AMMAN — Civil war in Syria has cut the wheat harvest to its worst level in nearly three decades and the government's share of the crop is being further eroded as it struggles to procure grain from rebel-held farming areas.
Estimates collated by Reuters from more than a dozen grain officials and local traders suggest the harvest could be as low as 1.5 million tons, less than half the pre-conflict average and well below forecasts from a United Nations food agency.
The agricultural slump deals a blow to the policy of self-sufficiency in food which is a cornerstone of President Bashar Al-Assad's efforts to sidestep Western moves to isolate and weaken his government through sanctions.
That policy, part of a command economy imposed by the ruling Baath party when it took power in 1963, turned Syria into a wheat exporter until water shortages six years ago caused in part by intensive farming encouraged by hefty state subsidies.
Despite good rains this year, a scarcity of seed and fertilizer combined with labor shortages and damage to irrigation systems and storage facilities from the relentless conflict have led to the worst crop since 1984, when the country was hit by major drought, the traders and officials said.
Several said the harvest was likely to be as low as 1.5 million tonnes, with a minority saying it might reach closer to 2.0 million — still significantly lower than the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initial forecast of 2.4 million tons, made shortly before the June-July harvest.
"A favorable rain season like this year would have produced 4 million tons before the crisis, covering the country's annual consumption," said a regional commodities trader said.
Until recently the government had stuck to more optimistic forecasts, with Agriculture Minister Ahmad Qadiri saying in May he expected output to reach 3.6 million tons.
Since then officials have retreated, blaming Western sanctions for the steep fall in output. Prime Minister Wael Al-Halki now says the crop will be around 2.5 million tons.
Farmlands east of Aleppo, which has seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces for the last 12 months, have produced just 50,000 tons of wheat so far this year compared to pre-crisis harvests of 175,000 tons.
But the low yield is not the only problem for authorities who are also struggling to buy grain from some of Syria's richest farmland — much of it now held by rebels — stretching from the northern border with Turkey to Iraq in the south-east.
In the village of Deir Hafer, 40 km east of Aleppo, sacks of Ahmed Rahal's wheat harvest have been piling up in his makeshift warehouse.
That has forced Rahal and other farmers, who used to deliver nearly three quarters of their national harvest to the government under a state-dominated wheat trade that subsidized their production, to look for other buyers.
"I no longer even dare go to Aleppo to sell my wheat, there are many checkpoints on the way," said Rahal, who was selling his 100 kg wheat sacks to private traders.
The state's loss of control over a substantial part of the wheat growing areas means that at least half the 2013 wheat production is now outside the government supply chain, according to grains experts and commodities traders. — Reuters