Why They are Burning Syrian Wheat, Syria’s Current and Future Food Security

Food Security:

Food security refers to people’s ability to get secure access to food without any obstacles whatsoever. It is the
availability of enough and healthy food that contains nutritionally valuable substances so as to survive and be able to live in healthy manner. In a study I did in 2014, I re- emphasized four dimensions that had been approved by the International Conference on Food in 1996. These four principles are availability, accessibility, sustainability and utility.
These four principles have progressively declined. Analyzing data related to these four indicators is a basic process for designing strategies and making policies that aim at dealing with the problem of lack of food security. Therefore, these four principles should be separately investigated and then integrated in the result of investigation for further analysis based on real and authentic clear vision. Key questions need to be addressed:

Is food available?

Is getting food sustainable and secure?

Is it really beneficial?

Contents:

  • Food security, Syrian case.
  • Areas of Syria in terms of climate.
  • Unification with Egypt and the laws of agricultural reform.
  • Farming between Hafez Assad and Bashar Assad.
  • Bashar Assad and the Privatization.
  • Importance of Syrian wheat.
  • The concept of food security.
  • The effects of war on agricultural sector.
  • Animals reservoir.
  • The role of aids.
  • Local military control of food.
  • Preliminary suggestions for the fulfillment of food security.

The Syrian disaster is likely to be classified as one of the worst disasters during the last decades. It is one of the most painful catastrophes in the history of Syria as the loss of lives is the one that can never be compensated. However, destroying the basis of stability for people and their prosperity is of special importance because the price is not only paid by current generations but also by generations to come. This what has happened in the case of Syria which has got a multiple disaster including, but not limited to, food security. Food security plays a great role in stabilizing societies as healthy food provides human beings with the necessary energy that enables them to do their tasks. Turmoil, conflicts, natural disasters and economic crises usually cause complexity of the efforts made for solving the problem of poverty, lack of food security and malnutrition.

Food security and geographical position of Syria

In a country like Syria, which largely depends on agriculture for its economy, talking about food security is a basic and comprehensive issue. It is not only about security of food as such. Rather, it is the source of living for most of the population who works in food production. This is not limited to vegetables and fruits; it also depends on animal products. Many historical studies related to the history of Syria show the importance of its geography and the abilities of Syrians to utilize natural sources. Successive civilizations which lived in Syria used to localize so many plants and develop means of production. Syria has got a deeply rooted history that goes back to the stone age. The diversity of habitat and climate has always produced different products with different tastes and types. This richness made it a food reservoir for the Roman Empire for long time.

We can say that Syrians have never been exposed to famines throughout history except for few times in few areas. Those famines were quickly overcome because the diversity of climate helped the country produce different crops and food stuff at different times of the year which means the availability of different types of food throughout the year. Wheat, barley and other legumes are usually grown in winter, whereas corn, bean and other summer products cover the needs for food around the year. Huge amounts of corps are produced during the summer. Some other corps are grown all the year round. Whenever one crop is finished in an area, it starts in other areas. Different trees like olives, fruits are also grown in different times of the year in different areas of the country. Skills of Syrians and their ability to prepare the land for farming have been eminently great. Third of the Syrian land, 6.5 million hectares, is good for farming and is utilized. This has always ensured enough food reservoir throughout the country.

Areas of Syria in terms of climate

According to its climate, Syria can be divided into five areas. Southern area which includes Damascus and other southern provinces which constitute 15.7% of the country, midland which includes Homs and Hama that is 27.6 of the country, northern area includes Idlib and Aleppo which constitutes 12.6% of the country, coastal area which includes Latakia and Tartous which is 2.3 of the country and finally the eastern part of the country which is the largest area of the country i.e. 41.8% which includes Al Hasaka, Al Rakkah and Deir Ezour provinces.

Rain fall in Syria ranges between 100 millimetres to 1000 millimetres in the coastal area. The average is 252 millimetre per year.

Each area contributes some part of the country’s economy. 1.69 million of the population are active producers of corps. This sector avails job opportunities for families who are involved in the production of corps and animal products. These products provide those families with survival means apart from gains and losses calculations of project-oriented activities with organized structure.

