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Iraq: From breadbasket to dust bowl

But could it have a future in organic foods?

A bad situation was made worse still when violence began driving farmers from their homes. Without regular irrigation, water evaporated from the soil leaving behind high concentrations of salt. Irrigation channels fell into disrepair, and without anyone enforcing regulations some farmers upstream began taking more than their share of water, leaving downstream farmers with little or no water. A three-year drought has exacerbated the problem.

Turkey's ambitions to expand its agricultural sector and dam rivers that flow into Iraq further exacerbated the water shortage.

“There are so many problems for our farms,” said Makky Ali Hussein, a representative for the Ministry of Agriculture in Diyala Province.

In Diyala Province, Iraq’s agricultural heartland, the mineral deficiencies in the soil often mean that local fruits and vegetables have blemishes and diseases that make it difficult, if not impossible to compete with imported goods.

However, even if the government tried to give local farmers a boost by reducing imports, it remains unclear if they’re in a position to provide enough produce to meet the needs of the nation. The United Nations recently listed Iraq as one of 32 nations requiring food aid.

“It’s very hard to control our borders,” said Hassan Al-Wan Sayeed, the mayor of Buritz, a large town in Diyala Province. “Even if we stopped produce coming in from Iran, Syria and Turkey, Iraqi farmers aren’t producing enough.”

But if necessity is the mother of investion, then there is glimmer of hope for Iraq: Williams says that Iraqi farmers may find success by focusing on niche markets, such as organic food. With limited access to pesticides and chemical fertilizers, many Iraqi date and pomegranate farmers are already producing produce that can easily be certified as organic.

“We’re trying put things together and help farmers form farming organizations, when they form an organization they have a greater ability to attract capital and have the ability to pool their resources in the market,” said Steve Gregory, an agriculture expert from the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture working with the provincial reconstruction team in Diyala.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Iraq:

Iraq marks full sovereignty with a parade

Iraqi "independence day" arrives

In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings