Last updated: November 26, 2012 4:17 pm

Kurdistan’s food security begins at home

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Farmers gather hay near the village of Irbil in northern Iraq

Home grown: another generation of farmers like those haymaking near Erbil must be encouraged

If Iraq is the cradle of civilisation, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north gave birth to agriculture.

The first crops were planted in these fertile plains and mountain valleys and animals are said to have been domesticated on the area’s ideal pastoral land seven millennia ago.

But if the region was once the bread basket of Iraq, renowned for its top-quality wheat, it is now an increasingly large consumer of imported food.

Turkey, Kurds’ strongest trade partner, imported about $7bn worth of goods into northern Iraq last year, the majority of which was food, officials say. Iran, the area’s second largest importer, is another important source for food, especially livestock.

As the oil boom translates into an ever greater appetite for meat, the region now only produces a fifth of its red meat and a quarter of its poultry – and even then the feed is imported.

“Food security is like national security,” says Talib Elam, agriculture adviser to the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government. “We need to grant the same attention to chicken feed as we do to F-16s.”

Arable land spans 28 per cent of the territory controlled by the KRG, a large amount for the arid Middle East, but the agricultural sector has been undermined by the grim history of these lands.

In the 1980s, the regime of Saddam Hussein cleared more than 4,000 villages to suppress dissent in the restive rural region. Officials also blame the oil-for-food programme, under which the sanctioned Iraqi state bought food and medicine in exchange for oil exports from 1996. The programme led to a national dependence on free food imports that undermined domestic agriculture further.

Through the 1990s, urbanisation sped up further, with thousands of youngsters moving to the cities, breaking the bond of the intergenerational farming experience.

“We need to close the generational gap and get people farming again,” says Mr Elam, formerly of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The collapse of domestic produce is apparent when looking for Erbil’s renowned white sheep’s cheese, Kurdish produce once prized across Iraq.

While Turkish manufactured produce and Iranian vegetables are plentiful, only a few stores sell the pungent delicacy in Erbil’s covered souk.

To revive agriculture, Mr Taleb wants the government to up the percentage of its budget devoted to agriculture from the current level of 2 per cent to closer to 10 per cent, in line with UN recommendations. The average in food-importing states is about 5 per cent.

Mr Taleb also warns of a threat to its water resources, primarily because of overuse and diversion from upstream sources in Turkey and Iran, he says.

The KRG needs to reserve more land for cultivation and rearing livestock, while intervening more regularly in the market to protect domestic production against cheaper imports, as the agriculture ministry did earlier this year with a five-month ban on some imported produce.

“Some in the government say we need to encourage the free market, but then they don’t believe in self-sufficiency,” says Mr Elam. “For food security this is a must.”

The government says it is helping town dwellers to move back to the country with low-interest loans for house building.

Extending the electricity grid to cover 80 per cent of rural areas is also aiding repopulation of arable land, which covers more than a quarter of Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the highest percentages in the Middle East.

“It’s helping, the level of wheat and barley production is already increasing, but we need to do more to reduce imports,” says Herish Muharam, chairman of the KRG’s board of investment.

Agriculture is one of three sectors – along with industry and tourism – that the government is seeking to promote via special incentives, including tax breaks for foreign investors.

As well as wheat and barley, cash crops such as nuts, tobacco and even truffles from the region’s oak forests, could add to the KRG’s emerging oil wealth.

Some returning expatriates are bringing new horticultural techniques from abroad, such as mushroom cultivation, but the sector as a whole has yet to take off.

Mr Muharam argues that there are signs of hope.

A few years ago, Kurdistan – like other areas of Iraq – was importing bottled water. The emergence of industrial plants has made the region almost self-sufficient in bottled water, with 70 per cent produced locally, says Mr Muharam.

One example is Life Water, produced by family-owned conglomerate UB Holding which now operates one of the largest bottling factories in the Middle East, in the northern Iraqi town of Zakho.

“We used to import all of this and now we are selling it throughout Iraq,” he says.

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