The Syrian agricultural sector is deteriorating at an increasing rate. Destructive conditions over the past four years suggest that Syria may soon be hit by a wall of food insecurity. This disaster is even more tragic because Syria was once described as the “breadbasket of Rome” due to its production of grain, especially wheat. Until recently, Syria was working diligently to achieve self-sufficiency and food security. Before the outbreak of the country’s recent tragedy, Syria was considered an agricultural country, as the industry accounted for nearly 24% of its GNP.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Program, 6.3 million people inside Syria are greatly affected by the country’s turmoil, and they have a significant and ongoing need for food and agricultural goods. Likewise, 3 million Syrian refugees residing outside the country require aid. Moreover, the FAO estimated that the damage to the agricultural sector in 2013 stood at $1.8 billion, and suggested that the damage will be greater in 2014 and even greater should the war continue into 2015.
The emigration of farmers
As a result of the deterioration of agricultural conditions in Syria, most farmers — especially those living in northern regions like Raqqa and Aleppo — have emigrated to Turkey. There, Syrian farmers and their families work in the Hatay province and a number of other agricultural regions.
In a conversation with Al-Hayat, Abu Malek said that he and his family began working on a farm near Istanbul once it became impossible to return to his agricultural land in Aleppo, which was within range of artillery shells and barrel bombs. He added, “There are farmers who fled many properties that were ‘sown’ with unexploded shells, making them unsuited for cultivation. Moreover, agricultural supplies like seeds and fertilizer are unavailable. Diesel, which is essential to agricultural life, is also unavailable, or its price has increased in the areas where it is available.”
Meanwhile, farmer Muhammad Hussam mourns the loss of his farm in Eastern Ghouta, which once provided him with generous crops of vegetables and fruits. He noted that he was forced to leave his land when the siege of Ghouta by regime forces began. This led to a halt in farming, the forced starvation of the area’s inhabitants, the death of a number of children and elderly people due to starvation and other ill effects.
Another farmer complained that fighters took his land because it was close to an oil well from which petroleum could be extracted in a primitive fashion. This also led to the pollution of the soil.
The decline of production in liberated areas
Agricultural production in liberated areas is no better than in areas under regime control, and production has been severely reduced. The Syrian interim government finally sounded the alarm, highlighting the chances of a food security crisis in the country. The group of states that calls itself the “Friends of the Syrian People” has called for the provision of emergency aid, especially in the form of wheat, rather than money, to prevent a humanitarian tragedy.
The interim government’s Ministry of Finance and Economy asserted that its Grain Institute was able to buy roughly 18,000 tons of wheat through its 14 centers in four provinces by purchasing wheat directly from farms. However, the institute failed to acquire some supplies that had been hoarded by farmers for their own consumption. The ministry emphasized that the amount they were able to buy will not be enough to feed all those in liberated areas, since the interim government requires 323,000 tons of wheat to produce the 270,000 tons of flour needed to feed more than 2.5 million Syrians in the areas under opposition control.
A group of Syrian economic experts sympathetic to the opposition linked the lack of wheat to the difficulty of agricultural production in regions under constant bombardment. They also pointed to the siege tactics applied by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in most liberated regions. The same experts clarified that this situation has caused food prices in besieged areas to rise to an amount many times greater than in areas under regime control. Likewise, they predict that the amount of wheat harvested in 2015 will be the lowest in 42 years.
The same economists said that the Assad regime has been forced to raise the price of fuel and petroleum products and to lift aid on sugar, rice and bread. The regime still exports some of its agricultural products to its allies in the conflict, despite the extent to which Syrians need those products. These economists predicted that the food crisis resulting from decreased agricultural production will worsen in 2015 if the bombardment and destruction continue. Likewise, they asserted that the food crisis in Syria will also continue to affect neighboring states, particularly given the decrease in agricultural exports that Syria was once famous for in the Arab world, such as vegetables, fruit and meat.
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