By Faleh Hasan in Baghdad and Abdul Hamid Zebari in Erbil (ICR No. 317, 24-Dec-09)
A shortage of domestic fruit and vegetables is being felt in bazaars across Iraq, with families groaning about rising prices and perplexed by an unfamiliar array of produce grown abroad.
"All the fruits and vegetables we sell now are imported, except for a few vegetables like celery and spring onion, which we still have to import in some seasons," said Saed Abdullah, 47, a long-time grocer in Erbil's Shekhalla bazaar.
"Now when you walk through the produce market you see items which before you could only see on TV," he added.
Iraq imports more than 80 per cent of its food, according to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation, FAO. Economists and consumers are alarmed by the trend, fearing agriculture may disappear in a country once known as the heart of the Fertile Crescent.
The FAO describes the Iraqi agricultural sector as "under-performing drastically" due to political instability, war, poor infrastructure and years of grinding drought.
"The main problem is that Iraq is still a war-torn country. It hasn't created a policy to develop agriculture, so that [Iraq] can once again become a producer rather than a consumer," said Mohammad Amin Alim, a professor of agriculture at Sulaimaniyah University.
As Iraqi agriculture declines, local grocers have been forced to purchase imported produce from neighbouring countries and agricultural powerhouses such as Asia.
The problem is not lost on the agriculture ministry, which in March banned the import of some foods in an effort to support local farmers. Deputy Minister of Agriculture Mahdi al-Qaisi said that the government is also providing farmers with loans and allowing them to pay for equipment in instalments.
In markets, however, citizens complain about the lack of Iraqi products, noting that Iraq was once a major exporter of food staples such as wheat.
"Every morning I go to the Al-Aalwa grocery market in Jamila neighborhood in Baghdad. Three-fourths of the vegetables are imported. Vegetables are constantly imported from Syria, Jordan, and Iran, and currently some fruits from Turkey," said Alaa Minati, 30, a grocer in the Zaafaraniyah area of south Baghdad.
Minati told IWPR that Iraqi farmers blame the high cost of fertilisers, transportation, fuel and the lack of water for increasing the price of the small amount Iraqi produce that does find its way to the bazaar.
Minati said Iraqi produce is not always cheaper than the imports but in Aalwa there is a higher demand for the former because it is tastier.
The lack of locally grown fruits, vegetables and grains has had a drastic effect on traditional Iraqi households which typically bought seasonal produce and adjusted their diets accordingly.
"In the past, we would help our mothers in drying some types of vegetables that were cheap in summer to store them for winter. Now we do not dry them because they are available at markets during all the four seasons of the year, but their high prices are killing us," said Sabiha Mohammed, a 44-year-old housewife in Baghdad.
Agriculture is said to make up just five per cent of Iraq's gross domestic product. Experts believe the decline in farming has made rural Iraqis more vulnerable to internal displacement as they flock to cities in search of new livelihoods.
In the mountains north of Erbil, village chief Farez Abdulrahman explains that lack of water and changing social trends have affected the livelihood of his small farming hamlet of Shekh Mamudian.
"Our village used to grow tobacco, onions and rice. No one would buy agricultural products that came from cities. It was the villages which used to send their products to [nearby] cities," he told IWPR. "When the village well ran dry last summer, we could no longer do farming or raise livestock."
For many Iraqis, agriculture is still an emotive issue, drawing on nationalism and hard-won historic pride. Some recall that less than 30 years ago, Iraq was a major grain exporter.
"Imported products are more expensive than local ones, but ours are better. For instance, Iraqi orange is tastier, and it doesn't go mouldy for a long time. This applies to tangerines, too. Local products are also more resistant while in storage," said Abu Hussein, 50, a Baghdad grocer. "All in all, local products are better and cheaper, but they are hard to find now."
But not all Iraqis care about buying local.
"The availability of different types of fruits has affected our taste," said Nariman Karim, a 42-year-old Erbil resident. "In the past, we would impatiently wait for the start of a particular season along with its fruits and vegetables. But now, everything is available and I have the option to buy products in any season."
Mohammed Salman, an economic analyst and head of the economics department at Salahaddin University in Erbil, believes that market forces will determine the future of Iraqi agriculture.
"This phenomenon of importing fruits and vegetable will lead to a decrease in local production and farmers will find other ways to survive," Salman said.
Faleh Hasan and Abdul Hamid Zebari are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad and Erbil. IWPR-trained journalist Basim al-Shara contributed to this report from Baghdad.