Bumper crop of amber rice to reduce Iraq’s grain imports

Despite the increase in the rice harvest, production remains far below local market demand of 1.3 million tonnes.
Sunday 09/02/2020
An Iraqi farmer plants amber rice in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq.    (AFP)
Unique variety. An Iraqi farmer plants amber rice in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture said the state-run Grain Board of Iraq completed the purchase of about 306,000 tonnes of the world-renowned local variety of amber rice, after one of the best growing seasons in decades.

Observers said the tonnage purchased represents only part of the crop because farmers often withhold much of the harvest of amber rice, which is very popular across the region.

A statement from the Agriculture Ministry said the rice harvest was far greater than previous seasons.

Last September, the Agriculture Ministry said it expected rice production to its highest level in 20 years because of the heavy rains that allowed the cultivation of larger areas. The Iraqi government had previously imposed restrictions on rice cultivation, which needs large amounts of water to grow, in recent years because of a drought.

It is expected that this season’s rice crop, plus record crops of wheat and barley last season, will lead to an unprecedented reduction in grain imports, officials said. Baghdad already announced it achieved self-sufficiency in wheat.

Despite the increase in the rice harvest, production remains far below local market demand of 1.3 million tonnes, because a large part of the high-cost amber rice is destined for export.

The cultivation of amber rice, famous for its unique aroma and taste, is concentrated in the governorates of Najaf and Qadisiyyah. Large numbers of farmers, some of whom grow only amber rice, depend on the crop. Its seedlings need to be immersed with huge quantities of water to grow.

The scarcity of water in recent years exacerbated problems for farmers. Authorities imposed a significant reduction — up to 95% in some areas — in rice cultivation areas, which forced many rice farmers to abandon their lands.

However, heavy rains have filled dam reservoirs and allowed the authorities to lift restrictions. Farmers  responded

by planting twice as much area with rice.

The Iraqi agricultural sector benefited from a shift in government policies in recent years. Authorities expanded subsidies to farmers and adopted the cultivation strategic seeds, such as wheat, barley and rice, which contributed to a significant improvement in product quality.

Because of those policies, Iraq achieved self-sufficiency in many crops, such as wheat, for the first time in decades.

In collaboration with other government departments and agencies, the Agriculture Ministry prohibited the import of more than a dozen agricultural products, a move that drove up the prices of those products, encouraging local farmers to cultivate them.

Iraqi Minister of Agriculture Saleh al-Hassani said the import ban was to “preserve the local products and to encourage farmers and livestock breeders to continue production.”

He pointed out other positives, such as “providing employment opportunities and activating the role of the private sector in increasing investment and establishing agricultural investment projects to support the national economy.”

The list of crops banned from import includes tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, yellow corn, lettuce, garlic, melons, watermelon, pepper and dates, in addition to banning the import of eggs, chicken and fish.

Observers said agricultural goods were still being imported to Iraqi markets, revealing inefficiency of official oversight and widespread smuggling.

Despite the current abundance of water, Baghdad has been negotiating with Turkish officials about the amount of water flowing to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Both rivers have their sources in Turkey, which reduced Iraq’s share of the rivers’ flow by constructing dams.

Iran and Turkey are pressuring Iraqi officials to lift the ban on agricultural product importation, sources said. Campaigns in Iraq to boycott imported products have contributed to the decline of the goods, especially from Iran, in the Iraqi markets.

The boycott prompted Turkish and Iranian companies to set up factories in Iraq to compensate for the decline in exports.

The Iraqi Agriculture Ministry promoted policies that had been followed during the economic embargo of Iraq in the 1990s that included buying strategic crops at high prices to encourage farmers to cultivate wider areas.

The ministry has provided other incentives to farmers, such as offering seeds at subsidised prices, contributing to pest control and facilitating access to loans to purchase agricultural equipment.