Food security in Iraq

Hamid Alkifaey


This study will discuss the issue of food security in Iraq, but since the issue of food and hunger is a part of an international problem, the Iraqi food scene must be linked to the world at large and international efforts to counter the problem. I begin with the larger problem of old insecurity in the world, then I will talk specifically about Iraq and the challenges facing it in this regard. I will first look at concepts of food security the human right to food, and take a definition or description of food security as stated by an Iraqi international expert on food and water:

Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Dr Hassan Janabi, Iraq’s former ‫ambassador to UN Food & Agricultural Organisation, Nov 2012)-(source 1)

 It is a human right “to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.” (previous source).

International efforts to counter hunger

It is clear from published statistics that the world produces more food than it needs in order to increase food security. Yet, millions of people across the world still live below the poverty line and frequently sleep hungry.

 In 2008, the number of the hungry in the world was 850 million people, a staggering figure indeed, it was 13% of the world population (Katarina Wahlberg, Global Policy Forum, January 2008) (source 2). At the Millennium summits in 2000 and 2005 as well as at the World Summit of 1996, promises were made to reduce hunger in the world by half. But the target wasn’t reached. The right to food is one of the internationally recognised human rights according to Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999. It’s a basic human right, but so many people across the world are still bereft of it. How should this right be restored to people who were forced to lose it? And whose responsibility is it to perform this duty? Can they ‘fight’ to get this right? And who should they be fighting?

 There are reasons for this continuous state of hunger in many quarters of the world, but whatever the explanation and the reasons given by those in charge of world affairs, it is difficult for the world community to justify its failure to feed the hungry when there is a food surplus in many quarters of the globe and when it is clear that it is able to deliver food to the needy and deal with the reasons behind famine and malnutrition. Of the 7 billion world population, there are 870 people suffering from malnutrition because of the lack of food, yet there is 1.7 billion people in the world who are considered obese (Mark Koba, CNBC, July 22) (source 3). Although obesity can be a result of body malfunction, but it is symbolic that those obese do have more than enough food to eat, while there are as many as half the number of the obese who are undernourished.

 In most cases there is no justification to the failure of the world to feed the hungry since the main reasons for famine are the failure of rich countries to deliver food on time to the hungry in famine stricken areas of the word which are mainly in Africa due to frequent draughts. It must be said that the world does react quickly to famine if and when it is exposed by the media as happened in Ethiopia in the eighties, but the failure is how to deal with the long term causes of famine and malnutrition. ‘We can deal with short-term food shortages, after a disaster, but fixing long term hunger gets ignored’ said Joshua Muldavin, professor of international politics at the Sarah Lawrence College, New York, USA, who focuses on food and agricultural instruction (quoted by Mark Koba -source 3).

 Professor Mauldavin confirms that ‘we have two or three times the amount of food that is needed to feed the population of the world’.  This leads us to believe that the problem is that of distribution management and probably a lack of resolve on the part of the international community to commit itself to a firm action to reduce poverty and remove the causes for famine and malnutrition in a coherent long-term strategy.

 Emelie Peine, a professor of international politics and economy at the University of Puget Sound in western Washington, USA, says “We don’t have a food shortage problem but a distribution problem and an income problem. People aren’t getting the food, and even if they did, they don’t have enough money to buy it” (quoted by Mark Koba -source 3). This confirms the existence of the distribution problem and the indifference on the part of world governments to do a drastic action to reduce poverty and deal with the long term causes of it.

 Rarely, do reaching the hungry become impossible or difficult. This happens when militias or criminal gangs interfere with food deliveries or use civilians as hostages to impose their will on their enemies, stopping in the process the international community from performing its duties of dispatching food aid to the needy. This happened when the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in disrupting UN humanitarian supplies in southern Sudan (Ugandan New Vision newspaper-source 4). LRA is based in northern Uganda and notorious for kidnapping, raping and maiming thousands of children. It is believed to have forced 1.7 million Ugandans to flee their homes.

