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Low Wheat Output Raises Alarm

(26-Sept-08)
By IWPR
Syrians are concerned about national grain supplies and the possible consequences for bread prices.



Last week, the government raised the official price for wheat from 17 to 20 liras per kilo (36 to 43 US cents); while barley has gone from 15 to 16 liras per kilo.



The price increase is supposed to expand domestic wheat production, which has dropped by 50 per cent from four to two million tonnes this year, according to Haitham al-Ashqar, deputy director of research at the ministry of agriculture’s National Centre for Agricultural Policies.



Nonetheless, he insisted in an interview with the pro-government Syria News that “the state’s strategic reserve will be enough for a year, and the strategic reserve has not been touched”.



Syria experienced a heavy drought this year, with up to 20 per cent less rain than usual. The greater part of wheat production in the country relies on rain, with only a small proportion of the crop farmed on irrigated land.



Al-Ashqar told aljazeera.net that “the [main] barrier to enlarging the irrigation surface is the unavailability of water”.



The steep decline in production has prompted the authorities to import soft wheat for the first time in 15 years. In July, the ministry of trade announced that it will buy 120,000 tonnes of the crop from Bulgaria to make up for the shortfall.



With bread an essential part of the Syrian diet, wheat is considered a strategic product here, so crop prices are deemed an “issue of national security”, according to Syrian economist Muneer al-Hamash, chairman of the Cairo-based Arab Association for Economic Research.



In the early Eighties, Syrian agriculture faced a crisis that also led to a downturn in the production of wheat, which was not available for domestic consumption at that time. It seemed farmers did not make enough profit from state-controlled prices to buy seeds. Agricultural policies had to be adjusted in order to ensure bread supply for the population.



Prices were raised, and production increased to an extent that allowed the government to build a strategic reserve as well as to export wheat.



This year a combination of circumstances led to the sharp decrease in production. Normally, when rainfall is low, farmers produce the crop on irrigated land. But with gas prices at a record high – the Syrian government cut subsidies for diesel and fuel earlier this year – the cost of irrigation, which relies heavily on motor-driven wells, has become too high. Consequently, many farmers turned their wheat fields into pastures for cattle.



Syrians are anxious about the possible impact of the decrease in production on bread prices. Experts fear that the government will be compelled to use up its wheat reserve and then begin importing the crop, which would make Syria dependent on world market prices.



Reflecting the views of many ordinary people, Basil, 25, owner of a furnace in the al-Shalan neighbourhood of Damascus, said, “The last thing Syrians need now is higher wheat prices which might affect bread prices.”



Syrian media have not reported widely about the wheat crisis, and officials seem to go to great length to avoid the topic due to its sensitivity. “The issue is sensitive because the government does realise it made a mistake when it did not work on preserving the strategic reserve by exporting all the wheat,” said al-Hamash.



“We ought not to focus on exporting. Most importantly, it is imperative to secure production requirements such as seeds, fertilisers, and fuel at good prices.”



He revealed that there were plans to establish an agricultural support fund.



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)

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