New Article: Food Security in Iraq

The academic journal Food Security has just published the following article of mine. It can be accessed here (read only):

Food security in Iraq: results from quantitative and qualitative surveys

Abstract:

Iraq’s food security has been profoundly affected by its oil-based economy, over three decades of conflict and its politics that have been shaped by authoritarian rentierism. The article outlines the political economy of food security in Iraq and how it has been shaped historically. It identifies various conditioning factors such as oil, conflict, environment, agricultural development strategies and institutional setups, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), the world’s largest public food program. It then disentangles these factors in an analysis of data from Gallup, Iraq Body Count and various international organizations to give an appreciation of the Iraqi food security situation since the end of the Saddam regime. Finally, it takes a look at views of Iraqi experts on current food security issues in Iraq, using the results of an online survey that was conducted from May–October 2015 among 152 Iraqi experts from academia, ministries and NGOs. Iraqis overwhelmingly identify political instability and bad governance as major challenges to food security; it is unlikely that mere technocratic policy prescriptions can improve food security in the absence of political stability and improved governance.

Keywords: Food security Agriculture/ Iraq/ Middle East/ Authoritarianism/ Isis

Call for Papers: Agriculture and Conflict

The Kuwait Chair at Sciences Po invites to an academic conference on the topic of Crisis and Conflict in the Agrarian World: An Evolving Dialectic, in cooperation with the American University of Beirut and CIDOB, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. The conference will be held on 1-3 March 2017 in Paris.

Conference proceedings will be published towards the end of 2017 in an edited volume of CABI Publishers, a leading academic publisher on development, agriculture, food security and health issues.

The organizers invite abstracts or preferably detailed proposals with a short CV and list of publications. They should be submitted electronically to Eckart Woertz eckart.woertz@sciencespo.fr and Rachel Anne Bahn rb89@aub.edu.lb until 30 November 2016. Authors of selected papers will be notified by 2 December 2016 and should submit their papers by 1 February 2017.

The papers should have a length of 7,000 words and represent original research not presented or published elsewhere. All costs for travel and accommodation will be covered according to Sciences Po travel policy.

Texts can deal with a variety of crises and their impact on agriculture and food security, such as politically-driven violence and dispute, as well as crises stemming from natural disasters or other phenomena (earthquake/tsunami, drought, flooding, climate change, and disease epidemics). Case studies will explore the relationship between agriculture and conflict/crisis before, during, and after crisis periods.

Beside cross cutting and methodological explorations on topics like political ecology, gender, health, climate change, land grabs or ethnography we are interested in case studies of specific countries, particularly from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
We look forward to receiving your abstracts or proposals.

Further details about the call for papers you can find here: http://www.sciencespo.fr/psia/sites/sciencespo.fr.psia/files/Call_for_Papers_Agriculture_and_Conflict_2017.pdf

Agriculture as ISIS Funding Source

The academic journal Food Policy has published an article by Hadi Jaafar and myself about

“Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and remote sensing analysis”

The article is open access and can be downloaded here:

Highlights:

– Recurrent taxation of agriculture is a crucial income source for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) as extractive and non-recurrent income streams such as oil, ransom and confiscations show signs of dwindling

– ISIS has sustained agricultural production of rainfed winter crops (wheat and barley) despite the impact of conflict. Only irrigated summer crops (cotton) have suffered extensively

– We estimate that in 2015 ISIS might have derived income of $56 million from wheat and barley taxation alone. Additionally there is taxation further down the value chain of food processing and distribution

– The total value of estimated 2.45 million tons of wheat production in 2015 roughly equalled the annualized value of ISIS oil production during its height in late 2014 and early 2015

– Population in ISIS territory likely did not exceed 4 million in 2015, much lower than figures reported in the media of 8 million and more

– Iraq and Syria were wheat net-importers before the war; ISIS is not. It has an exportable surplus which it likely smuggles into the subsidized Iraqi food distribution system or to Turkey where prices are higher

– Agriculture in ISIS territory lives on bought time as supply chains for quality seeds and other input factors are disrupted. Food security and agriculture would need to have high priority in any post-ISIS reconstruction effort

