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Syria plans to import one million tonnes of wheat as war rages

Jihadist rebels now control most of Syria’s wheat-growing areas

Syria plans to import one million tonnes of wheat as loss of government control over large swathes of farmland and a poor harvest have cut domestic purchases by half, a source at the state’s General Organization for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob) told Reuters.

“We are still studying the mode of imports, whether it will be tenders or direct contracts, and we will make a decision about that shortly,” said the source, who asked not to be named.

He said the government had enough wheat to satisfy consumption until mid-2015 from previous imports and its local harvest, and that the imports of one million tonnes were necessary to boost its strategic reserve, he said.

He declined to say how much wheat was currently in the strategic reserve. Before the war, Syria kept an annual strategic stock of around three million tonnes.

Experts told Reuters in April that they expected a total harvest this year of between one million and 1.7 million tonnes.

But with much of Syria’s main grain-producing region out of government control, Hoboob bought only 523,000 tonnes of wheat from local farmers this year, at 45,000 Syrian pounds ($277.26) a tonne, compared to slightly over a million tonnes in 2013, the source said.

Breadbasket provinces

The breadbasket provinces of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour are mostly under the control of jihadist Islamic State rebels, and Hasaka is also under rebel control except for the provincial capital of the same name, which the government holds.

The number of Hoboob collection centres, where farmers can go to sell their wheat, has shrunk from over 140 before the start of the war three years ago to just 31 this year.

To overcome the problem, the agency offered farmers in areas outside government control money to transport their wheat to government collection centres, the source said.

Still, only around 17,000 tonnes of wheat were procured from Raqqa, whose collection centre was in Damascus.

In Hasaka province, Hoboob managed to procure 366,000 tonnes. But even in Hasaka, Hoboob failed to ship out around 200,000 tonnes of last year’s crop because of rebel advances.

Before the war, Syria produced around 3.5 million tonnes of wheat a year on average, of which the government bought about 2.5 million.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates Syria’s annual wheat consumption at 2.7 million to 3.0 million tonnes.

Lack of seed

With planting beginning now for the next harvest in May-June, FAO says farmers will continue to be dogged not only by the dire security situation but also by a lack of seeds, fuel and fertilizer, because the government network that used to distribute these has largely broken down.

“It will at least be the continuation of a very difficult producing period ahead,” said Eriko Hibi, FAO’s Syria representative.

The fighting makes it difficult to establish how much farmland has been lost to the conflict, but Hibi said the most recent figures indicated that the area planted with wheat had shrunk 15 per cent from the average area planted in 2007-11.

In neighbouring Iraq, Islamic State militants have been milling grain stored in government silos and distributing the flour on the local market, and even trying to sell smuggled wheat back to the government to finance their war effort, an Iraqi official told Reuters in August.

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