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Iraq: From breadbasket to dust bowl

But could it have a future in organic foods?

ABU KHAMEES, Iraq — When Iraqi farmer Amir Yass Kadyar returned to his fields this time last year, after 12 months languishing in Baquba as a refugee, the land was barren.

Agricultural problems had been building in the years before he left, but with his fields lying derelict the challenges compounded. Now Kadyar says he can’t compete with cheap, imported produce, so he has stopped growing food altogether.

“The government doesn’t support the farmers,” Kadyar said, explaining that without government subsidies it is impossible for local farmers to compete with foreign producers that charge as little as half Iraqi market price for their fruits and vegetables.

Known for centuries as the breadbasket of the Middle East, Iraq has become a net importer of food for the first time in recent history, mainly due to decades of war, sanctions and ineffective government policy.

Agriculture experts say that with time and sufficient resources, Iraq’s farms can overcome substantial technical problems. But creating an effective government policy for the nation’s agricultural industry may prove a bigger hurdle.

“There are policy issues that need to be resolved, and then there are structural issues that need to be resolved," said Russell Williams, senior agricultural adviser for the U.S. State Department's provisional reconstruction team in Diyala Province. "There’s nothing here that can’t be resolved, but it’s time and money. At the current pace it’s going to take a while.” 

If Iraq does not move to repair its farming sector, it could face a food supply emergency. A USAID study predicts that Iraq will face a major food crisis within a generation unless the government undertakes a significant reallocation of oil revenue to fund imports and food production. Additionally, Iraq’s rapidly growing population and expanding middle class will also place significant strain on the nation’s food supply.

Despite being situated in the heart of an area known from antiquity as the fertile crescent, Iraq has been in an agricultural demise for the last several decades.

Though the decline in the sector began under ineffective socialist farming practices implemented by Saddam Hussein, the real problems came shortly after the first Gulf War. The oil for food program flooded Iraq with free food in the form of rations, forcing many Iraqi farmers out of work.

Coalition forces, after their invasion of 2003, established the Coalition Provisional Authority to temporarily assist in governing the country. Seeking to end decades of close government oversight, the authority drastically reduced funding to most government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture. Subsequently, Iraqi farmers lost government support and many were unable to make a profit farming.