Nearly 80% of arable land in Syria is dependent on rainfall, leaving the country susceptible to severe drought. Since 1989, the agricultural sector has recovered from years of damage caused by drought thanks to the development of irrigation projects designed to increase wheat production and a recently implemented program designed to double agricultural production by 2000. The five-year plan, developed in 1995, is part of Syria's goal to further develop the agricultural sector through an increase in wheat, olive and sugar beet production.
Agricultural Policy. Syria's agricultural sector, in terms of total G.D.P., has fallen from 31% in 1992 to 27% in 1996. Recent policy changes have been undertaken as part of the Syrian government's desire to once again build up the agricultural sector.
The General Establishment of Cereal Processing and Trade (HOBOOB) takes an active role in promoting the production of wheat, maize and barley. In addition to being responsible for decisions related to agricultural products, HOBOOB is also responsible for buying the local wheat crop from farmers and is also in charge of all wheat imports and exports in the country.
The importation of barley is not allowed in Syria, as set out by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. Because of sufficient production and an overabundance of stocks at the General Organization for Fodder (G.O.F.), there has not been a pressing need for barley imports.
Syria currently receives aid from the Food and Agricultural Organization (F.A.O.) in the form of commodity donations as part of developing its agricultural extension service. The F.A.O. also provides assistance in the form of technical help as a means of improving water use techniques, which is extremely important considering Syria's reliance on irrigated lands.
In the past, difficulties in obtaining foreign exchange allocations have been a hindrance to the public sector involved in importing agricultural inputs and equipment. But in 1997-98, changes in government policy to provide more allocations have enabled construction of wheat mills and silos.
In a move designed to encourage farmers to continue production and to deliver crops to governmental buying agencies, the Syrian government has increased procurement prices on several agricultural crops, including wheat. Government officials hope that by increasing these prices they will be able to gather the majority of grain in the country, enabling the generation of more hard currency for the country through exports.
Increasing exports is important for another reason as well. Syria, with current silo storage capacity of fewer than 2 million tonnes, has relatively little storage space for grains. With most of the wheat and barley crops stored in jute bags, the crops are prone to infestation and often become a prime food source for rodents. Iran has offered to help with this problem by making plans to build concrete silos that will be able to store up to 1 million tonnes of product. This could bring Syria closer to achieving its goal of 5 million tonnes of silo storage capacity by 2000.
Silo storage capacity is expected to increase to 3.0 million tonnes from 1.5 million tonnes as a result of contracts made by HOBOOB with Spanish and American companies. Surplus wheat and flour are being exported to avoid storage problems.
Wheat and milling. The government of Syria officially encourages the production of wheat, with most of the wheat being produced in the northeast and central regions of the country.
According to HOBOOB, wheat grown in Syria, which typically has a low moisture content between 8% to 10%, is considered to be of very good milling quality.
Wheat is the only major crop grown during the winter and spring in Syria. As such, much of the available irrigation water is used to support production, which can be severely affected by lack of rainfall, as was the case in 1989 when total wheat production plummeted to a record low of 900,000 tonnes, well below the 2.1-million-tonne total of 1988.
As a way to try to boost wheat production in Syria, the government relies on the country's more than 140 dams to serve as a source of water during long periods of little or no rainfall. One of the most recent dams constructed is able to provide enough water for more than 50,000 hectares of grain lands.
The majority of wheat milled in Syria is used as wheat flour for bread, although smaller quantities are used for producing bulgur and pasta. Wheat demand has continued to grow at a rate of around 4% per year.
While wheat production has increased, flour production in Syria has remained remarkably unchanged over the past 10 years. In 1985, Syria produced 1.16 million tonnes of flour, a number that in 1993 was only slightly higher at 1.21 million tonnes. Milling capacity, which currently is estimated at 2.4 million tonnes of wheat per year, will see an increase in 1998 as five new public milling facilities, each with milling capacity of 500 tonnes per day, will be constructed.
The public sector provides the majority of wheat milling capacity, totaling 4,739 tonnes per day, compared to the private sector, which operates at 1,800. With the expected increase in capacity from the construction of the mills, officials in Syria anticipate an increase in exports of wheat flour and semolina in the coming year.
Syria has only been exporting wheat for three years, but during those three years exports have averaged 420,000 tonnes per year while imports have been cut by more than half to an average of 47,000 tonnes per year over the same three-year time span.
Much of the falloff in the import market has come as a result of the agricultural sector's huge wheat reserves on hand. Ending stocks over the past five years have averaged 2.8 million tonnes per year, whereas the previous five years ending stocks only averaged 797,000 tonnes per year. Syria no longer allows wheat imports and does not anticipate allowing them in the near future. Local trade in wheat, however, is allowed as a means of providing the private sector mills with desperately needed raw materials.
Feed milling. Barley is considered to be the most important grain used for feed in Syria, with an annual average of 670,000 tonnes being used as feed over the past five years.
As much as 70% of all maize used by the poultry sector, up to 350,000 tonnes, is imported. To reduce this reliance, the government continues to stress the importance of local production, but irregular rain means that maize imports should remain high.