work in sectors other than agriculture.
The regime destroyed 4,500 villages in Kurdistan forcing the
residents to relocate and resulting in many moving to collective towns. The regime also laid millions of land mines around villages and water sources and in the rangelands and causing casualties daily. The regime drained the famous marsh lands of southern Iraq and, in drying out a unique area of wetlands, the environmental crime of the century was committed and half a million marsh residents were forced to leave their homes. Again the south, the regime destroyed close to 300,000 palm trees to make room for security roads during the Iraq/Iran war. After the 1991 uprising, the regime also prevented rice production in the two governorates of Najaf and Diwaniya. It also dumped fresh water into the Razzaz salt lake to prevent the flow of fresh water to the South. In short, the regime did everything to undermine the agricultural sector which was then left in total disarray.
Declaration of the UN Sanctions on Iraq:
The Iraqi regime’s behavior, culminating in its invasion of Kuwait,  prompted the International Community to declare sanctions on Iraq, which totally brought the country to a standstill in its capacity to import or export goods. The UN took over Iraqi oil revenues, putting it in an escrow account, giving the UN total power to manage such funds. During the years 1992-1995, Iraq was on the verge of famine as local agricultural output was limited, while its imports were curtailed by imposed sanctions and lack of funds at the disposal of the Iraqi government. The vast deterioration of the health and nutrition status of the Iraqi population forced the UN to act to save Iraqi lives as it had reached critical levels. So at the end of 1995, the International community enacted the Oil for Food Program whereby the UN took over the import of food and other essential items needed for the health and other sectors, thus saving many lives.
The Oil for Food Program as enacted by the UN had many drawbacks.
Firstly, it allowed only the use of imported food for distribution and prevented the purchase of locally produced items for distribution throughout Iraq. Secondly, it distributed food to all sectors of the population, both rich and poor alike. As the quality of the food was of poor standard, those with the means to do so opted to buy food from other sources while selling their UN allocation in the local market. Thus the market was inundated with imported food that had been rejected by people and this caused a fall in the price of local products especially wheat. Under such circumstances farmers could not get a fair price for heir produce and gave up farming to join the rest of the population in reliant on the food distributed under the Oil for Food Program.
Unfortunately, the Oil for Food Program of the UN was replaced by the distribution of food coupons from the Ministry of Trade and this continuation of food handouts over almost twenty years has been the main obstacle in the face of the revival of the agricultural sector. Many other countries have used food distribution programs in adverse situations but these have always been terminated after a few years. Iraq is unique in continuing to continue to implement this system over almost two decades. There has been no political will to terminate the system and as yet no alternative system has been found to be acceptable by politicians. (Alternatives have been proposed on Kurdistan Food security.) The result of food handouts has been the creation of a social situation which I call the Dependency Culture.

It is against this background that we should plan the revitalization of the country’s agricultural sector. The provision of a basic infrastructure of water, electricity, clinics, and schools should be the first priority. Farmers should be supported with required inputs of seeds, fertilizers, agricultural tools, and plant protection chemicals. Such support would gradually be eliminated as farmers become self reliant. At this stage agricultural credit banks are required to provide credit to farmers when they need it. Trained agricultural extension staff are needed to support farming systems that should be market oriented. Such staff will also be active in the delivery of new technologies to the farmers, and to ensure equity of input distribution. Our objectives are the creation of an advanced, market oriented, and more or less self reliant, farming system within a relatively short period of time.
A Policy Statement:
The rehabilitation plan must first address the revival of village life, input availability, technology transfer and provision of storage and marketing facilities. These activities should be carried out in parallel as much as possible. As farmers’ incomes improve, they will become more and more self-reliant.
Iraq is basically an agricultural country. It has the land, water, climate and the expertise required for the cultivation of a large number of both field and horticultural crops, and of domestic animals. Part of the income received from the oil sector should be invested in agriculture for the rehabilitation of the irrigation and drainage canals, and of the countryside in general. An increase of local production must be actively supported and protected against the importation of agricultural items that can locally be produced. This policy must be adhered to in order to revitalise the agricultural sector. The farming community suffered greatly during the years of sanctions when the country was totally dependent on imports of agricultural products and local farmers lost billions of dollars, villages and our countryside suffered while foreign farmers profited. Any policy to the contrary should be actively opposed.