 Food Security in the Fertile Crescent

 I have explained above some of the international aspects regarding food security which I think is relevant and needed to give this study an international outlook and relate it to international measures taken to counter the problem since food shortages are not a national problem for one country but an international one that all countries have to deal with, even those which currently have a food surplus.  Now, I will look at food security, or lack of it, in Iraq, a country that has TWO main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, and many other tributaries, and was once called the Fertile Crescent or Mesopotamia in Greek because of its ability to produce food due to the fertility of its land.

 Traditionally, Iraq produced more than what it needed to feed its population. In fact it used to export wheat, rice, dates, fruit and green products to other countries in the first half of the 20th century according to government statistics (source 1). Now it imports all these food stuffs from and local farmers always complain that imports are so cheap and abundant in the country that their products are left unbought by the locals, especially when imported agricultural products, mainly from neighbouring Iran, Jordan and Syria, are a lot cheaper than the locally produced ones.

 In 2003, the World Food Program had an emergency operation in Iraq which received a lot of fund from donor countries, although international interest in Iraq faded away a year later for multiple reasons,  (Katarina Wahlberg -source 2). This shows that a fertile land such as Iraq, that is also full of natural resources such as oil and gas, can suffer from hunger or food shortages if it didn’t manage its resources properly.

 If one examines the Iraqi market as I did, one will soon find that Iraq depends greatly on imports to feed its people, and these imports come from all over the world, rice and spices come from India, China and the US, wheat from Australia and the US, fruits and vegetables from Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, dairy products from Iran and even Saudi Arabia and last but not least, water comes from the neighbouring Kuwait (Rawdatain brand), which is a country that is mostly desert.

Iraq is the 5th biggest importer of rice in the world importing more than 1 million ton per year. It also imports more than 2 million tons of wheat per year, (Dr Janabi- source 1).

According to Iraq’s mission at the UN FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) in Rome, around 4 million Iraqis (15.4% of the population) were food insecure in 2005 and  8.3million were vulnerable to food insecurity (31.8% of the population). In 2008 the number of those who were food insecure went down to one million (3% of the population) and 6.4 million (22% of the population) were extremely dependent on food rations (source 1).

Iraq is classified as a country with Protracted Crisis (along with North Korea, Afghanistan, Haiti and 17 African countries) (source 1). The reasons are three fold. 1-Longevity of the crisis, 2- Aid Flow, 3- Food Security Status. (source 1).

World Food Program lists the main reasons for food insecurity in Iraq as follows:

• Chronic poverty.

• limited purchasing power.

• inadequate food production.

• inefficiency in the state ration provision.

• decades of conflict and economic sanctions.

• displacement of people.

• high unemployment.

• loss of wage earners.

• illiteracy.

• Under-developed private sector- no real economic growth.

• Traditional and inflexible farming methods.


Major Indicators of Poverty in Iraq 2007

Indicator                                                         Value

Poverty line US$ per capita per month


                                                               National                                                $65

Food                                                        $29

Non-food                                                 $36

Poverty rate                                            (%)

Total                                                       22.9

Urban                                                      16.1

Rural                                                       39.3

Number of poor (million population)

Total                                                       6.9

Urban                                                      3.5

Rural                                                       3.4

Poverty gap (%)

Total                                                       4.5

Urban                                                      2.7

Rural                                                       9.0

Source: Iraqi Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation’s Central Organisation for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT)


According to Iraqi Central Organisation for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), there is now 30% of the Iraqi population who lives in rural areas. This is in contrast to 70% in the 1st half of the 20th century.  As can be seen from this, there was a huge population movement from rural to urban areas which took place in the second half of the twentieth century. This movement began after the military coup of 1958 which introduced the Agrarian Reforms Law that freed farmers from the control of the feudal lords. Farmers, who were the poorest in Iraq were trapped in debt and working for feudal lords made them in a perpetual state of poverty and near slavery. After the coup of 1958, they felt it was their opportunity to be free from the feudal landlords and and work in the city. They were absorbed in the new city life, mostly in manual work and service industries as well as in the army and police.

