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Renewing agriculture in Iraq

Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Farmers harvest wheat outside of Sulaimaniyah, Iraq.Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Farmers harvest wheat outside of Sulaimaniyah, Iraq.In many ways, farmers in Iraqi Kurdistan have never had it so good. After the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the mountainous region of northern Iraq did not suffer the same level of violence as the rest of the country. In 2009 the Kurdish Ministry of Agriculture announced an ambitious plan to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency within five years in the production of grain, produce, oil, and agricultural inputs such as livestock feed.

While we can all agree that agricultural self-sufficiency is a necessity for national and economic security, Kurdistan, like so many other regions of the developing world, is opting for a Green Revolution–style policy of industrializing the food system. What self-sufficiency means in practice is the use of greenhouses, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and foreign hybrid seeds, and it means upgrading machinery, moving to more factory-style poultry facilities, and increasing the size of farms.

There is a certain irony to the import of these “foreign” methods: Agriculture began in Iraq ten thousand years ago. Seeds uncovered in the archeological remains of ancient farming villages show that wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, cucumbers, onions, dates, and many stone fruits were first cultivated in Iraq. When much of the world was still hunting and gathering, Mesopotamians were constructing extensive irrigation canals to bring water to their wheat fields so they could make bread and beer.

For much of the twentieth century, Iraq was largely self-sufficient. Industrial agricultural practices were used, but in many areas traditional, localized farming survived. Agriculture’s role in a country like Iraq goes beyond food production: it’s the second-largest sector in the Iraqi economy, a major source of rural employment, and a vital cultural signifier. As the rest of Iraq joins the Kurdish region in enjoying greater stability, the inevitable expansion of industrial agriculture paradoxically threatens to undermine the local communities that depend on agriculture for their way of life.

Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Strawberries growing in a newly installed greenhouse at the agricultural extension.Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Strawberries growing in a newly installed greenhouse at the agricultural extension.Farmers in Iraq are aware of these issues but struggle to get their voices heard. The Iraqi Seed Project (www.iraqiseedproject.com) is an educational media project created to raise awareness and international support for Iraq’s farmers and agricultural land during this critical transition point. Once completed, the project will have three main components: a documentary film that ties Iraq’s rich agricultural history to present conditions; a multimedia website that contains an interactive garden of native Iraqi plants, with relevant articles, videos, photographs, and essays; and a series of real-life exchanges between Iraqi farmers and their Western counterparts.

When Iraqi farmers are made aware of organic farming techniques like intercropping, rainwater harvest, and homemade nontoxic fertilizers and insecticides, they respond enthusiastically. On a recent trip to Iraq, I asked a group of farmers if they wanted to learn anything from farmers in the United States, and the resounding answer was yes—specifically, how to farm without chemicals and how to build markets for organic produce so they can get a fair price for their goods. There is no market for organic products in Iraq; the small number of farmers who adopt organic farming do so because they say these techniques offer them a better quality of life and improved health.

Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. The Kurdish farmer Kamal shows off his well and irrigation pipe on his farm west of Erbil.Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. The Kurdish farmer Kamal shows off his well and irrigation pipe on his farm west of Erbil.Unfortunately, neither the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture nor the handful of foreign agricultural advisors working in Iraq are approaching agricultural revitalization holistically. Iraq is home to the second-largest office of the Foreign Agricultural Service (the US Department of Agriculture’s international branch)—it used to be the largest but was recently eclipsed by the Afghanistan office. The USDA’s primary mission in Iraq is economically driven, to create markets for US agricultural exports; Iraq is now one of the largest importers of US wheat, rice, and poultry, with sales that reached $1 billion in 2008. This policy work to build trade relations between Iraq and the United States can be at odds with American efforts on the ground, where Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) work to boost local agriculture to create jobs and stave off insurgents.

I spent a week with USDA officials in Baghdad to learn more about their presence in Iraq. On our first outing we visited a farm in Um al-Abeed, a village only 25 kilometers away from the military base; it took two hours of waiting at checkpoints and an eight-vehicle convoy to get there. On this visit I spoke with a farmer named Saad Hadi, who had turned a farmers’ co-op (formerly run by the Iraqi government) into a local NGO and was trying to build an agricultural training center for farmers in his village. With the help of the local PRT, Hadi arranged for an irrigation pump to be installed in his village, which brought 526 hectares of agricultural land back into production. Reinforcing local initiatives like this, rather than flooding the market with cheap food imports or promoting industrial agriculture, creates a healthy local food system as well as increasing security by creating jobs.

Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Wheat harvest outside of Sulaimaniyah.Photo credit: Emma Piper-Burket. Wheat harvest outside of Sulaimaniyah.There is much talk in the United States of relocalizing our food system—going back to smaller, more diversified farms—and while progress is slow, there has been a noticeable shift away from industrialized farming in recent years. Iraq has the unique opportunity to start fresh; it doesn’t have to go through the motions of industrializing and then relocalizing and rediversifying. It can learn from our lessons—and can create a structure now that supports the small, diversified farm.

Farmers across the world are encountering similar struggles: drought, climate change, economic and political turmoil, and an ever-aging population. So while the Iraqi Seed Project focuses on Iraq, the discussion goes beyond the Fertile Crescent. Technology makes it possible to share and learn across great distances. It is time to bring Iraqi farmers into the global dialogue about sustainability and food production.

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