Once world's bread basket, Iraq now a farming basket case

07/17/2009 1:06 PM

07/19/2009 6:55 AM

MISHKHAB, Iraq — Once the cradle of agriculture for civilization, the Land Between Two Rivers — the Tigris and Euphrates — has become a basket case for its farmers.

Just ask Naji Habeeb, 85. His family has been growing rice in this village 135 miles southeast of Baghdad for generations. Thin green shoots stick out of the flat paddies, shin-deep in brown water.

The Iraqi government, he claims, still owes him half of what he's due from last year's crop. He turned it in months ago and still hasn't been paid. "Shall I suck my fingers and eat like a baby?" he shouted. "The Ministry (of Agriculture) will never know my family is hungry!"

Habeeb's family members have farmed the 12-acre foot plot next to a branch of the Euphrates River the same way for centuries. Except today they till with tractors, run water pumps with gasoline and spread artificial fertilizer. They plant seedlings by hand in June and July, irrigate and keep bugs and disease away in the summer heat, harvest by hand in October.

However, their efforts haven't helped Iraqi agriculture overcome the twin disasters of war and sanctions, which have transformed the country from one of the world's premier sources of aromatic rice and nearly 500 kinds of dates 30 years ago into a net importer of food.

Iraq now imports nearly all the food its people eat: California rice, Washington apples, Australian wheat, fruits and vegetables from its neighbors. All are staples in Iraqi groceries and on the dinner table.

The decline of the farming sector creates other problems. Agriculture accounts for half or more of Iraqi jobs and is the second-largest contributor to the gross domestic product. The prices that people and the government pay for shortfalls in what they used to grow weaken the country's economy.

For its part, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office says he unveiled an "agricultural initiative" two years ago. It included $240 million to bolster farmers, including no-interest loans, guarantees to buy crops, research and development, and other plans. A deputy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mahdi al Qaisi, said that his agency "will be happy to help farmers, who are our brothers. The time of fear has ended; there is no need to be afraid."

Iraq's agriculture faces the same problems as farmers everywhere: drought (in its fifth year), bugs, disease, salty water, red tape. Those problems are exacerbated, however, by location and history. Eight years of war with Iran, defeat in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, then 12 years of sanctions and, most recently, six years of war and U.S.-led occupation have left the country's agricultural sector in shambles.

Reliable statistics are elusive or suspect. Iraq is the only country, for example, in which the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service estimates crop yields by using satellite data.

The available numbers, however, suggest a stagnant and backward sector.

This year's wheat harvest is expected to be 1.3 million tons, down a million tons from last season. The prized amber rice crop grown by Habeeb and popular throughout the region for its perfumed scent will be around 100,000 tons, one-third of last year's yield.

One result is that Iraq has become one of the world's biggest importers of wheat, around 3.5 million tons. Barley to feed livestock — sheep, goats and cattle — also is shipped in from other countries. The higher cost of raising livestock means that more will have to be culled.

Another result: Iraqi consumers pay more for homegrown produce than they do for some imports.

Zaineb Kemal, a mother of four in Mosul, said that Iraqi produce had become scarce and expensive. That's why "so many people prefer to buy imported goods," she said, adding that she likes Iranian watermelons, Syrian cucumbers and Egyptian oranges.

Anti-globalization groups praise the fact that Iraqi farmers reuse their own seeds season after season. That doesn't lead to robust crops, however, and farmers routinely spread twice as much seed as they ordinarily would need to ensure the reduced yields.

As in any country, agriculture is political. Unlike most nations, however, the present Iraqi government doesn't protect — let alone subsidize — many of its farmers, according to Western experts, the rice farmers in Mishkhab and consumers.

"Most farmers have been abandoned by the state," said Qasim Muhaideen, 43, who works in Mosul's central market. "How can our farmers compete in price and availability?"

Geopolitics also influences what happens to Iraq's farmers.

Turkey and Syria have built dams on the Euphrates within their borders, and they turn the spigot off and on to Iraq.

"The shortage is very effective," Awn Theyab, the director general of Iraq's National Center for Water Resources, said after Turkey reduced the flow after one week. "If it continues, we won't have enough water for the first round of the winter season, because our reservoirs are empty."

A few bright spots have sprouted. Aquaculture is emerging slowly as a food source, and 100,000 carp fingerlings were released to reservoirs in April. They'll grow to only one-fourth the size of the 25-pound monsters pulled from the Tigris, but the supply is more stable.

There's also been a boom in "hoop houses," plastic greenhouses for tomatoes using drip irrigation, not the usual field flooding.

Multinational provincial reconstruction teams report growing interest in better farming practices. Beekeepers, poultry producers and growers who want to learn modern techniques have started attending workshops. During the years of sectarian and tribal violence, they were afraid to be seen with Americans. Just this week, 175 Iraqis signed up for a soil salinity seminar.

Habeeb and his partner, Abdul Abbas Muhair, 67, have never met a foreign agricultural adviser, however.

Sitting barefoot on a carpet runner in a tiled room next to their paddies, Habeeb and Muhair swapped gripes about the government. Poor or zero planning. Delayed or incomplete payments. Baksheesh — bribes — needed for the best seeds. Weak fertilizer. Weaker pesticide. Power to run water pumps for only six hours a day, so they must buy gasoline for generators.

Even worse than their litany, they said, is their loss of pride. In their fathers' day, the aromatic rice they grew was enjoyed in Egypt, Lebanon — throughout the Middle East. Now it's all sold to the government.

A rooster crowed outside as little boys in the 15-member clan slid closer and listened to their elders.

"I feel sad not to export our rice anymore," Muhair said. "It was enough for your life."

(Tharp is the executive editor of the Merced (Calif.) Star-Sun. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq.

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