Syria’s hunger games

In an alarming report published early July, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned of the catastrophic state of the Syrian agricultural sector and of the serious threat that the decline in farming production presents to the population’s food supply.

The crisis is so serious that a few days before the beginning of Ramadan, a month when predominantly Muslim countries typically see a peak in food consumption, the Minister of Economy announced that the government would dip into its strategic reserves to provide sufficient food for the population.

According to the joint WFP/FAO report, wheat production, which is essential because bread is a staple food of the population, is in freefall. The wheat harvest this year is estimated at 2.4 million tons, 15 percent less than last year and 30 percent less than the average production of 3.5 million tons in the preceding three years.

Stocks are also low, officially at 2.9 million tons at the beginning of this year but in reality probably much lower because many storage silos have been destroyed. The report estimates that some 1.4 million tons will need to be imported in order to meet the needs of the population.

Every day in Damascus and across Syria, bakeries providing bread at the government-subsidised price now witness hours-long queues, while the market price of bread has increased threefold.

Meanwhile, the sugar beet harvest is estimated at only a third of last year’s yield, at 400,000 tons. Sugar beet is also a staple of the Syrian diet, and Syrians are among the largest per capita consumers of sugar beet in the world. Here too imports are required to meet demand, and a tender for the purchase of 276,000 tons from world markets was issued in June. The livestock sector, which traditionally accounts for some 35 percent of the Syrian agricultural production, is also vulnerable. The number of sheep fell from 15.5 million to 11 million heads, while exports, traditionally at 3 million heads and generating around $450 million per year, will fall to 100,000 in 2013. In the rural areas of Syria many households own livestock that often constitutes most, if not all, of the household income.

The poultry industry, which generated nearly 1 million direct and indirect jobs, has lost nearly half of those jobs and two-thirds of its production units. This alarming situation is rooted in factors now well-established. The violence of Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has spread to almost all of the country, is a main factor. It has displaced and exiled many farmers; destroyed infrastructure, equipment, fields, livestock; and prevented farmers from accessing their fields, obtaining inputs and marketing their products.

The sanctions imposed by the West are also to blame. Although no specific sanctions target agriculture, except for those on chemicals that have reduced the supplies of pesticides, the measures taken against the banking sector and the establishment of a blacklist of public entities have scared away foreign companies, causing shortages of many inputs. Finally, the fivefold increase in the value of the dollar against the Syrian pound has led to an explosion in the cost of imported inputs, and banking loans have dried up.

This decline in farming output is causing serious concerns in Damascus. As food supplies have grown tighter in urban areas, inflation has skyrocketed to the triple digits, and many Syrians have seen their diets reduced to bread and sugared tea. The options the government has at hand are limited. It is seeking to encourage production at all costs, including, for instance, paying higher prices to farmers for their crops, especially wheat and sugar. The price paid to sugar growers actually increased 50 percent year-on-year. Last October, the Minister of Agriculture also advised the population to grow fruits and vegetables and raise chickens in their backyards and gardens. The remark reflected the level of concern of the authorities and the partial transformation of the Syrian economy into a subsistence economy.

Now that the government has dipped into its stocks, it remains to be seen what other options it has left. These “strategic” reserves were supposed to be used only in an “emergency situation”, which probably fits as the best description of the state of the Syrian agriculture and economy today.

Note: This article appeared first in the August 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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