Agricultural Initiative

 The Iraqi Government launched an agricultural initiative in 2008 and the aim was to prevent further degradation in the agricultural sector. The initiative was in recognition of, and response to, failed rural development. The idea was to ensure that farmers have access to financial resources, input and extension of services. It centred on giving farmers access to loans and regulating their access to water and land (source 1). In a TV programme on Iraqia TV called ‘Iqtisaduna’ or ‘Our Economics’ aired on 19th May, The Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Mahdi Al Kaisi said that the government has given farmers 50% discount on agricultural machinery while they can pay the other 50% via an instalment scheme over ten years. He also declared that food security in Iraq can only be achieved through local production of of food stuff and he said the government decided to bar 14 different agricultural products which have local substitutes.

Food Waste: Critical Food Loss

FAO estimates that 1.3 billion ton of food is wasted globally every year. This is Equivalent to $1 trillion. 40% of this wastes occurs in OECD countries.

 %     page19image11528.png ¬

page19image11696.png ¬

        Developing Countries   US           UK

*Home and Municipal





Source: Godfray et al. 2012 (source 7) (Accessed through

  Public Distribution System (PDS)

After the Gulf war of 1991 and the imposition of international sanctions on Iraq after its occupation of the neighbouring small state of Kuwait, the Iraqi government introduced a food ration system called Public distribution System (PDS)

 page22image864.png ¬

The system was meant to be a Short-term emergency Food- Aid programme, but it has lasted till now as successive governments are hesitant to abolish it in fear of public outcry. In fact it did try in 2013 to replace the system with cash handouts but there was a strong reaction form religious leaders and opposition figures and this pushed the government to make a U turn. PDS did help the poor and save lives, but it has certainly distorted the food market in Iraq and made farmers move away from growing food stuffs. PDS is given to everyone regardless of their income due to government inability to target the poor and this is making the system expensive as well as largely wasteful. In fact the ration card used to get PDS entitlement is now used as an official document that is required by other state institutions as an ID card. This made people rester for the system even if they do not need the service. However, the government decided recently to deprive those who earn more than 1200 dollars a month from getting PDS. But the mere existence of the system is a sign that Iraq is vulnerable and food insecure

The ministry of planning is proposing a reform to PDS and a way to phase it out, but there are political considerations which have so far proved difficult to surmount.  

The Marshes

The marshes in the south are considered to be a source of income for thousands of poor marsh inhabitants who are come to be known as the ‘Marsh Arabs’. They are also an abundant source for popular types of fish (Bunni, Gattan and Shabboot), birds and diary products as they are an ideal environment for baffeleos. The marshes are sustained by the overflow of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But they were adversely affected by the falling water levels of the two rivers. During the previous regime, the marshes became a base for  rebels opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein. This pushed the regime to dry up the marshes and divert water to a third river digged in the 1980s. The marshes almost dried up in the 1990s, but there are efforts on the part of both the Iraqi government and some NGOs to bring life back to them.

Iraq’s former ambassador to the FAO, Dr Hassan Janabai, who currently heads the Economic Department at the foreign ministry, told me that if the marshes are revived fully as they were back in the heydays of the fifties, sixties and seventies, they would be a ‘major economic resource and food supplier to the community and they would have a direct impact on the lives of at least 5 million people’ (interview with Dr Janabi on 1st May 2014).   

I have depended a great deal on my own findings for the purpose of this study, since I am currently living in Iraq and can see for myself foreign agricultural products in the market while Iraqi ones are almost absent because they cannot compete.

For the purpose of this study, I have visited farms producing wheat, corn, rice, fruit and other products and spoke to farmers about the state of their industry and the problems they have been facing and whether these problems and the failure of the Iraqi agricultural sector to compete with imports, can pose a threat to food security in Iraq. They told me that they have actually abandoned producing any thing now due to foreign competition from Iran and Syria with regards to fruit and vegetables, and India, Australia and the US with regards to wheat and rice. They want the Iraqi government to do one of two things.