Unification with Egypt and the laws of agricultural reform

Small and medium properties constitute the largest proportion of the land and animal production means. These properties are becoming smaller because of laws of agricultural reform and the increase in the number of inheritors by process of time and. The land property has become more decentralized after laws of agricultural reform. These laws specified property for no more than 8 hectares of irritated lands and 20-30 hectares of rain-
irritated lands. The real property was even less than these figures. As families got less than specified by the law of
agricultural reform, means of production were dispersed and work power was disintegrated and technical problems toppled productivity. Problems of agricultural sector started with the unification between Syria and Egypt with the Law 134 issued in 1958 which was said to aim at organizing this sector under the title of agricultural reform. After dividing big properties and allotting these properties to those who didn’t have any, owners of big agricultural projects left the country.

Farming between Hafez Assad and Bashar Assad

The events which took place in the last nine years of Bashar Assad’ rule opened the door for many problems including, but not limited to, food security. Anyway, the current results or future problems can’t be perceived away from the regime which was established by Hafez Assad who came to power as a result of a military coup in 1970. The rule of Hafez Assad can be divided into three stages in terms of economic life of Syria. The first stage was between 1970 and 1980. During this period, the growth rate was 10.5%. This period was known for focusing on reinforcement of public sector through depending on foreign aids and loans.

During the second stage, Assad’s Regime adopted an economic reform program. Free market was introduced to activate private sector after a recession period in the 1980s. But this new economic trend remained cautious and public sector was still a priority. To avoid real economic reform, the regime adopted economic multiplicity to keep economy in the hand of the regime. Some reports denoted that after the 1980s turmoil, Hafez Assad was keen on granting economic privileges to merchants of Aleppo and Damascus. He granted them investment chances in export and import. Employment in the public sector was enhanced and many construction companies were established to hire more workers. Some of the farmers working power was drawn to other sectors. The pretext was to support social slices with limited income with limited salaries. It was implicit unemployment. By this strategy, the regime kept its iron grip on most social components and this led to the third stage which was known as a recession period in the 1990s.

The state managed the development process through 5-year plans until end of 1980s. Farming was subjugated by the Higher Farming Council headed by Prime Minister. This council was joined by deputies of Prime Minister, Ministers of Agriculture, Irrigation, Planning, Industry and General Farmers’ Union. This council used to plan all agricultural activities and plans, supervise all these activities and plans, assign tasks, fund, marketing and the like.

Assad’s Regime early understood the role of civil societies and their ability to influence the public. In Syria, farmers had been aware of the importance of pushing for an agricultural development. In 1892, the first Agriculture Chamber was established under the name of Damascus Agriculture Chamber. This chamber is the oldest in the region. In 1936, a similar chamber was established in Aleppo. later on, other provinces did the same. Assad’s Regime immediately jumped in to establish the general Framers’ Union in 1974. This Union entrenched all farmer unions in every small town and village throughout the country. One member of the General Union of Farmer was nominated as member of the so-called “National Progressive
Front”. All activities and details related to farmers were in the grip of this Union. Agricultural loans were introduced to make it easier to control farmers instead of encouraging them. Farmers were easy prey for the regime as they were obliged to join these farmers societies to ensure their interests. They were politically contained by the policy of the regime.

Few months after the death of Hafez Assad and inheriting rule to his son Bashar Assad in 2000, Syria went through an economic refreshment with no identified reasons. Income rate was higher and more job were created. People felt that the time of Hafez Assad was gone, and that a new era was coming up. This continued until 2004 when the regime started to liberate economy through its close economic partners. Private universities were awarded licenses and previously-banned goods were allowed to enter the country. Later, it was clear that the new economic momentum was all enhanced and governed by Rami Makhluf, a relative of Bashar Al Assad. All telecommunications and money exchange and transfer were owned by Rami Makhluf. This badly reflected on economy of the country and farming which retreated in terms of corps and animal products. Education and other public services degraded as prices remarkably rose up. Bashar Assad applied his own economic pattern away from his father’s one. Therefore, deforestation prevailed and many farmers abandoned their lands to live in the
surrounding shanty towns of big cities. More than one million workers quitted farming and animal farms.

