Iraqi Agriculture in Crisis

The agricultural sector — Iraq’s second largest industry, employing nearly one-third of the population — has been decimated by conflict, mismanagement, and halfhearted reform. 

A farmer drives a cart through the town of Bartella, near Mosul. (March 2017)

When ISIS militants retreated from the strategically important town of Qayyarah in May 2016, they ignited 19 oil wells and a nearby sulfur plant. As Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) pushed toward Mosul, 65 kilometers northward, the fires in Qayyarah burned for 10 months, blocking sunlight and coating large swathes of the Ninewa Plains in toxic ash that left nearly 2,000 civilians severely ill or hospitalized.

Yet, this humanitarian emergency masked the deeper legacy of destruction such pollution left on Iraq’s agricultural heartland in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah ad-Din Provinces. By January 2016, Qayyarah’s surrounding fields were unusable, forcing many farmers to abandon their land and equipment. Their experience highlights a startling loss of growing capacity and sources of livelihoods across territory liberated from ISIS control – undermining the region’s traditional political economic framework as the Ministry of Agriculture struggles to implement reconstruction projects.

With more than half the country’s population today facing food insecurity, the Iraqi government faces a serious crisis in its agricultural sector worsened by economic uncertainty and ongoing conflict. The Qayyarah fires presaged similar acts of purposeful sabotage against farmers, shepherds, and agrarian communities by withdrawing ISIS fighters. After three years of brutal ISIS occupation, looting, and war, over one million acres of arable land in northern Iraq have been rendered useless; thousands of additional acres lie fallow for want of laborers and equipment. The agricultural sector, which employs 60-65 percent of the country’s population despite its relatively small share of GDP contribution (ranging between 3.6 and 10 percent in 2002-2010), is on the verge of collapse. Its narrative of decline offers an important lesson for policymakers attempting to rebuild livelihoods, infrastructure, and communities in the country.

Agriculture in Crisis

Before ISIS’s 2014 sweep across northern Iraq, the country’s agricultural system had been weakened by lack of expertise, personnel, and corruption in Baghdad. Agriculture has historically been Iraq’s second-most important industry (after oil and gas). Since 2003, however, economic mismanagement within the Agriculture and Interior Ministries contributed to rising poverty and food insecurity among rural populations – forcing many to abandon their fields to find more lucrative employment in major cities. As a result of urbanization, Iraq’s agricultural yields have consistently been 50-75 percent less than those produced by its regional neighbors like Turkey and Jordan. By the end of 2009, Iraq’s crop production index – which compares output to a 1990-1991 baseline – had dropped 17 percent; during the same period, its neighbors recorded a nearly 25 percent increase, with global growth average among middle-income countries reaching 22 percent.

While the 2003 US-led invasion freed the country from the devastating economic sanctions imposed during the 1990s, insufficient investment, structural obstacles within the new Iraqi state, and environmental factors prevented any agrarian renaissance. Rural areas reliant on agricultural production were particularly hard-hit between 2005 and 2012. Approximately 39 percent of Iraq’s non-urban population lives in poverty (compared to 16 percent in cities) – a reflection of agricultural and economic mismanagement in the post-2003 period. After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, cheaper foreign food imports flooded the Iraqi market from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Iran, encouraged by U.S. policies that dismantled the elaborate tariff systems that protected less sophisticated Iraqi growers and smallholders. With its farmers operating 30-year-old equipment acquired before sanctions, Iraq could not compete on the open market.

With more than half the country’s population today facing food insecurity, the Iraqi government faces a serious crisis in its agricultural sector worsened by economic uncertainty and ongoing conflict.

Agricultural yield recovered slightly in 2010-2013 from mid-2005 levels, and the Agriculture Ministry hoped to achieve self-sufficiency in food production by the end of 2014. However, fighting across northern Iraq following ISIS’s advances robbed farmers of their harvest for three years in a row, resulting in a 40 percent contraction across the agricultural sector. Among the first government entities ISIS targeted in newly-captured territories were local Agriculture Ministry offices, where they looted large cash reserves and expensive equipment that had originally been destined for distribution in the form of subsidies to growers.

The loss of these administrative institutions weakened local resilience to unpredictable environmental fluctuations, preventing fertilizer and water allocation services. Unlike their counterparts in Jordan and Turkey, who employ advanced drip-irrigation methods, Iraqi growers rely on rainfall channeled through surface irrigation canals. The past three winters have been some of the driest on record in the region, forcing farmers reliant on water-intensive crops like wheat (which had been subsidized by the Saddam regime) to abandon their fields.

Access to sufficient irrigation in mixed areas near the Iraq-Syria-Turkey tri-border has proven a daunting obstacle for growers and a powerful tool of social control for political actors. While much of northern Iraq’s farms rely on rainfall, fields in the Sinjar area employ a combination of artificial and natural processes. After seizing control of farmland in the region, ISIS militants reportedly levied taxes on water access – pushing already-impoverished families to seek alternative sources of income as their fields dried. In Ninewa Province, for example, these practices produced significant demographic shift as poor rural farmers moved into Mosul, exacerbating socioeconomic divisions between the city’s traditional populations and communities in its hinterland. In Kirkuk Province, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reportedly blocked several canals in an effort to deprive ISIS fighters of drinking water in occupied territory, which caused further upheaval.