Abstract

Agriculture is an important source of income for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), which currently rules over large parts of the breadbaskets of the two countries. It has received limited attention compared to other sources of ISIS revenues such as oil, looting, ransom, foreign donations and various forms of taxation. We estimate winter crops production of wheat and barley in ISIS-controlled areas in both Syria and Iraq for the years 2014-2015 and irrigated summer crops production (cotton) in Northeast Syria. We show that remote sensing can give a credible estimation of agricultural production in the absence of statistics. With evidence from MODIS Aqua and Terra Satellites as well as Landsat imagery, we find that agricultural production in ISIS-controlled Syrian and Iraqi zones has been sustained in 2014 and 2015, despite the detrimental impact of conflict. After a drought in 2014 production was able to capitalize on improved rainfalls in 2015. First indications show that the winter grain harvest of 2016 in Iraqi territories of ISIS was significantly above pre-conflict mean and below pre-conflict mean in its Syrian territories. We also show how water flows along the Euphrates have impacted production. We estimate the revenue that ISIS can derive from wheat and barley production and the likely magnitude of an exportable surplus. Agricultural production gives the group a degree of resilience, although its economy is not sustainable in the longer run and could be affected by military collapse. Taxation of recurrent income streams such as agriculture will become more important for ISIS as its extractive sources of revenues show signs of dwindling. Beside non-grain food imports, agricultural production is crucial for its political legitimacy by ensuring food provision to the broader population. Food security considerations would require a high priority in any post-ISIS reconstruction effort and would need to include the rehabilitation of supply chains for agricultural inputs such as quality seeds and fertilizers.

 

Update on Economic Issues of ISIS

Germany’s largest weekly Die Zeit has run a feature on the lack of economic sustainability of ISIS that has also been translated into English. It quotes my earlier policy brief of October: How Long Will ISIS Last Economically? and shares its conclusion that the ISIS economy is based on looting and far from self-sustaining.

Meanwhile the UN has estimated that ISIS had revenues from ransoms of $35-45 million in 2013. Revenues from such ransoms have likely decreased as I have argued, as Western journalists and aid workers have been deterred from traveling to the region and local hostages fetch lower prices.

The Die Zeit feature in fact points out that hostage taking has increasingly targeted the local population. Prices for local hostages ($20k-50k) are considerably below those for western hostages ($3-5mn).

In October David Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, estimated the ISIS income from oil at $1mn per day with a declining tendency. He also saw the revenues from ransoms reduced at $20 mn in 2014.

Cracks of ISIS’ Ponzi scheme of looting have already started to appear. Prices for meat, eggs and vegetables have doubled and tripled in some cases.  Defections of senior ISIS officials have been partly attributed to economic problems of the organization.

ISIS tried a publicity stunt when it announced its intention to introduce its own currency based on gold, silver and copper (sic) coins. Even if it managed to loot enough precious metals to issue such a currency it would likely face Gresham’s Law and the challenges of maintaining realistic exchange rates within a bimetallic currency, not to mention a tri-metallic one.

Yet ISIS is not the only organization with economic problems in Iraq: The government in Baghdad faces severe funding shortages as oil prices have declined while it needs to ramp up expenditure to rebuild its military capacities (if they ever existed given 50k “ghost soldiers” who only existed on payrolls).

The Iraqi government also continuously grapples with corruption: The Grain board chief was sacked because of a spoiled rice shipment, only to be replaced by his predecessor who took kick backs in 2009.

How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?

A new CIDOB briefing note of mine deals with some food security issues in Iraq:

How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?

· ISIS is not a mere terror organization, but an insurgency that follows a classic “Clear, Hold, Build” strategy. The aim is state building as the very name ISIS suggests. Holding territory implies provision of services to the governed population such as food, energy and water.

· Oil is the most important revenue stream for ISIS followed by various forms of looting, local taxation, extortion and ransom. Not for nothing ISIS has been likened to a mafia gang. Foreign inflows have also played a role, but have not been as dominant as often assumed.

· Energy infrastructure cuts across territories. Rebels in control of oil and gas fields have sold energy to the Assad regime, which has been in control of the gas grid and power stations. ISIS has been no exception.

· Syria’s oil industry was already ailing before civil war erupted. The more lucrative fields in the south and north of Iraq on the other hand will likely remain out of ISIS’s control.

· Gulf donors have been described as “angel investors” for jihadist groups in Syria who provided the seed financing for their domestic operations. During 2012 and 2013 Gulf countries poured hundreds of millions into the Syrian civil war, often in competition with each other. While it is unlikely that Gulf governments have ever funded ISIS directly, it has benefitted indirectly from this spending spree when fighters who had originally been with other groups joined it and brought their experience and weapons with them.

· Iraq entertains the largest public food program in the world. The Public Distribution System absorbs about a fifth of government revenues and provides basic foodstuffs to more than half of the population in most provinces. ISIS regards dams and food distribution infrastructure like wheat silos as strategic assets. Like refineries and oil installations it has targeted them specifically and has taken a keen interest in taking them over intact.

· ISIS now controls up to 40% of Iraqi wheat production. However, half of Iraq’s wheat supplies are imports, so ISIS’s share of domestic production only is equivalent to about 20% of overall supplies.