Bashar Assad and the Privatization

Many researchers attributed the radical changes in politics and economy were intended to grant Rami Makhluf a free hand in all sectors of economy. This was the cause of emigration from the countryside to big cities.

Tampering with the economy of Syria was one of the main reasons for the social mobility that opened the door for the Syrian Revolution in 2011. Agricultural sector which used to avail living sources for survival has become a burden on the shoulder of those working in farming. The situation in Syria has drawn a dim image of the agricultural sector and those working in farming. This sector has survived all the wrong decisions made by Bashar Assad who made it clear that all public sector institutions became a burden on the state budget and that these institutions should be either dismantled or sold to the private sector. This new policy of Bashar undermined many social slices and deprived them from having a descent income and feeling secure. At this stage the issue of food security started to totter as many years of scarce rain fall coincided with these measures.

During the last few decades, Assad enacted few laws and took some measures to attach farmers with the state through his need for means of production. This dependability on state in everything has always forced farmers to make connections with state officials, tribal figures and politicians to get what they need for their living. Without connections, farmers were not able to maintain their livelihood with such seasonal crops that can not ensure sustainable sources. Decree Number 190 was issued in 1970 to establish the General Establishment for Seeds. This establishment monopolized all seeds for low price providing that farmers hand over their crops to the government. The Regime wanted to monopolize all strategic reservoir of wheat for stabilizing its rule through the control of this strategic food. Assad’s Regime encouraged growing soft type of wheat instead of the traditional known hard wheat which used to be grown in Syria. By process of time, hard wheat became less and some genetic manipulations low quality species dominated the country. Therefore. The value of exported wheat became less and less.

Importance of Syrian wheat

Wheat is one of the most important cereals on the international level. It comes in the first place before corn and rice. In Syria, it is the most important crop as its components are used in many types of food like bread, Burghul, sweats and spaghetti. About 1,69 million hectares are planted with wheat. 0,76 million hectares are irritated i.e. 45% of the total wheat-planted area. 45% of the total area depends on rainfall. Syria produces 4.16 million tons of wheat. 3 million tons of this is irritated i.e. 73% of the total harvest. 1.1 million tons, 27% of the total amount, are produced depending on rainfall. Each hectare produces 2.4 tons of wheat on average. In irritated areas, each hectare produces 3.97 tone of wheat, whereas each hectare depending on rain fall produces 1.1 ton of wheat. 70% of the wheat is grown in Al Hasaka, Al Rakkah and Deir Ezour in the east of the country. Syria produces both soft wheat and hard wheat alike. The Syrian hard wheat has big size and it is known for its crystal composition and yellow color. The soft wheat produced in Syria is good for making all kinds of pastries. Syria is the third World producer of hard wheat next to the United States and Canada.

After losing control of large areas of wheat in Syria, Assad’s Regime stopped supporting bread in areas of its control. Russia, Crimea and Ukraine started providing Assad’s Regime with wheat to keep prices of bread in Syria under control.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization FAO, Syria has produced one million tons of wheat throughout 20 years. This is shown in the table below:

The concept of food security

Food and Agriculture Organization FAO defines food security as the availability of enough, healthy, secure and safe food for human beings and without any obstacles or barriers whatsoever. Such food should contain all nutritional values needed by human beings to continue their work and life in a healthy manner.

In a study I did in 2014, I referred to four dimensions that had been approved by the International Conference on Food in 1996. These four principles are availability, accessibility, sustainability and utility. These four principles have progressively declined. Analyzing data related to these four indicators is a basic process for designing strategies and making policies that aim at dealing with the problem of lack for food security. Therefore, these four principles should be separately reviewed and then integrating the result of investigation for further analysis based on real and authentic clear vision. Key questions need to be addressed:

Is food available?

Is getting food sustainable and secure?

Is it really beneficial?