Barriers to Recovery

Faced with ongoing economic crisis – deepened by the need to fund postwar reconstruction while oil prices remain low – Baghdad has struggled to devise a coherent strategy for restoring Iraqi agricultural capacity. Since the immediate post-Saddam period, however, Iraq’s agriculture sector has lacked sufficient funding to modernize methods, materials, and equipment. For nearly a decade, Iraqi policymakers have neglected the country’s agriculture, despite its significance within Iraq’s economic structure; most of Baghdad’s attention has focused on building the oil sector, a strategy that today seems unsustainable as oil prices hover just below US$50 per barrel (compared to US$105-109 per-barrel prices in 2010-2013). In 2010, the Agriculture Ministry received just US$1.4 billion for investment – a fraction of the sum requested in the country’s five-year national development plan. Seven years later, funding sources have diminished further, raising doubts that Iraqi agriculture will ever recover following ISIS’s ouster.  For example, In April 2016, Naif Saido Kassem, the mayor of al- Shemal sub-district in Sinjar, said it would take $70 million to repair the damage in his jurisdiction. So far, the Iraqi government has only provided $45 thousand in land reclamation and equipment replacement.

Financial shortfall in Baghdad poses a particularly dangerous threat to Iraqi farmers who remain over-reliant on state intervention at all stages of the growing process. Since the late 1980s, various Iraqi governments have incentivized farmers to grow wheat and barley through subsidies and state purchasing programs – although much of northern Iraq’s rain-fed environment is better suited to orchard fruit, vegetable, and cotton crops. Over the past decade, the Agriculture Ministry has continued to implement similar policies despite the dwindling funds available to it. In 2008, it doubled the wheat prices paid to farmers in an effort to promote cereal production; the following year it attempted to ban fruit and vegetable import while imposing a tariff on cheap foreign equipment imports. In 2013, the Ministry announced that it would increase its purchase of Iraqi wheat and barley.

In each instance, these policies failed to produce the desired result: the 2009 tariff was never fully enforced, and Iraqi farmers were simply unable to meet the artificial demand for cereal crops given their antiquated growing methods. Official buyouts of Iraqi cereals, sometimes at three times the market price, gutted the country’s agricultural sector of its competitiveness. By January 2017, Iraq imported nearly 75 percent of its foodstuffs.

The Iraqi government’s high degree of bureaucratic centralization has further compounded its inability to foster agricultural growth. After three years of missed or diminished harvests and scorched-earth conflict, Iraq’s farmers have been left with little financial flexibility to recover lost capacity. For example, many farms rely on older seed varieties, fertilizers, and crops ill-suited to the changing Iraqi growing environment, which is increasingly characterized by drier conditions. Access to new seeds and fertilizer is tightly controlled by Baghdad, and it takes farmers an average of two years and $2,500-$3,000 to register new methods – an impossible sum for many rural growers. Lower-quality resources offered by the state often produce lower yields and are often in short supply. The government-picked middlemen who transport essential fertilizers and chemicals charge exorbitant prices from local growers, straining an already poverty-stricken demographic. An Iraqi farmer today may earn less than $100 per month after these expenses, compared to the national $900-1100 per month average.

Naif Saido Kassem, the mayor of al- Shemal sub-district in Sinjar, said it would take $70 million to repair [agricultural] damage in his jurisdiction. So far, the Iraqi government has only provided $45,000.

Mismanaged assistance from Baghdad has handicapped modernization and growth efforts across the agricultural sector since 2003. Before ISIS’s emergence, Baghdad had begun to take steps to address these obstacles. Strategies outlined in Iraq’s 2010 National Development Plan (NDP) aimed to couple agricultural development with growth in other areas, including food processing and service sectors. Coupled to these goals was the recognition that Iraq needed to diversify its crops away from wheat, barley, and other cereal grains, as well modernize obsolete technology to employ advanced drip irrigation methods and ploughing equipment. Despite limited efforts to implement these plans in 2010-2013, the exigencies of post-2014 conflict and falling sources of oil-revenue have severely jeopardized chances of success.

Uncertain Recovery

Development of Iraq’s agricultural sector could provide a significant driver of economic growth in post-ISIS Iraq, benefitting the poor and rural populations often excluded from other national recovery programs. High yields, particularly in cereal harvests, could benefit vulnerable low-income and rural households, particularly those headed by women, which tend to spend a higher proportion of income on food. Revitalizing employment in rural Iraq could support poorer families dependent on unskilled labor for subsistence wages, boosting personnel demand and wages.

Confronting the significant barriers to agricultural development, however, will prove a daunting task for the under-funded and inefficient agricultural sector as Baghdad faces higher-priority reconstruction needs in liberated urban areas. As more farmers move from rural areas into the country’s cities, finding the human, financial, and material resources to reverse agricultural decline will likely prove difficult – pushing Iraq to maintain its reliance on food imports from neighbors. Faced with myriad and more immediate spoilers of national security, stability, and economic recovery, the country’s policymakers will be hard-pressed to justify spending on such longer-term, less visible goals. Today, the Agriculture Ministry does not receive financial support from other government offices in charge of oil, trade, or water resources, highlighting a crippling absence of policy coherence or cooperation.

Ultimately, beleaguered farmers do not have the resources or political clout to confront their challenges alone. Without sustained and effective government and international assistance, they may be forced from their lands in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.