Iraq Set to Reduce Food Imports by Boosting Wheat Production

Iraq, formerly the Middle East’s second-biggest wheat buyer, expects to be self-sufficient in the staple crop for a third consecutive season.

The country forecasts harvesting more than 5 million tons of wheat for the season ending in August 2021, in excess of the 4.5 million tons needed for its subsidized national food program, Agriculture Ministry Spokesman Hameed Al-Nayef said by phone. Farmers have sold 4.9 million tons to the government so far in the current season ending next month, about the same amount as in 2019, according to the Grain Board, which procures wheat for local sale.

Boosting food production should help reduce imports and ease pressure on the economy, which has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic and plunge in oil prices. Iraq’s current-account deficit will be 22% of gross domestic product this year, the widest in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Thanks partly to ample rainfall, Iraq hasn’t had to import wheat since it bought more than 400,000 tons from the U.S. and Canada in a tender in February 2019. Whether Iraq reaches its production target for 2021, however, depends on more than the weather.

Baghdad has asked neighboring Turkey not to reduce the amount of water that flows into Iraq’s two main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, from the Turkish side of the border. It’s seeking similar talks with eastern neighbor Iran, Al-Nayef said.

The Ministry of Water Resources, which requested the talks, has yet to hold formal discussions with either country, a ministry spokesman, Oun Thiab, said Monday.

Iraq’s self-sufficiency in wheat, tenuous though it may be, marks a turnaround after decades of relying on imports from suppliers such as Glencore Plc, Cargill, Inc., and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. The 1980s conflict with Iran and devastation from the two Gulf Wars against U.S.-led forces crippled domestic grain production. Years of dry weather made matters worse, as did a decrease in water supplies from Turkey and changes by Iran to the course of rivers flowing into Iraq.

The country’s inability to grow enough grain to feed itself in those years was all the more striking because Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia, which encompassed much of modern-day Iraq, was one of the earliest civilizations to cultivate the grain.

Output improved somewhat after Baghdad defeated Islamic State militants in 2014 and encouraged displaced farmers to return to wheat-growing areas in northern Iraq. Total lands planted with wheat increased by almost 30% this season compared with last year, and Iraq has stored enough water in its reservoirs to farm the same acreage for the next season, Al-Nayef said.

The Agriculture Ministry is introducing better irrigation systems and drought-resistant varieties of wheat to help boost output, he said. Iraq’s main wheat-producing provinces are Wasit in the east and Nineveh, Salahuddin and Kirkuk in the north.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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