Syria traces its agricultural history back thousands of years, and archeological excavations show early inhabitants cultivated "einkorn," an ancestor of wheat, as early as the ninth millennium.

Agriculture today remains a pillar of Syria’s economy, accounting for nearly 30% of economic output. Large segments of local industry are dependent on agricultural raw materials, and exports of agricultural products, especially in regional trade, play an important role in hard currency earnings.

Syria’s main crops are wheat, barley, cotton, legumes, citrus fruits and sugarbeets, with cotton the primary cash crop.

Most agricultural activity is in the hands of small private farmers who account for 62% of all land holdings. About 35% of arable land is cultivated by farmer cooperatives, with small areas of state-controlled land accounting for the rest.

Large mixed sector agro-industrial enterprises were first established in 1987, but the companies so far do not account for a significant proportion of either land holdings or output.

The government, through the creation of special state-run organizations, traditionally held tight control over agriculture. Control measures included fixed inputs prices and subsidized crop prices, intervention in production plans, high tariffs and restrictive quotas on imports competing with domestically produced goods.

In 1990, the government began to liberalize the sector. Subsidies for pesticides and seeds were eliminated, the fertilizer subsidy was reduced in 1992, and marketing of many crops was largely left to market conditions. The state retains control over staple crops such as wheat, but even here, farmers are regularly permitted to sell a proportion of their harvest on the open market.

Despite these liberalizations, the government maintains a policy of self-sufficiency in cereals. For this reason, Syria’s wheat procurement prices over recent years consistently have been about double the international market price.

In addition to self-sufficiency, the government supports the agricultural sector to enhance export earnings and stem rural migration. These efforts have turned Syria into a net exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs.

WHEAT AND FLOUR MILLING

Syria is self-sufficient in wheat, with imports limited to small quantities for blending and for pasta and flour exports. A government agency, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (HOBOOB), is responsible for purchasing wheat from farmers, for most import and export activity and for wheat supply management.

Wheat is mainly used for flour in bread production, although low quality wheat is used for animal feed. Bread consumption is increasing at about 3% per year, in line with the increase in Syria’s population growth.

Until 1999, no private trading of wheat or wheat flour was permitted. But because milling capacity greatly exceeded demand — a situation that continues today — Syria’s government decided to allow private wheat imports to help mills absorb excess capacity, provided the flour produced was exported and not sold into the domestic market. The same situation applies to private pasta factories, which may import flour as long as the pasta is exported.

Syria has about 1,000 mills, both public and private, located throughout the country, but only five, all government owned, are considered key facilities. Each of the five mills has capacity of about 500 tonnes per day, and all have blending capabilities.

None of Syria’s flour mills have rail access, so all grain deliveries and flour shipments are by truck. Although no data are available on loading and unloading capacities, World Food Programme officials indicate that truck capacity is "considerable" and the lack of rail does not constrain logistics or operations.

Since wheat production rebounded in 2001-02 after several drought-affected seasons, surpluses have pushed Syria’s wheat exports higher. Most shipments go to North African countries, especially Algeria, which imports about 300,000 tonnes of Syrian durum per year. For the first time, Syria agreed in late 2002 to barter 100,000 tonnes of durum for Egyptian rice.

Wheat stocks are mainly held by HOBOOB, which at the end of 2002-03 reported national reserves of about 4.9 million tonnes. That level exceeds Syria’s annual milling and feed requirements by about 1.3 million tonnes.

HOBOOB is not authorized to export wheat until stocks reach an undisclosed "strategic stock level," designed to serve as a buffer during bad crop years.

HOBOOB stocks are stored in concrete elevators, metal silos and in open storage facilities, and Syria’s total storage capacity for wheat is estimated at about 4 million tonnes.

Syria plans to expand its concrete silo storage capacity by about 1 million tonnes during the next five years. The government expects to use these silos to replace wheat in jute bags in open storage facilities to reduce stored grain damage from insects, rodents and fungi.

Syria’s concrete silos are owned and managed by the General Company for Silos, under the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade, and are mainly used for storing wheat, although very small quantities of barley and maize also are stored in concrete silos. Feed mills and soybean crushing facilities established under the Investment Law are permitted to own metal silos for their use.

LIVESTOCK AND FEED

Livestock production is an important component of Syria’s agricultural sector and national economy, providing employment to some 20% of the workforce.

Sheep are the most important livestock resource and are found across the country. The main sheep producers are the Bedouin herders, and most of their animals are sold in city markets. Sheep, along with cattle and goats, are also raised by farmers in cropped areas and are sold through local markets.

Although there is no supporting statistical information, a high percentage of sheep is said to pass through fattening cooperatives before going back to the market to be sold for export or slaughter. The remainder are either taken directly to slaughterhouses or exported.

