Iraqi Food Security: Destroyed and then Deconstructed

Food. Access to food. The right to produce food. The right to sell food. The ability to purchase food. These simple maxims are the foundation to a sovereign, healthy economy. These simple maxims were – and continue to be – denied to the people of Iraq.

Since 1990, the U.S. government (both Democrat and Republican) has enforced policies that have devastated Iraqi agriculture and Iraq’s basic ability to feed its people.

The US/UN sanctions destroyed the Iraqi economy – and most affected people’s access to food.  Until 1990, Iraq had imported approximately seventy percent of its food needs, at an average estimate cost of 2.5 billion U.S. dollars a year[1].  With the imposition of the sanctions, Iraq was no longer able to import its basic food needs. The 1991 bombing campaign further destroyed agricultural facilities, including: 350 commercial stores and markets, 120 farms, 157 centers for water and electricity services.[2]  After this first intense bombardment, the sanctions were re-imposed and the bombing of Iraqi cities became intermittent – until 2003.  During this period, the sanctions restricted the import of spare parts for electrical repair, irrigation pumps, agricultural machinery, seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. 

Five years into the sanctions, UNICEF issued a strong statement:


“Sanctions are inhibiting the importation of spare parts, chemicals, reagents, and the means of transportation required to provide water and sanitation services to the civilian population of Iraq. … What has become increasingly clear is that no significant movement towards food security can be achieved so long as the embargo remains in place. [emphasis added]  All vital contributors to food availability – agricultural production, importation of foodstuffs, economic stability and income generation, are dependent on Iraq’s ability to purchase and import those items vital to the survival of the civilian population.”[3]

That same year, representatives from the UN World Food Programme revealed that “alarming food shortages are causing irreparable damage to an entire generation of Iraqi children.”[4]  The caloric intake (per capita/per day) had dropped 65 percent, and malnutrition in Iraqi children under five had doubled.[5] The monthly government food rations was all that kept the population from outright starvation.

Still the situation worsened.

Problems were magnified because agriculture was highly electrified and thus dependent on electrical generating capacity, electrified water pumps, etc., yet items needed for electrical repair were prohibited.[6]Year after year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) issued statements lamenting the state of Iraq’s agriculture. Year after year, the UN Security Council’s 661 Committee, which oversaw the import of material into Iraq through the Oil-for-Food deal, continued to block necessary agricultural goods – from seeds to spare parts for irrigation. Did these representatives, under authority from their governments, truly believe that agricultural and infrastructural necessities posed a threat? Or, was it, as anthropologist and journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz explained, “a kind of sabotage to ensure that Iraq cannot become food self-sufficient”?[7]

The sanctions fell when the US military occupation of Iraq began.  By then, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “total production of major grains [was] estimated to be down 50 percent from the 1990 level.”[8]

Still the attacks against food security continued.

In the two years since the occupation of Iraq, the number of Iraqi children who do not have enough food to eat has been increasing, and more than a quarter of these children are chronically undernourished, as revealed by a 2005 UN report.  “Malnutrition rates in children under five have almost doubled since the US-led invasion.”[9]  As destructive as the sanctions were, the military occupation – and all its branches – have worsened the situation in Iraq.


Amidst this devastation, the International Monetary Fund, which loaned Iraq $436 million in 2004, asked the ‘Iraqi government’ to cut the food rationing that constitutes a third of Iraq’s budget[10]and supports approximately 60 percent of the population.[11] 


All the while, the agricultural lands in Iraq have continued to reach, as one Iraqi agricultural expert stated, “the stage of marginal productivity.” Jameel Mohamed Jameel explained that “a fast review of the course of the agricultural sector in Iraq since 2003 shows the continuous retardation, failure and waste.”[12]


Since 2003, something more insidious than a retardation of the agricultural sector in Iraq has been happening: the U.S. government had begun its plans to privatize the Iraqi economy and fundamentally transform its essence.[13]


Weeks into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the U.S. (then) viceroy of Iraq, Paul Bremer, removed all tariffs on products entering Iraq. Domestic productions for Iraqi industries were erased.  A few months later, Bremer imposed the infamous Order 39 – which allowed new, unrestricted 100% foreign ownership of all “economic sectors in Iraq,” except oil, and allowed 100% removal of their profits out of Iraq “without delay.”[14]  While opening up Iraqi resources to foreign control, Bremer imposed a flat tax on Iraq: Order 37 declared that “the highest individual and corporate income tax rates for 2004 and subsequent years shall not exceed 15 percent.”[15]


All these (illegal) changes were imposed without domestic consultation.