 Either impose import duties on imports to make them more expensive than locally produced products, or subsidise Iraqi agriculture, like the European Union did in the Common Agricultural Policy in order to ensure that Iraq won’t face food shortage in the future if imports stop coming into the country for one reason or another.

 Iraqi farmers have almost stopped producing certain products such as tomatoes, cucumber, melons and other greens, except for local consumption, because it doesn’t pay them to do so. They have limited their activities to growing animal feed which they can use for their animals, mainly cattle, goats and sheep, or sell to other animal growers.

 Iraq used to produce one of the best types of rice in the world (Anber), especially in the middle and southern provinces of Diwaniyya,Najaf, Muthanna, Thi Qar, and Missan. But since the eighties the level of water in the river of Euphrates has fallen due to dams built in Turkey and Syria and this has made the water available for rice growing very little. Rice growing requires a lot of water, thus the production of rice is almost non-existent in many areas of Iraq which used to depend largely on the production of rice. The near eradication of rice growing in Iraq is due exclusively to the dam-building by the Syrian and Turkish governments on Iraq’s main rivers.

 Source: Website of Dr Hassan Janabi:

 Iraq is now the 5th biggest importer of rice in the world, importing over one million tons of rice every year. It is also a large importer of wheat with imports exceeding 2 million tons a year (source 1).  


Euphrates River

The flow of the Euphrates river has been greatly reduced over the last few years, according to farmers, experts and officials, due to dams built on it upstream, in both Syria (The Akaba Dam)  and also in Turkey. Iraq is a down stream country and its hugely affected by upstream countries, which are mainly Syria and Turkey. Iraqi water officials say there are 9 dams on the Euphrates river between Turkey and Syria (Campbell Robertson, NY, July 13, 2009 – source 10). Iraq has no agreements on the distribution of water, and this has left it in a weak position.

 The reduced water levels has affected not only Iraq’s agriculture, but its fishing industry too. Most of Iraq’s fish is caught in rivers, tributaries, lakes and marshes and all these are dependent on the water flow in the rivers. Until 2011, there has been a drought in the country, although this has changed over the last three years with high rainfalls. All people have been affected by the drought but the poor have taken most of the brunt. 

 Ali Baban, the minister for planning till the end of 2010, said “We have a real thirst in Iraq”. “Our agriculture is going to die, our cities are going to wilt, and no state can keep quiet in such a situation.”. (quoted by Campbell Robertson, NY, July 13, 2009- source 10).

 As I have been touring Iraq over the last few years, I could see the water quantities in the Euphrates river dwindling, some of its tributaries, such as the river Wand in Diyala province, have totally dried up. Rivers coming from Iran such as Karkha an Karoon have also been adding less and less water to Iraq’s main river in the south, Shut Al Arab, where both Euphrates and Tigris merge in the city of Qurna. The reduction in water quantities will certainly add to the food insecurity of a country which was once the largest exporter of dates in the world, in addition to exporting wheat and rice (the well-known Iraqi type, Anber) which was mainly grown on the Euphrates valley.  Although rainfall has increased the amount of water in the country, but this cannot be depended upon to produce food for the whole population. This means the country will continue to depend on imports of grain and other food stuffs.

 The Tigris River

 Turkey has been building a huge dam on the Tigris river, Ilisu, in mainland Turkey. According to Dr Janabi, the water resources expert and Iraq’s former representative at the UN FAO, this would reduce the levels at the Tigris river by 60% if it goes ahead. Luckily for Iraq, the European credit agencies decided against funding it because it would destroy an ancient Kurdish village, Hassankeyf, in southern Turkey, whose history goes back 12000 years (Doga Dernegi,, 10 January 2013- source 8). Also, the Turkish State Council ruled against building the dam for the same reason, but the government doesn’t recognise the archeological importance of the village because this would impede the building of the dam (source 8) and the ruling may not stop it from building the dam.