Shortcomings of the Current Agriculture Policies:

While food subsidies continue the government is following a reckless agricultural policy that has expanded the ongoing corruption in the country. The policy of offering prices for agricultural commodities that are higher than those of the international market has prompted farmers to find means of cheating the system and double their profits. For example the price of about 700 US$ offered to farmers for a ton of wheat when its price on the international market is closer to 300 US$ is too great a temptation way to a small group of local farmers. It has been widely reported it that more ‘local’ wheat has been taken into the silos than was actually produced in the country, while others have bought wheat in neighboring countries for 50% of the price paid within Kurdistan for local wheat, then they register the grain as being locally produced when it arrives at the silos, so making a very healthy profit. Meanwhile the government distributing pickup trucks to farmers at subsidy prices does little to encourage rejuvenation of the agriculture sector.
Our objectives, then, are the creation of an advanced, market orientated, and more or less self reliant farming system, within a relatively short period of time.
Priorities in the Agricultural Sector.
The following aspects of agricultural institutions should be seriously addressed:
1.       Agricultural Research and Extension and Training
Agricultural research in Iraq, and also Kurdistan, has been ongoing for over five decades. Useful information is already at hand that should be translated into practical applications in the field. As new problems arise, research work needs to be continued with more emphasis placed on research in the field, in order to introduce improved techniques to the farmers’ fields. At this stage agricultural research staff must be involved in order that they become fully aware of newly introduced technology in all areas of agricultural development.
Training of agricultural extension staff must become a continued activity that is developed and expanded, both in theory and in practical field application. The role of all agricultural institutions must be expanded and involved in the transfer of technological knowledge to extension staff. Therefore, there must be a two-direction flow of information in the triangular research-education-extension set up. In this way all those involved in the agricultural sector will become aware of what others are doing in the fields of their concern.
There are a number of research centers in the country that need to be upgraded and supported in order to become effective in finding new technologies that could be transferred and applied by farmers in the field. As we anticipate a rainfall shortage in the future research in irrigation will have a prominent place in designing a research program to define the limits of irrigation, determination the water requirements of individual crops, and studies on underground water supplies. It will be on the basis of the findings of these studies that laws will be developed and implemented in order to safeguard the integrity of the water table and subterranean water resources.
Water availability has become critical in the region and we face reduced river water levels as Turkey, Iran, and Syria construct dams on the rivers flowing into Iraq. (Kurdistanfoodsecurity has been informed that the completion of Turkey’s Aleeso dam in 2013 will result in a drop in levels in the R. Tigris from 20.6 billion cubic metres per year to 9.7 billion cubic metres. In addition Syria and Iran are constructing dams on other rivers entering Iraq.)
While the possibilities of increasing our water storage capacity through the construction of small dams in the north should be explored we need to minimize farm water usage. Sprinkler and drip irrigation technology should be introduced whenever it is feasible to do so but we also need to investigate other ways of maximizing production from available supplies by the introduction of strains of plants better suited to arid conditions and the use of mulches.
Further, dependence solely on rain in Kurdistan is in decline as annual rainfall levels have been on the decline as global temperatures increase. An active program is needed to finance supplementary irrigation whenever there is a shortfall in the amount of seasonal rain. In such cases crop yield will increase almost tenfold when irrigation is used at critical times of plant growth.
2.       Animal Production Sector
This sector has been well developed through the support it has received from FAO, which provided feed, vitamins and veterinary care in the past. There was an active breed improvement campaign through insemination of local cows and this program should be revitalized.  Breeding and care of small ruminants should also be thoroughly surveyed and breeding programs initiated. In order to preserve natural range, farmers should be made aware of the necessity of keeping only such herds that can be supported by existing range in their vicinity yet there is still the capacity of producing animals that perform better on the available feed. Dependence on free feed and water delivery to the herd should become a relic of the past, except in special circumstances when there is an environmental emergency.