The effects of war on agricultural sector

Agricultural sector started to go down in 2011 with the accumulation of events especially the regime’s large-scale use of fatal weapons. This brutality of the Assad’s Regime drowned the country in complete chaos. Many military factions, whether those of the opposition or the regime, pushed for chaos and destruction. This was also enhanced by military multi-sided and multi-purpose intervention. The fire of war drew the lines of control in separated cantons that frequently swapped control by involved parties. The regime’s invasion of cities, targeting residential areas with explosive barrels randomly dropped by Helicopters and other weapons have all destroyed residential areas and infrastructure as largely as could be done by many mass-destruction bombs. The regime’s attacks also destroyed crops, animal farms, trees and fruit trees in Idlib, Dara’a, Hama and other provinces. Making people starve was a systematic policy adopted by Assad’s Regime and collective punishment of the public with the least regard of national sources. Starvation has been a fiercer weapon than other military means in many besieged areas. Humanitarian aids were smuggled to the black market because of scarcity. The media reported many photos of children dying of hunger in many areas of the country which is a blatant violation of human rights stated in Roma Convention 1996 about food security. According to this convention, it is illegal to use food as a political or economic means of pressure.

All these measures deviated people from their land and farming activities as roads have been blocked and transportation impaired. They also affected the internal trade and movement of individuals or goods, corps and means of production. Additionally, water and power sources were also affected. Huge displacement influxes made full families abandon their home towns and villages. Greater number of Syrians fled the country and settled abroad just to avoid the conflict. Moreover, so many young farmers quitted farming to join the fight for economic, doctrinal or security reasons. The number of females was far greater than the number of males. In short, many
reasons interrelated to deteriorate the agricultural sector and add many complicated problems to it.

Food and Agriculture Organization FAO estimated the damage caused to agriculture sector by 1.6 billion USD until 2018. This estimation is such a small one compared with the damage of infrastructure and the dramatic rise in fuel prices. There is no accurate statistics for the direct and indirect losses. Most of the experienced personnel have been either killed or have left the country. Shortage of means of production and high prices pushed many farmers to stop their projects as irritation pumps have stopped and draught prevailed in most orchards and
fields. One more reason is the security concerns and difficulty of movement. Most farmers have been forced to sell their corps in their areas rather than transport these corps to another areas which means lower prices. Military checkpoints also impaired transportation of corps and goods as they disturb the corps while checking trucks. Inflation of the Syrian currency has caused dramatic rise in prices of spare parts and therefore most of the agricultural machineries remained without maintenance.

In 1999, the population of Syria mounted up to 16.11 million inhabitants, whereas in 2016, the United Nations estimated Syria’s population to be 24,5 million just before the Revolution started. After the Revolution had started, only 17.9 million remained in the country. 6 million refugees fled the country. Before the Revolution, 50% of the population was under 19-year old. The unemployment rate before the war was 14%, whereas in 2016, it was 50%. These figures are not accurate as no authentic statistics have been possible. Yet, it can be said that 70% of the Syrian families are below poverty line and they are unable to get sufficient food. In other words, most Syrian families are suffering from food insecurity.

Animals reservoir

Syria is known for its unique animal resources as it has got rare species of sheep, horses and cows that acclimatize with the habitat. In 2010 Syria had 15.5 million sheep and 2 million goats. 55% of Syria is nomadic area. This so-called Badiah constitutes a good resource of animals’ products. The most famous species of sheep is called “Awass”. Syria has got 80% of the World Awass sheep. Cow ranched in farms are as good as household cows. Laundry farms provide the main source of meat and eggs and are available to most of the population. Some of the product is exported.

