Syrians’ Strategic Resources Wheat, Cotton Face Challenges

This report by Rahaf Youssef was published by North Press Agency on 3 November, 2022

Agriculture in Syria in general, and northeast Syria in particular, is waning after it used to top producing countries in the past, owing to a number of factors – notably the effects policy leaves on economy.

Agriculture is the main source of income for nearly 75-80% of people in northeast Syria. Agriculture, along with industry, is the main driving force of sustainable development and economic financial stability.

It secures raw material for manufacturing. However, it has been largely affected by the drought, according to Salman Barudo, Co-chair of the Economy Board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Damascus-based economic analyst, Shadi Ahmad, told North Press that wheat and barley are strategic resources because they build self-sufficiency and have been among Syria’s main exports.  

In 2021, Syria’s production of wheat, which used to be almost 4.1 million tons per year, decreased to 1.2 million tons, and nearly to 1.9 million tons in 2020, according to Ahmad.

In 2022, Developing Agricultural Community Company of the AANES received nearly 139,400 tons of wheat in Jazira region (Hasakah, Qamishli and Derik and their countryside) and more than 56,000 tons in the Euphrates region (Kobani, Manbij and Raqqa and their countryside).

Speaking of cotton, Ahmad indicated that Syria used to produce more than a million tons annually. However, the production has also declined over the past years to 20,000-25,000 tons.

The analyst indicates that Jazira region used to be the most productive one in Syria for the above-mentioned products, besides producing 70% of barely.

In 2022, Syria occupied an advanced position in economies largely hit by inflation, following Venezuela, Sudan and Lebanon with 130%, according to the Trading Economics website.

Contributing reasons

“Agriculture now makes up less than 16% of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), whereas it used to make up 27%,” according to Ahmad.

The reasons behind such a reduction lies in rarity of rainfall “drought” that largely affected the area, lack of agricultural equipment, good fertilizers, owing to imposed blockade on the country and lack of diesel which is the pulse of agriculture used for irrigation, Ahmad noted.

The main disturbing factor is the “absence of agricultural planning in the country as a whole,” in addition to the lack of cooperation between the AANES authority and the central one in this field.

Between 2009-2010 Syria ranked second, ahead of India in producing organic cotton with 20,000 tons, according to Fabric Stock Exchange.

Previously, Syria used to export cotton to countries all over the world, recording advanced levels, ranking 32 internationally.

“We used to consume half of the country’s production, the surplus was exported to Iraq, Egypt, Asia and Italy where it was used in spaghetti,” he added. 

Gross losses

The famer makes profits less than 20% since the one to determine prices is the intermediaries between the farmer and the citizen such as land and produce market’s leasers who take the biggest margins of profits, according to the analyst.

Ahmad is scared by big risks implied in the continuation of such a reality, which he does not expect to “reach famine” due to continued production, noting that previous abundance and prices have become a thing of the past.

Euro-Med Monitor said in a statement released on October 18 an estimated 12.4 million individuals are facing “food insecurity”, of which 1.3 million are witnessing “severe food insecurity.”

Ahmad said the Syrian wheat seed, which is 7,000 years old, if not sown a year or two, loses specificity and quality, so there are “seed banks” to preserve genetic diversity.

Ahmad added that it is better for economic arenas not to be affected by political and non-political disputes and differences, “that is a disadvantage for all at the end of the day.”

“Agriculture no longer depends on the farmers’ efforts as it makes him self-sufficient. However, if we want the country be a self-sufficient one, there should be mass investments in land reclamation and big irrigation conduits,” he noted.

The AANES Co-chair of Economy Board said that in 2023 there will be big projects that could fulfill self-sufficiency in the region (northeast Syria) via supporting factories and opening new production lines to guide expenditure and increase revenues in general. 

Istanbul-based Yahya al-Sayed Omar, a researcher in the political economy, said, “Agriculture is technologically low.  However, it is manpower consuming. Any lack in workers affects it immensely.”

In Syria, the number of farmers has decreased for a variety of factors, notably immigration from the countryside to cities prior to 2011, and then seeking refuge abroad,” according to Omar who believes the Syrian agriculture has sharply “collapsed”.   

Agonizing decline of Syrian pound

Regarding the Syrian currency, Omar said, “The US Dollar exchange rate that used to be 50 Syrian pounds before 2011, now exceeds 5,000 SYP,” the highest banknote in the country.

The researcher attributes the reason “of the collapse in production and embracing exportation that results in pumping less US dollar and more Syrian pounds into the market to cover the deficit, not to mention a lack of confidence in the political and economic systems that leads to dollarization to the detriment of the Syrian pound.”

Omar finds the soaring exchange rate of the dollar affects agriculture, as fertilizers, among others supplies, are sold in dollars, while production is sold in the Syrian pound “This is a gross loss for farmers who feel compelled to refrain from their professions and find other ways to earn a living.”

Omar expects the decline of the Syrian pound against the US dollar to continue until reaching a true economic improvement that could help in increasing the production. This, however, could not take place without reaching a radical political solution for the crisis in Syria ,which seems not probable in the mid-term.

Regarding imminent effects in the continuation of the Syrian currency’s devaluation, the researcher noted that it increases poverty, unemployment and inflation.

It also causes rates of immigration and asylum seekers to increase and impedes production, which in turn affects prices, thus economic pressure impinges upon political stability, Omar noted. 

“Addressing the Syrian currency devaluation right now is impossible, for the core of the solution is to increase pumping dollars into the market. This requires production and exportation, and less reliance on funding, which is unavailable,” he indicated.