Iraq is a country with a unique set of problems. Despite recent improvements in agriculture, it does not produce enough to feed its population. Because of the unstable security situation due to the military conflict that has gripped the country for nearly six years, Iraq has to cope with large numbers of displaced people, although to a certain extent Iraq’s need for food has lessened as many people have left the country.

The security situation also makes it difficult for analysts to accurately gauge what is happening in the country from an agricultural standpoint. According to a report prepared by Joe Carroll, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) senior attaché in Baghdad, wheat production for 2007-08 is estimated at 2.2 million tonnes, down from 2.3 million in 2006. "Production prospects for 2008 are currently tempered by the late arrival of rains in the Northern rain-fed regions," he said. However, there is a problem with the numbers. As Carroll noted, "estimates do not include production in the Kurdish region of Iraq, as timely data are not available."

The International Grains Council (IGC) puts Iraq’s 2007-08 wheat imports at 3 million tonnes, up from 2.9 million in 2006-07 but well below the 4.9-million-tonne import total in 2005-06. Imports are administered by the Grain Board Iran of Iraq. According to its website, the Grain Board’s responsibilities include "marketing the local crop of wheat, barley and rice from the farmers," as well as "securing the country’s needs Kuwait for wheat and rice for human consumption by importing different kinds of all origins w which are suitable for citizens’ taste and the baking of breads in houses." It is also responsible for securing grain stocks and making sure those stocks are held in good condition.

Iraq’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is vital to the people’s food supply. According to the attaché report, it is one of the world’s largest public distribution systems for foodstuffs.

In 2007, an estimated 1.4 million tonnes of the domestic wheat (Continued from page 20) crop was sold by farmers for use under the PDS and for use as animal feed, the report said. The balance was held on farm for seed, used for animal feed or sold on the free market. "The situation is extremely ambiguous," Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Intergovernmental Group on Grain, told World Grain. "It’s very difficult to get a handle on how the whole thing is working."

He also pointed out that Iraq is a large and diverse country. "Knowing what’s going on in Baghdad is not the same as knowing what’s going on in the Kurdish region," he said. "How can one generalize about Iraq?"

One generalization that can be made is that bread is very important in the Iraqi diet. "Per capita consumption of wheat is about 135 kilograms, which means that they need about four million tonnes entirely for food consumption for a production of half of that," he said. "That basically means you need three million tonnes in imports."

Other grains also play a role. "Maize they (use for) feed," Abbassian said. "Barley is important, but most of it is used as feed. There is also around 40-kilograms-per-(person) rice consumption."

There has been a gradual increase in per capita consumption of wheat since 1997. By 2002 it was 133 kilograms, and it has risen to 136 this year. "One problem is that these stats see the population is constant," he said. "We know how many Iraqis have left Iraq."

"Wheat and bread is a poor man’s diet," Abbassian said. "They probably have a lower consumption of high-value food. One would expect that."

Even if the wheat processing situation is not clear, you can draw conclusions from Iraq’s large wheat flour imports. "They have been one of the biggest markets in the region for wheat flour," he said. "That tells you something about processing."

There has been decreasing reliance on flour imports in recent years. In its most recent analysis of the world flour trade, the IGC highlighted a fall in flour imports in 2006-07. "Iraq’s imports, at 855,000 tonnes, were considerably lower than the 2005-06 total of 1.5 million as domestic mills increased flour production using imported wheat," it said. The IGC put 2007-08 flour imports at 750,000 tonnes.

FARMING IMPROVES
The performance of the country’s agriculture has improved steadily. "We had good weather throughout the region after a couple of years of bad crops," Abbassian said. "The last two or three years have had quite good production. In 2005, it was 2 million tonnes, which is something like a record, twice as much as three years earlier. It was 2.3 million in 2006 and almost the same in 2007.

"In the 1990s, all the crops were under 1 million tonnes. Wheat production has doubled, perhaps because of stability in wheat growing regions as well as good weather."

Without a change in the country’s circumstances, it will be nearly impossible to tell exactly how agriculture in Iraq is faring. "There is absolutely nothing official," he said. "There’s a problem with security. Nobody is going around to look."

The World Food Programme (WFP) is the organization dealing with the large numbers of people in Iraq who have been displaced by the security situation. "We have just launched an emergency regional operation for the displaced people of

Iraq," WFP spokesman Robin Lodge said. "Inside the country there are about 2.2 million (displaced) people. About 2 million have crossed the border, about

1.5 million of them into Syria."With the people who are outside of Iraq, although some of them came over with assets, those assets are quickly depleted. There’s no opportunity for them to earn money in Syria. They do need our help."

Inside the country there are some problems with getting food to displaced people who would normally be supported by the PDS. "If you move out of your governate, you have to re-register," he said. "That means you have to go back to your old governate to deregister. That is difficult if you fled for security reasons."

In areas where there are hunger issues, it is not a case of Iraq having too small a food supply. "Our concern is not so much the level of stocks in Iraq so much as people’s access to those stocks," Lodge said. "It’s not necessarily the case that the Iraqi government hasn’t got the means to supply everybody. Certainly it will in the long term. As an interim measure we have to support the ones who have been displaced."

He believed that the situation in Iraq meant that the PDS would have to operate for some time to come. "The PDS is there to stay for the foreseeable future," he said. "Demand continues to be enormous. In most parts of the country you cannot rely on being able to enter the market in the normal way. The vast majority of people are dependent on the government."

As if Iraq doesn’t have enough problems, the tight world market is making the situation even worse for a country that is so dependent on grain imports. "In Iraq, as in any other country, the effect of rising (world) food prices is a major factor," he said. WG

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at: chris.lyddon@ntlworld.com.