Animals production has been largely affected by the ongoing war, and this also affected the prices of meat, milk, eggs and other essential food stuff. These animal products used to enrich Syria’s economy as they constitute 40% of the total national agricultural income. This sector has always availed 20% of job opportunity and food security in rural areas. Most battles between Assad’s Regime and the military opposition have been fought in rural areas. In 2014 the number of chickens was estimated by 17 million, 11 million hens that produce eggs. We need to keep in mind that all statistics are not very confidential as it is very difficult to conduct authentic statistics in the war-affected areas. This uncertainty applies to all figures mentioned in this study. Fodder’s high prices, transportation fees and lack of security for workers make it necessary to mobilize all efforts to help this sector survive especially in cold season. Statistics conducted in 2018 refer to a 40% decrease in animal production, 30% in the number of
sheep and 60% in laundry products.

Sheep and goat ranchers moved their herds to neighboring country. Olive oil and other products have been transferred to Turkey. For many years, Food and Agriculture Organization FAO has warned of many problems related to animals’ vaccines. FAO has repeatedly warned of serious problems related to animals’ vaccines and FAO tried to offer these vaccines to immunize animals in many different areas, but problems related to refrigeration and storage with the absence of electricity have impaired its efforts. However, FAO conducted a campaign that
was funded by the United States of America to immunize more than 1.3 million sheep and goats together with about 56000 cows against parasitic diseases. The campaign was conducted in 10 provinces, Damascus Rural, Kunaiterah, Dara’a, Tartus, Latakia, Homs, Aleppo, Sweida and Hasakah. There was a fear that this communicable disease might spread in other neighboring countries. For many years, FAO has warned of the scarcity of vaccines. According to FAO statistics, 10 million animals were vaccinated between 2011 and mid-2017. FAO also stated that
females constitute the back bone for farming as they are 60% of the farming working power and the corner stone for food security in Syria.

The role of aids

During the last few years, many Non-Governmental Organizations and other International entities have offered livelihood aids to locals, Internally Displaced Persons IDPs and refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million Syrians have been suffering from lack of food security and that they badly need humanitarian aids. Some other 4 million Syrians are likely to suffer from scarcity of food in case support is suspended as the food production rate has decreased to the lowest level ever. In 2017 the United Nations has offered aids to farmers through FAO to help farmers grow wheat that is enough for about 1.7 million persons. In a report made in 2019, the United Nations declared that Syria is likely to suffer the worse famine in the World as the production of wheat has gone down. This decrease might threaten the livelihood of Syrians due to factors mentioned above. Most of the farming lands is no more utilized whether these lands are irritated or just depending on water fall. Large areas in the north and around Euphrates are either not utilized or controlled by military factions which exploit these lands for their own benefit and private projects.

Local military control of food

Most of the corps that are grown in certain areas like fruit trees and industrial corps like cotton, sugar canes are
controlled by local authorities or unidentified entities. This control changes with the change of military domination. Some of these corps are brought to the regime-controlled areas for high prices and through bargains that burden citizens whether in regime-controlled areas or opposition-held areas. Most farmers in many areas are afraid to go to their fields and farms as they might be killed any time, kidnapped for ransom or detained for sectarian or religious reasons especially with the emergence of extremist organizations. The absence of state authority or law in many areas enhanced the establishment of different military groups and local militias to protect their areas from attacks by other rival groups during harvest. These groups control checkpoints and passages between areas of conflicting parties. Because of bad quality wheat imported by the regime from Russia. Bread in Syria is different from that of Russia. Bread is a basic food for all Syrians.

1.5 million tons of wheat was expected to be sold during 2018, but it was only 1.2 million tons. This is the lowest rate since 1989 when it reached 4.5 million tons. There was a decision to import 1.5 million tons of wheat from Russia, Romania and Bulgaria.

In the north of Syria, which is out of control of Assad’s Regime, the decrease of wheat harvest is a real concern for
that same reasons i.e. high price of fuel, lack of production means, security concerns, the lack of fertilizers and
insecticides and problems of marketing. Some farmers forgot all about wheat and started to grow potatoes and legumes. The peculiar geographical position of Syria made it a passage that connects three continents and a vital land route that connects Europe with the Asian part of the Arab World and Gulf States. Linking Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey has always played a great role in preservation of food security in the region. This position caused much trafficking of corps from Syria to neighboring countries for profit making as there are no laws or central authority to control trafficking. This food crisis also directly affected neighboring countries.