· The economic base of ISIS is a Ponzi scheme of looting that is in constant need of expansion. Yet there are signs that expansion is becoming more arduous. The early easy phase of looting is over.

Reply to Thoughtful Review of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal

Jane Harrigan has given a thoughtful critique of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, Issue 1, 2014. She outlines the historical part with the critical supply situation during World War II, the food weapon, the modernization of agriculture in the postwar years and the political economy of food in the Gulf countries. While she deems these parts and the depiction of the failed Sudan breadbasket strategy “fascinating”, she objects to my  “sanguine” account of current Gulf agro-investments.

As I describe the Sudan breadbasket episode of the 1970s as an unmitigated disaster and use it as a cautionary tale for current Gulf endeavors this is not immediately obvious.

Harrigan acknowledges that I acknowledge important concerns in the land grab debate like the threat of disenfranchisement of customary land rights’ holders and limited employment benefits. However she would have liked to see a more extensive discussion of these aspects.

She objects in particular to my sub-chapter “A land grab that wasn’t“ in which I use field work in the Gulf countries and the Sudan to point out that there is a huge disconnect between media reports about land grabs and actual implementation on the ground. I further argue that such misconceptions have sometimes been amplified by well meaning reports of advocacy groups, among them the first version of the Land Matrix by the International Land Coalition (ILC) and a number of think tanks that has used such media reports as data source (p. 144f).

Harrigan does not discuss this criticism of mine or marshals evidence to the contrary. But she argues unperturbed that “ample evidence is now available, especially from the International Land Coalition’s work,” about the threat of foreign agro-investments.

I do not dispute this threat in qualitative terms and discuss it as far as it has materialized, like in Sudan in the 1970s, on some of the Sudanese projects today (e.g. the Merowe Dam) or on the Saudi Star project of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi in Ethiopia.

Yet in quantitative terms the threat has been exaggerated as I outline in said sub-chapter, certainly for the Gulf countries, but also for China as the works of Deborah Brautigam and Rural Modernity have shown.

So in a way Harrigan is blaming me for not parroting media reports. It would be better to either hold those accountable who have used them uncritically or show empirical evidence of Gulf agro-investments with said effects that I have failed to mention.

In fact, the ILC and its partners have revised the Land Matrix considerably in the meantime, have gotten rid of many paper projects and paint a more accurate picture now.

The problem of exaggerated quantitative claims and the need for more qualitative studies has recently also been highlighted  by Marc Edelman in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies about methodological issues of land grab research.

In a way Harrigan seems to be uneasy about the “ample evidence” herself. At the end of her review she suggests that the implementation gap may well exist, but claims that negative effects would still occur in the form of preemptive displacements to empty land for investors.

In Ethiopia and on the earlier rainfed projects in Sudan this seems to have happened indeed as I write in Oil for Food; for the irrigation projects in the north of Sudan the situation is somewhat different. The land along the Nile is in private smallholder ownership and not targeted, while the land on the plateau above the river is formally state owned, barren and only usable for extensive pastoralism as long as no investments in irrigation infrastructure are undertaken.

To suggest a mere announcement or even a formal deal without actual investment would lead to an immediate displacement is rather unrealistic in such cases and tends to overrate coercive capacities and economic incentives on part of local governments. In fact in quite a few cases officials were unable to locate announced project sites and locals were not aware of them. In the cases where nothing is there, what am I supposed to write about?

Harrigan says that the US used the food weapon in retaliation to the formation of OPEC, which is not something that Oil for Food claims, as the height of the food weapon was in the 1970s not in 1960 and it was used or contemplated in retaliation to the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, to rein in Nasser, to entice moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict and push an already established OPEC to cooperate on global food issues during the World Food Conference 1974. But this is a minor thing.

To sum up, I fail to see how I portray an “unjustifiably rosy” picture of Gulf agro-investors as I discuss on multiple occasions their misguided belief in large scale project designs and their real estate centered mentality, which leads to an obsessive focus on formal land ownership and disinterest in joint equity projects with local stakeholders.

All I try to do is to give a differentiated picture and point out an implementation gap that has even grown since Oil for Food was written. Being “sanguine” is different. Land grabs in Africa seem to be bad business as the plummeting share price of Indian agro-investor Karuturi, the travails of Amoudi in Ethiopia or the Sudanese failures show.

Instead of claiming the counterfactual opposite, Oil for Food tries to find an explanation why so many projects have failed or have not been implemented in the first place. It also tries to consider the importance of local factors, domestic agro-investors and national development plans that outweigh the importance of foreign agro-investors and act in lockstep with them.