Maize is not a major crop, with annual output typically around 125,000 tonnes. Most consists of hybrid short-season varieties planted after wheat in irrigated areas.

Consumption of maize is increasing in Syria, a development that is prompting increasing imports. Maize imports in 2002-03 were estimated at a record 950,000 tonnes, with 1 million forecast for 2003-04. Although the private sector may import maize, a permit is required.

Most maize is used in animal feed, in particular for poultry. Poultry production is increasing, but fluctuates from season to season because of the lack of proper slaughter, cooling, packaging and storage facilities.

A small portion of the domestic maize crop is for human consumption and is sold as "corn on the cob." Maize is also used for the production of starch and glucose, another industry that is developing quickly.

One of Syria’s two starch manufacturers is constructing a new plant, which may boost its annual maize needs by about 400,000 tonnes by late 2004. This producer exports starch and glucose to Jordan on large scale, and starch only to Egypt to be processed into glucose at a factory owned by the same family.

Maize imports are expected to grow as expansion in domestic production is constrained by limited water resources.

Barley is the most important feed ingredient, used primarily for sheep and cattle. It also is used on a very limited scale in feed rations for poultry layers.

Barley demand fluctuates from year to year and season to season, depending on the availability of grass for grazing. Demand always increases during drought periods and winter.

Traditionally, Syria has been a net barley exporter whenever adequate rainfall allows surpluses. However, in the late 1990s, Syria suffered from repeated droughts that substantially slashed production, prompting a surge in imports.

Syrian importers rely primarily on European sources for barley because of low prices and low freight costs available for small quantities — about 5,000 tonnes per shipment — from these origins. But barley imports from Argentina account for more than one-third of total imports based on competitive pricing.

As with maize, private imports are allowed with the required permit. But because barley is a key domestic crop, the agriculture ministry restricts import permits in good crop years.

As with wheat, HOBOOB is responsible for barley stocks management. The agency usually keeps strategic stocks sufficient for the winter months when there is no grass for forage, and surpluses are exported to Jordan, the main market for Syrian barley.

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Data (1,000 tonnes)

Production

Consumption

Exports

Imports

Wheat

4,500

3,560

1,000

500

Barley

800

1,100

350

400

Maize

125

1,050

0

950

2002-03 marketing year projections

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Association Nationale de la Meunerie Francaise

 

Key Facts

Capital: Damascus.

Demography: Population 17.6 million (July 2002), 2.45% growth rate (2003 estimate); Arabic language; Sunni Muslim, 74% other Muslim, 16% religion.

Geography: Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea; mostly desert, with narrow coastal plain; primarily semi-arid and desert climate.

Government: Republic. Chief of state is Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri; head of government is President Bashar Al Assad.

Official agricultural agencies: Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform under Agriculture Minister Adil Safir.

Economy: Syria’s predominantly statist economy has been growing, on average, more slowly than its population growth rate, despite a spike in economic growth in 2002. This has led to a persistent decline in per capita gross domestic product. Recent legislation allows private banks to operate in Syria, although a private banking sector will take years and further government cooperation to develop. A long-run economic constraint is the pressure on water supplies caused by rapid population growth, industrial expansion and increased water pollution.

Agriculture accounts for 27% of gross domestic product .

G.D.P. per capita: U.S.$3,500 (purchasing power parity), 3.5% growth rate, 0.9% inflation, 20% unemployment, (2002 estimates).

Currency: Syrian pound (SYP). Oct. 15, 2003 exchange rate: 46.6900 SYP = 1 U.S. dollar.

Exports: U.S.$6.2 billion (f.o.b., 2002), crude oil, petroleum products, fruits and vegetables, cotton fiber, meat and live animals.

Imports: U.S.$4.9 billion (f.o.b., 2002), machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, metal and products.

Major crops/agricultural products: Wheat, barley, cotton, mutton.

Wheat: Five-year production averaged 3.8 million tonnes, with a low of 2.6 million in 1999-00 and a forecast high of 4.7 million in 2003-04. Imports averaged 196,000 tonnes, ranging from 59,000 in 2000-01 to 500,000 in 2002-03. Exports ranged from none in 2000-01 to a forecast 1.2 million this season. Domestic use for milling purposes averages about 3.3 million tonnes, with stocks averaging 4.2 million.

Barley: Output is highly variable depending on rainfall, ranging from 130,000 tonnes in 2000-01 to 1.3 million the next season. A key feed ingredient, barley’s domestic use averages about 1.1 million tonnes a year, with imports making up domestic shortfalls when needed.

Transportation: Highways, 41,451 km, 9,575 paved; railroads, 2,743 km, mostly 1.435-m gauge; Tartous, Banias and Lattakia are major ports.

Internet: Country code, *.sy; 1 service provider (2000); 60,000 users (2002).