 But Turkey is still determined to build the dam. If and when it is complete, the dam will further damage agricultural production in Iraq and this will certainly exacerbate the already volatile situation of food production in the country. According to the expert on water resources, Dr Hassan Janabi, who told me exclusively for this study, that the Ilisu and Cizre dams, both  are being built on the Tigris river, will have a devastating effect on Iraq’s agricultural sector. He says ‘inflows to Iraq will be reduced by 50% compared to its annual long term average’.

 When I asked ِAmbassador Janabi if the ruling of the Turkish State Council will have any effect on building the dam, he said ‘The ruling didn’t stop the government from building the dam. The government is challenging the ruling and its going ahead with the project. The dam is being constructed and nearly finished. It takes another two years to finish and perhaps five years to be fully operational’.


 The significant reduction in water levels at the Euphrates river due to upstream dams constructed in both Syria and Turkey, has already damaged the agricultural sector in the country. As a result rice-growing has almost been eradicated in the Euphrates valley. Imports from all over the world, especially the US, India Turkey and Iran dominate the food market in Iraq now.

 Water levels in the Tigris river has also been affected because tributaries originating from Iran have been pumping less and less water in the Tigris. Some of them such as the Wand river have dried up completely. But the biggest problem for the Tigris will be when the Ilisu dam construction in Turkey is competed in two-five years time. This will reduce water levels by 50% according to Iraqi water officials. This means food production in Iraq will be be significantly affected and it will increasingly be dependent on food imports.

 The country maybe able to afford it at the moment because it exports enough oil to generate at least 120 billion dollars in annual income from oil alone. But, oil prices are volatile and world dependence on oil may not remain as it is now if new energy sources are discovered. In the US for example, producing oil through fracking is now the highest in a quarter of a century (Christine Harvey and Asjylyn Loder, Bloomberg, December 11, 2013-source 10). The US will be less and less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and this may bring oil prices down.

 If Iraq’s income from oil is significantly reduced, while water levels at its historic rivers, which made it (the land between two rivers) are going down fast, the country may face a real problem with regards to food security. The state is now able to employ around five million people in the public sector because of its large oil income. If this goes down due to any reason, be it less world dependency on oil as a main source of energy, or depleting oil reserves, the country will face a bleak future. Even with current huge oil income, a large section of the Iraqi population is dependent on state ration system (PDS) for basic food stuffs. Not forgetting that Iraq needed the intervention of WFP in 2003/4 when there was problem with oil exports. One other potential problem is regional and internal conflict.

  Over the last three years, neighbouring Syria has been engulfed with violence due to the increase of the activities of jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda, Nusra Front, ISIS to mention just a few. These groups are financed by rich Arab zealots who wish to spread a certain type of religious ideology. If violence increases it may jeopardise its whole security and this will cause a humanitarian crisis. 

In sum, food security in Iraq is volatile and could deteriorate in the future to the above-mentioned factors. 


1-Ambassador, Dr Hassan Janabi, Director of Economic Department, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and former ‫ambassador to UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Nov 2012, published on his website:,

2-Katarina Wahlberg, Global Policy Forum, January 2008 (

3-Mark Koba, CNBC, July 22, 2013, accessed on 10 May 2014 ()

4-Ugandan New Vision newspaper, accessed online on 12/5/2014,

5-World Food Program (website, accessed frequently in May 2014)

6-Iraqi Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation’s Central Organisation for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT)

7-Godfray et al. 2012 (accessed through

8-Doga Dernegi,, 10 Jan 2013, accessed on 15/5/2014


 9-Campbell Robertson, NY, July 13, 2009, accessed on 18-5-2014 (

 10-Christine Harvey and Asjylyn Loder, Bloomberg, December 11, 2013

er, Bloomberg, December 11, 2013

 11-Interview with Dr Hassan Janabi, head of the Economic Department at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, on 1st May 2014