Coming back to Ethiopia, its government is equally frustrated, as it has hoped that foreign agro-investments would help kick off an agriculture led modernization. It now considers withdrawing concessions.

If any land investment were bad and threatened food security, these developments would mean an improvement. In the specific cases this might even be true, but overall there cannot be any doubt that more investments are needed given Africa’s declining food production per capita over the last decades.

Hence maybe the solution is somewhere in the middle. This might neither be in line with overtly romantic views of subsistence agriculture nor with hyperbolic profit expectations of 30 percent and more that are peddled by some investors, but a more realistic and sober approach in the land grab debate is needed.

Qatar Presents Food Security Master Plan

After several postponements over the last years, The Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) has finally presented its Master Plan.

Its original plans to achieve 70 percent self-sufficiency by 2023 with the help of solar based desalination and high-tech agriculture (e.g. hydroponics) has met with skepticism in international circles because of the high costs, huge energy needs and ecological damage resulting from disposal of the brine of desalinated water.

Two things with the now presented Master Plan are striking:

a) Envisaged self-sufficiency ratios are lower and time horizons farther out into the future. The goal now is only to reach 40-60 percent “in short term to mid-term”, up from 8 percent currently.

The challenges are daunting: Domestic agricultural production since the global food crisis in 2008 has declined by 30 percent. This points not only to the lack of water, but also to the lack of capacities. Many “farms” are rather used as weekend getaways than for commercial agriculture.

b) The guarded comments about Hassad Food, the agricultural investment vehicle of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), points to considerable differences between the two institutions.

This might only relate to different philosophies: Hassad claims to have enough food production abroad to cover 60 percent of Qatar’s needs. QNFSP replies to this that such commercial investment should not be equated with food security, which could only be maintained by strategic investments in domestic agriculture.

Some of the irritation may also be caused by the fact that QNFSP is part of the office of the new Emir, while QIA and its subsidiary Hassad are officially still led by the former Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

Yet QNFSP’s claim that only self-sufficiency could achieve true food security is debatable. Export restrictions and temporary illiquidity in world markets may be better addressed by strategic storage.

In the hypothetical situation of  comprehensive interstate warfare in the region import dependency would have only shifted from food to supply parts, expatriate experts and blue collar workers.  Disruptions of domestic production might be a more likely threat in such a case than disruption of supply routes.

Half of World Population Dependent on Food Trade by 2050

“Eating on an Interconnected Planet” is an interesting article by Graham K MacDonald in the Environmental Research Letters 8/ 2, 2013.

It argues that more and more countries will need to rely on food imports to satisfy their food needs. This will be the case for 51 percent of the world population by 2050, depending on expected population growth and development of agricultural productivity.

Over the last decade 70 percent of global cereal exports were undertaken by only 8 ocuntries that constituted only 11 percent of the world population. Hence such increase in global food trade will constitute a formidable challenge, but also a potential increase in geopolitical leverage for exporter countries.

Politicization of food trade that is outlined in the food weapon chapter of Oil for Food will  possibly increase. In the 1970s the US tried to exert pressure on Arab countries to counter their oil boycott. Gulf countries were clearly concerned as their Sudan bread basket plan and their reaching out to Australia for oil for food barter deals showed.

Later the US implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. On other occasions it hoped to dampen domestic food inflation by export restrictions, very much like Argentina, Vietnam or Russia did during the global food crisis of 2008.

Politicization of food trade would not be  good news for the Middle Eastern countries that are the most food import dependent countries in the world as the following chart from MacDonald’s article shows:

Figure 1.

The chart describes the countries of origins of key crops (maize, milled/paddy rice, soybean, and wheat) that are imported by 49 countries that have lost the ability for self-sufficiency because of either water or land constraints or both.

Beside the Middle East and North Africa this is also the case in Mexico,Southern Africa and the OECD countries Italy, Netherlands, UK and Japan. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer is not included in the map, which looks rather strange, given the fact that its land reserve is maxed out and its future irrigation potential might be compromised by unfolding hydropolitcis along the Nile.

The large weight of the US as an exporter nation also appears rather dominating in the  chart compared to Brazil, Australia, Canada and Russia, all of which are major exporters of soybeans and  cereals. I doubt that this exactly reflects global food trade patterns, but possibly the trade with the 49 disadvantaged countries on the map. Here, the dominating US role might be the result of politically motivated food aid shipments, preferential trade agreements and other related factors.

Yet the basic message for a region that already imports a third of globally trade cereals is clear: The future of food security in the Middle East and North Africa are food imports. Maintaining them will require export revenues beyond oil, liquid global food markets and maneuvering their geopolitics which will likely become more tricky.