Syria's crop production badly wounded by a brutal war

They say that in war truth is the first casualty '“ and the news coming out of Syria, with the daily twists and turns, concealments and revelations, claims and counter-claims, does little to contradict this belief.

Civil war has brought only misery to Syria's farmers. Picture: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
Civil war has brought only misery to Syria's farmers. Picture: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

But standing not much further down the casualty list often lies agriculture – and according to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Syria doesn’t buck this trend either.

This area is the birthplace of agriculture and where many of our staple crops originated. There is evidence of cereals being grown there 9,000 years ago when our own ancestors were probably still living in caves.

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Agriculture played a key role in Syria’s economy. And the range of crops grown has also been diverse – with wheat, barley, legumes, olives, grapes, cherries and citrus fruits all being produced along with the main cash crop of cotton. So the ongoing devastation caused by the conflict to the country’s farming could be viewed as yet another war crime in an already lengthy list.

The FAO estimated that the six-year conflict has caused $16 billion (£12.8bn) of damage to the country’s agriculture – through losses of crops and livestock, irrigation systems, machinery, horticultural greenhouses and veterinary practices.

Estimates indicate that the area planted with cereals in recent years – a key factor in feeding the population – has nose-dived, with only around 900,000 hectares of wheat being grown, compared to 1.5 million hectares planted before the crisis.

Inevitably yields have also dropped dramatically as a result of the shortages of fuel, fertiliser and crop protection products along with the disruption caused to crop to irrigation systems and the lack of available labour to safely harvest the crops. This perfect storm has meant that overall production of wheat in the country has probably dropped to well below half its previous level.

In addition, grain production continues to be seriously hampered by fighting and the general insecurity which often keeps farmers from working in their fields. Not being able to carry out normal maintenance operations and the lack of spares for machinery and implements has also made things worse.

And while it’s been estimated that around half of those living in the countryside have fled to avoid the conflict, the general inability to transport grain from one area to another – either because of crossing war zones or the impassability of road systems damaged in the conflict – has meant that while unsold wheat stocks accumulate in the north-east, the west of the country has been forced to rely on imported grain.

The FAO found that the livestock sector, which has played an important role in the country’s domestic economy and in its external trade, has also suffered substantially since 2011.

Cattle numbers are estimated to be back by over 30 per cent while the figure for sheep and goats has fallen by 40 per cent. The lack of feedstuff has also seen the country’s poultry sector collapse by around 60 per cent.

The country’s veterinary services are also rapidly running out of vaccines and routine drugs, while the number of counterfeit and unreliable veterinary medicines sold on the open market has been growing.

However, a rare piece of good news is that the FOA team found that there had been no reports of any major plant or animal disease outbreaks despite the limited plant protection products availability and the disruption to the veterinary services – although just how high up the priority list reporting these might have been remains a moot point.

The report concludes that resilience of farmers has been heavily compromised after years of conflict and fighting, and many may abandon production altogether, with potentially grave consequences on the food availability at national level.

A drop of a few percentage points in any sector are enough to cause alarm in our own agricultural censuses – so the magnitude of these figures should be a stark warning as the world teeters on the edge of becoming a much more dangerous place.