Farmerly Great

The agriculture of Iraq was assassinated by Saddam Hussein as inexorably as his enemies.  Blessed by abundant water, indigenous traction animals, and sun-drenched growing seasons, the land of the two rivers, site of the Garden of Eden, was the cradle of high-yield agriculture.  Its staples included wheat, barley, date palms, figs, olives, sugar beets, sugarcane, cotton, tobacco, alfalfa, and a plethora of garden edibles – beans, eggplant, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions; apples, melons, grapes, apricots and citrus groves.


Marginal farmlands supported grazing for livestock — goats, sheep, and waterbuffalo.
As late as the 1950s, Iraq was self-sufficient in food, and a mass exporter of specialty delicacies, such as dates.

When Operation Iraqi Freedom overthrew 35 years of Baathist misrule, H. Lee Schatz of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the first farm specialist on the scene.  He reported to Congress on June 16, 2004 that Iraq was basically living off the “Oil for Food” program – at least the portion of the program that Saddam hadn’t diverted to palaces, weapons acquisition, and bribes to foreign functionaries.

The Iraqi Ministry of Trade was providing most of what Iraqis were eating – roughly 480 pounds of basic foodstuff per year for every man, woman and child.  And they weren’t eating much.  Iraq’s per-capita wheat consumption (a good regional indicator) was 60% the per capita level of Turkey, and 70% that of Iran.

“Decades of state intervention,” Schatz told Congress, “have marginalized private, market-driven initiatives in agriculture and nearly every other sector of the economy.  A limited number of large agricultural producers and processors operate in Iraq, but they are, for the most part, technologically still in the 1980s.  For the past 20-plus years, Iraq’s agriculture and agribusiness effectively have been cut off from innovation.”

Among the major disasters Saddam wrought on the land and its peoples:

1) The destruction of the landlord class
Entering the 20th Century, agricultural systems in most of the world were dominated by either serfdom or sharecropping.  The reformers of the 20th century, both Marxist and capitalist, bemoaned the inefficiency of such systems.  The serf or sharecropper had little incentive to produce above subsistence, as he had no share in profits; and the landlord had little incentive to modernize his holdings, as his wealth was based on acreage and serfs, not exports.  From 1958, Iraqi “land reformers” attempted to break up holdings, and force landlords to share more of the wealth.  The early stages of the Ba’ath revolution (like many similar post-colonial revolutions in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa) repeatedly reduced the legal size of landlords’ holdings, and repeatedly increased the scope of uncompensated takings.  The result, partly intended, was the destruction of the landlord class established by the Ottomans.  The unintentional result was the destruction of the only source of rural credit in a vocation totally dependent on credit in drought years. 

The new peasant “freeholders,” denied credit and inputs, migrated to the cities in droves, and arable land was left fallow. This was Saddam’s agricultural policy in the late ‘70s.
As one source summarizes:

“The situation in the countryside became chaotic because the government lacked the personnel, funds, and expertise to supply credit, seed, pumps, and marketing services – functions that had previously been performed by landlords… Rural-to-urban migration increased.”

2) Collectivized farms

After consolidating total control of the state in the summer of 1979, Saddam patterned rural development in Iraq to the model championed by his idol: Josef Stalin.  For the next four years, Iraqi peasants were herded onto state-owned collective farms.  The disincentives of the “commons” appeared in all their familiar forms:  machinery sabotaged, runaway peasants, and abysmal productivity.  By 1983, Saddam was ready to reverse collectivization.  But by then, other interests trumped agriculture.

3) Destruction of the date-palm industry

During Saddam’s unprovoked war of aggression against Iran, the Shatt al Arab area, home to the world’s greatest date palm crop, was devastated.  The number of date palms under cultivation dropped from 30 million in the early 1960s to fewer than 13 million, and the yield declined from 578,000 tons to 220,000 tons.

4) Destruction of the marsh Arabs

When the Shi’a rose at the end of the Gulf War (1991), Saddam slaughtered some 100,000 of them re-establishing his authority in Iraq’s southern provinces.  As part of that effort, he drained 90% of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh, a traditionally hiding place for anti-regime elements.  This displaced (or killed) roughly 200,000 “marsh Arabs”, farmers and livestock breeders.  In the process, one of earth’s most storied ecological wetlands was destroyed.

5) Cropping pasture land

In the wake of the Gulf War, Saddam took heroic measures to avoid entering the United Nations Oil-for-Food (OFF) program.  This program would (ostensibly) prevent Saddam from acquiring arms, while providing food for the Iraqi people.  Among Saddam’s “heroic measures” was the mass cultivation of marginally arable land between 1991 and 1995.  This was undertaken in an attempt to restore food self-sufficiency without the benefit of oil export earnings.  The effort failed — but it ruined a lot of good pasture land in the process, and decimated the Iraqi livestock industry.  Saddam “capitualated.”  He entered the OFF, and found that it wasn’t half so restrictive as he had thought, courtesy the French, the Russians, et al.

Coalition Efforts

Since the end of major combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coalition has been engaged in modest efforts to rebuild Iraq’s devastated agricultural economy.  We emphasize modest.  Iraq is importing most of its food with cash from oil export earnings.  Food subsidies and gasoline subsidies are, and will remain, the largest budget outlays of the Iraqi democracy for years to come.

Nonetheless, the Coalition (and particularly America) can point to some successes in this sector:

  • Date palm nurseries in 13 governates
  • 16 olive tree “demonstration” projects
  • Wheat seed cleaning and production facilities that produced 29,000 metric tons of seed for the 2006-07 growing season
  • 1600 farm tractors repaired
  • 55 veterinary clinics built or rehabilitated for livestock breeders
  • 72 “demonstration” farms established in re-hydrated marshland areas
  • 32 livestock farms established
  • 30 alfalfa farms established (for livestock feed)

The outlook for Iraqi agriculture remains troubled.  Saddam’s ecological faux pas are not easily reversed.  The irrigation and drainage systems of the Tigris-Euphrates basin must be extensively rebuilt.  And with 90% of the population dependent (in varying degrees) on subsidized foodstuffs, the re-establishment of a market in all but the simplest crops (like garden vegetables), or the most profitable (like date palms), will be slow and difficult.

But the stirrings are already being felt. And as is often true in contemporary Iraq, the common people have been helped less by what we have done than by what we have eliminated.  As Amir Taheri reports:

Between 1991 and 2003, the country’s farm sector experienced unprecedented decline, in the end leaving almost the entire nation dependent on rations distributed by the United Nations under Oil-For-Food.  In the past two years, by contrast, Iraqi agriculture has undergone an equally unprecedented revival.  Iraq now exports foodstuffs to neighboring countries, something that has not happened since the 1950s.  Much of the upturn is due to smallholders who, shaking off the collectivist system imposed by the Baathists, have retaken control of land that was confiscated decades ago by the state.

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