At the present time in Kurdistan and Iraq only about a quarter of the red meat and poultry consumed is produced locally. These figures are based on records from slaughterhouses and poultry producers as there are no reliable statistical records available and a policy of ‘open border’ that facilitates the importation of livestock and meat products, both legal and illegal. Indeed, keeping statistical records in other areas of agriculture and indeed many areas of trade and production.
3.       Mechanization
Machinery for land preparation, harvesting, and crop processing should be introduced on a larger scale. However, the haphazard use of heavy machinery will cause more damage if adequate care is not taken in the judicious use of such machinery. It is essential that the extension
staff are well trained in the use and maintenance of farm machinery.
4.       After-Harvest Loss
Through delays in harvesting crops, the unavailability of an adequate transport system, and lack of proper storage facilities, farmers incur heavy losses in harvests. It is safe to say that perhaps close
to 30% of the harvested crop does not reach the market due to such
losses. Therefore, the supply of adequate harvesting machinery, building on farm storage capacity, and provision of proper transport facilities would increase levels of marketed crops and ensure better farm incomes.
5.       Fruit Nurseries
Provision of fruit nurseries, where improved mother plants are kept for
use in producing grafted stock farms, will result in improving the existing fruit tree varieties. For citrus production, indexing is essential in order to ensure virus free plants. Currently, many orchards have viral infections that reduce yields and produce low quality fruits. A campaign to attend to this problem is in order.
6.       Forest Nurseries
There are a number of nurseries spread out at strategic locations that need to be supported and developed. Such nurseries would produce seedlings that can be used not only for aesthetic reasons, but also to protect watersheds, decrease erosion, improve soil water percolation that will improve water aquifers but also improve the quality of life for both human and wildlife populations.
7.       Plant Protection and Weed Control Measures
In order to increase production levels and to improve the quality of the crops produced, it is essential that an integrated pest management program is introduced to ensure control of diseases, insects, and weeds on farm fields. Such operations must be executed under the control of trained extension staff to insure safety of both farmers, consumers and the environment.
8.        Agricultural Cooperatives
Agricultural cooperatives are very important to give farmers greater bargaining powers, either in marketing their products or purchasing inputs. Currently farmers are disadvantaged in their efforts to gain fair market prices while most of the profits end up in the retailers cash boxes. Usual retail prices exceed farm prices by 3 to 1.
For purchasing inputs of feed, fertilizers, machinery or plant protection chemicals, farmers can gain by buying through their cooperatives to ensure wholesale deals that are unavailable to individual buyers.
9.       The Importance of agro-industries
Agro-industries are industries that use agricultural products as raw material. Oil, sugar, canned vegetables, dairy farms, cereal processing, animal poultry feed production and cotton processing are but few examples that rely on agricultural products. Building agro-industries has multiple advantages among which are the following:
·       Agro-industries will provide food for the population and feed for
         livestock and poultry.
·       Agro-industries will provide job opportunities for a large sector
         of the population.
·       Agro-industries will make use of farm byproducts, making the farming operation more profitable, and provide for a clean
·       Above all agro-industries will help boost the economy and insures
         local production of essential=al items required by the local
·       Agro-industries will further do away with imports of many products
         which sometimes  can be unsafe for use by the local population.
·       Agro-industries will support local food security for the population.
10.     Opportunities for building Agro-industries
Opportunities for building agro-industrial outlets abound in Iraq as well as in Kurdistan. In Kurdistan the plains of Garmian (Kalar, Kifri, etc.) Sharazoor, Rania, Sharbazher, and the Erbil plains, Aqra, Zakho are important areas where agro-industries can flourish. Dairy industries can do well in both Sharazoor (Halabja) and the Rania areas. The same areas can provide for vegetable oil production such as sunflower oil. In the case of animal feed production there are many areas that are suitable for growing maize, soybeans, grains and legumes that could be mixed and prepared as feeds for livestock and poultry.
*Senior Agronomist, Internationl Consultant
Former FAO and WORLD BANK staff

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