Iraq’s agriculture received special attention.


In April 2003, Daniel Amstutz was appointed to oversee the “rehabilitation” of agriculture in Iraq. Amstutz was undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs from 1983 to 1987 for the Reagan administration, ambassador and chief negotiator for agriculture during the Uruguay Round General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks 1987-1989, and past president of the North American Grain Export Association. During the Reagan administration, he drafted the original text of the main international agreements governing the trade of agricultural goods. His contribution allowed wealthy countries to dump their subsidy-backed agricultural surpluses on world markets, thus pushing down prices to levels with which growers in developing nations cannot compete. Bush Jr. has continued this policy; he has clearly stated that he wants U.S. farmers “feeding the world.”[16]

“Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission,” said Oxfam, the British aid agency in June 2003. “This guy is uniquely well placed to advance the commercial interests of American grain companies and bust open the Iraqi market, but singularly ill-equipped to lead a reconstruction effort in a developing country.”[17]


Busting open the Iraqi market is exactly what has happened in the past few years, and what is being planned for the future of Iraq.  Of the one hundred unilateral orders imposed on Iraq by the US occupying forces, the most potentially damaging to Iraq’s food sovereignty is Order 81: Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law.[18]This order, which overrides Iraq’s original patent law of 1970 prohibiting private ownership of biological resources (in accordance with the Iraqi constitution), strongly encourages private ownership of seeds and other biological resources.  Most are saying that this order, if implemented, would be a declaration of war against the Iraqi farmers[19]


The critical part of Order 81 is the section on Plant Variety Protection (PVP).  To qualify for PVP, seeds must be “new, distinct, uniform and stable.” Consequently, farmers are not allowed to save those ‘new’ seeds for re-use.


Let’s talk about seeds.


Recently, the FAO warned that, “Iraq’s seed industry has collapsed and the country is currently not able to meet farmers’ needs for improved crop varieties, seriously threatening its food security.”[20]What is being done? Are the vast varieties of indigenous wheat being restored, the varieties that have been saved, replanted and cross-pollinated over thousands of years in Iraq? (In 2002, the FAO estimated that 97 percent of Iraqi farmers used their own saved seed or bought seed from local markets.) Have seeds been brought in from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Syria where there are still samples of several Iraqi varieties?


No. The seeds are being brought from the US – from Texas A&M University’s International Agricultural Office, the World Wide Wheat Company of Arizona. Thousands of tons of wheat seed have already arrived in Iraq, and hundreds of acres of ‘demonstration plots’ have been set up across Iraq to teach farmers how to grow ‘high-yield seed varieties’ of crops that include barley, chick peas, lentils and wheat.[21]


According to Order 81, farmers will not be able to save or re-use these “new” seeds – and these are the seeds that are being pushed onto farmers to replace their traditional, “low-quality” seeds. The farmers will be bound to purchase the seeds (and their chemicals) the following year, as provided by international corporate seed traders such as Cargill, Monsanto, and Dow Chemical.


Iraq’s seeds cannot be afforded the protection under Order 81.  Furthermore, “if a farmer’s seed can be shown to have been contaminated with one of the PVP registered seeds, he could be fined.”[22]


The purpose of the law, then, as clearly stated by Focus on the Global South and GRAIN, is to “facilitate the establishment of a new seed market in Iraq, where transnational corporations can sell their seeds – genetically modified or not, which farmers would have to purchase afresh every single cropping season. … The new patent law also explicitly promotes the commercialization of genetically modified seeds in Iraq.”