Undoubtedly, the crisis that prevailed during the last few decades has constituted a main source of food stuff for neighboring countries as these countries found a cheap and high-quality corps compared with similar products in these countries. The continuous violence cycle, absence of security during the last nine years and the stalemate political solution has come to will all cause much food insecurity and the need for international humanitarian aids. The current situation will make it difficult to continue providing humanitarian aids and facilitate circulation of goods and agricultural products with neighboring countries. The European Commission, which has provided about 17 billion Euro inside Syria and neighboring countries, says that the suffering of Syrians is still eminent as 11.7 million Syrians including 6 million children still need urgent humanitarian aids.

As the conflict seems to continue during this year, and the absence of any horizons for a political solution, European Commission refers to the difficulty in delivering humanitarian aids to those in need in many areas in the light of ceaseless violations of human rights. Additionally, the safety of humanitarian staff is not guaranteed as many rape cases, forceful disappearance, children abuse, executions and deliberate targeting of civilians are deteriorating the humanitarian situation and impairing delivery of humanitarian aids. Brussels Conference agreed on providing 2.4 billion Euro until 2020. Half of the funds go to life-saving intervention inside Syria and the other half goes to sustainable water and sanitation projects with some funds for livelihood support. Participant countries to the conference pledged to provide more than 8.3 billion Euro for the support of future Syria to address the needs of Syrians and neighboring countries. Two thirds of these unprecedented promises came from EU countries.
6.2 billion Euro has been dedicated for 2019 and the rest will be provided in 2020.

Preliminary suggestions for the fulfillment of food security

If Syria remains like this, there will be a need for great efforts to correct and solve the existing problems related to food security and agricultural reform. The longer a conflict is, the more difficult it becomes to recover. The amount of loss in 2020 will be ten times more than that of 2010. National economy will need four years to recover by 28% after ten-year conflict. Renovation of state institutions will be difficult as there has been a social split. Therefore, resurrection of the country will need strong economic institutions including agricultural sector. Research centers will be needed to improve the genetic quality of different species.

The current genetic improvement of species is just between 20- 30%, therefore there will be an urgent need for scientific research centers to play a great role in improving the quality of animal and corps products. These procedures will enhance national income through development as framing is the main source of national income and job opportunities especially for people in rural areas which are the main supplier of food. There should be an integrated plan for availing food through local production and in collaboration with regional and international NGOs. Development programs should also be collaborated with Food and Agriculture Organization FAO for sustainable livelihood. These programs should include integrated management of lands, water resources and means of production with the aim of preservation of natural sources to be used in a fair manner. Only by doing this, we can ensure sustainable livelihood. International Organizations are working hard to connect ad and hoc humanitarian aids with sustainable development projects on the long run to move from relief to reliance. All previous plans implemented in Syria should be reviewed as these plans used to be either improvised or designed for administrative or political purposes rather than scientifically-oriented. Before the Syrian Revolution, state
officials used to give deceptive figures of their achievements to show themselves to be successful. False mottos like “Land is for those who work in it” used to be raised to mobilize the public for ideological purposes. Most plans were having a security perspective connected with the ruling Ba’ath party. That policy aimed at exhausting the productivity of society. Many plans used to be thrown away before being implemented just because a minister was replaced. It was all about personal gains rather than concern about the public and national interests according to agreed criteria.

Greater efforts should be made to reinforce the abilities of individuals, families and the society to cope with the
consequences of the war and to recover as soon as possible. This will mitigate future problems and lessen their effects on food security and natural resources. The new strategy should be based on four pillars, preparedness and response to support the vulnerable and war-affected communities to move from relief to reliance, taking measures to mitigate consequences through data analysis and monitoring, reinforcement of institutions to build
capacities and support risk management and the prevention of plants and animal infections whether locally or across borders, and ensuring decent income and availing job opportunities in rural areas. Small projects should be supported to manufacture means of production. Much attention should be paid to marketing, and technology should be introduced. Both refugees and IDPs should have the chance for guidance programs, food security and convenient secure environment.

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