“If you’re thinking about getting into agriculture in Syria, then you’re more than welcome to do so.”
Last year, an English-language promotional website appeared on the net, espousing the wonderful ease of farming in Syria. This may be the most accurate indicator of how bad things are for farmers there.
As Syria's war grinds the population to dust, it's no surprise that this year's harvest is one of the worst in living memory. Pre-war production of wheat in Syria was between 4-5m tonnes, of which 1.5m was exported. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 2.16 million ha of land was planted in Syria this year, down 220,000 ha from last year and almost a million ha down from the 3.125 million ha planted in 2010, before the war began.
Last year Syrian farmers sold around 450,000 tonnes of wheat and this year's harvest is expected to be much worse. As a result, President al-Assad's government is being forced to rely on imports from Russia of 1.35m tonnes in order to feed people in government-controlled areas. A government researcher and farmer, Maamoun Kaplan, told Scientific Development Network, "Our livelihood depends now on stocks, in addition to imports. The Syrian regime is trying to convey that it is in control of the situation, but this is not true.” According to Kaplan, the areas with the most important crops of wheat, barley, cotton, sugar beet, olives and potatoes are outside the regime's control.
The north-eastern province of Hasaka, where half of Syria's wheat is produced, saw heavy fighting between Kurdish militia and Daesh (Islamic State) earlier this year with US air-support bombing the area. Much farming infrastructure, including irrigation canals and seed warehouses, was destroyed. One farmer Faisal Hejji from Ras al-Ain in Hasaka, grew 200 donnams (20 hectares) of wheat this year, two-thirds of his normal area. "War has made us lose a lot of the necessary inputs we need and when we do find them they are pricey. We used to support one donnam of wheat with 50 kg of fertilizer but now this is missing. Also, we are now depending more on rain rather than other irrigation methods."
In the cities and towns, subsidies are supposed to keep bread affordable and prevent starvation, but they only benefit people in certain areas. While large tracts of the country remain in the hands of Daesh and anti-government rebel forces, general food shortages are common everywhere. Health worker Mahmoud al Sheikh told Reuters: “Hunger makes people sell themselves to the armed groups so they can eat and bring food to their families. Sometimes there's no bread at all. People start to make bread from barley ... It goes on like this for months. People eat cabbage instead - it's enough to test your faith. Really, people's situations become miserable."
Meanwhile Eastern Aleppo is enduring its second siege of the year. The daily bombings of everything from hospitals to aid convoys have brought much international condemnation, but little relief for 250,000 trapped civilians.