With the latest studies disclosing the potentially harmful impacts of genetically modified agricultural seeds on biodiversity, use of such seeds opens a Pandora’s box of consequences to Iraq’s natural environment. It is a gamble, at best, a gamble that is being played by foreign players for foreign players without domestic consent.


The US government has followed the same model across the field in Iraq: destroy and then transform to best advantage US corporations.


Iraq is the extreme example of the-tearing-down-of-domestic-protection otherwise known as economic globalization.  In Iraq, however, this economic control is enforced by a military occupation and a U.S. chosen Iraqi government.




* Rania Masri, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand (Lebanon) and the assistant director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Balamand. She can be reached at: rania@ourwords.org

[1]UN Report on the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, March 30, 1999


[3] ‘The status of children and women in Iraq: A situation report.’ UNICEF. September 1995.

[4] ‘Time running out for Iraqi children.’ World Food Programme. September 1995.

[5]UN Report on the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, March 30, 1999

[6]UN FAO director in Iraq, Amir Khalil, in conversations with US congressional staffers during their 1999 visit to Iraq

[7]Barbara Nimri Aziz.  Gravesites:  Environmental Ruin in Iraq. Metal of Dishonor — Depleted Uranium; How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons.  International Action Center.  New York.  1997.

[8]Jeremy Smith. The US brings corporate agribusiness to Iraq. The Ecologist. January 29, 2005.

[9]‘Children starving in new Iraq.’ BBC News. March 30, 2005

[10]Iraq‘s Economy Hobbled By Growing Violence, IMF Says (Update1)  August 16, 2005. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000103&sid=aYrXhav7RZBE&refer=us

[11]IRAQ: Shortage in food rations raises concern. Reuters. July 25, 2005

[12]Crucial retreat of food security in Iraq. Al Hayat. August 18, 2005.

[13]For information on the economic transformation of Iraq, see the following articles: (1) Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia. Naomi Klein. Harper’s Magazine. September 2004. http://www.harpers.org/BaghdadYearZero.html; (2) Freeing Iraq’s Economy – For Its Occupiers. Rania Masri. Swans Commentary. February 2, 2004. http://www.swans.com/library/art10/iraq/masri.html; (3) Re-constructing or De-constructing Iraq? Rania Masri. International Socialist Review. July 14, 2003. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=3912; (4) Economic Invasion

U.S. Corporations March Into Baghdad, At The Expense Of Self-determination. Antonia Juhasz. The Los Angeles Times. August 14, 2005.


[14] http://www.cpa-iraq.org/regulations/20030921_CPAORD39.pdf. September 21, 2003

[15] http://www.cpa-iraq.org/regulations/20030921_CPAORD37.pdf, September 21, 2003

[16]St Louis debate. October 17, 2000. http://www.issues2000.org/George_W__Bush_Environment.htm

[17] Emad Mekay. ‘Free marketers have a plan for Iraq’. InterPress Service. April 30, 2003.

[18] http://www.export.gov/iraq/pdf/cpa_order_81.pdf  April 26, 2004.

[19] For further information on Order 81, see the following articles: (1) Jeremy Smith. The US brings corporate agribusiness to Iraq. The Ecologist. January 29, 2005. http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2005/Order-81-Iraq1feb05.htm; (2) Iraq’s new patent law: A declaration of war against farmers. Focus on the Global South and GRAIN. October 2004. http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=6; (3) Iraqi Order 81… Orders, Occupation, and Oppression. Rosemarie Jackowski. Press Action. February 1, 2005. http://www.pressaction.com/news/weblog/full_article/jackowski02012005/; (4) Frankenfoods for Iraq: The ‘Bad Idea’ Virus Spreads. Andy Rowell. Spin Watch. March 29, 2005. http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/iraq040405.cfm; (5) Iraq’s Crop Patent Law: A threat to food security. GM Free Cymru. Countercurrents.org March 3, 2005. http://www.countercurrents.org/iraq-cymru030305.htm

[20] Iraq: UN agency appeals for $5.4 million to rebuild seed industry, avert shortages. UN News Service. August 8, 2005

[21] Jeremy Smith. Ibid.

[22] Jeremy Smith. Ibid.

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