Now It Is Lack of Food Security

BAGHDAD — The lack of security in Iraq is leading now to a collapse in food supplies.

“Look at us begging for food despite the fortunes we have,” 60-year-old Um Muthanna from Baghdad told IPS. Standing at a vegetable market in central Baghdad where vegetable supplies are not what they used to be, Um Mahmood despaired for Iraq.

“A country with two great rivers should have been the biggest exporter in the world, but now we beg for food from those who participated in killing us.” Iraq is rich in oil and agricultural resources.

Local and international aid flooded into Iraq in 2004, the year following the invasion, but much of the supply was blocked off after the kidnapping of many aid activists in the country.

The food the Iraqis did get was often not what they needed, or wanted.

“Iraqis do not feel at ease receiving food aid when they exported food in the past,” economist Dr. Jassim al-Rikabi told IPS.

“Iraq has been a field of aid NGOs since the U.S. occupation began, and many of those NGOs brought foodstuff that is not what Iraqis were used to, but they had to take it due to the need they were facing.”

Barley, wheat, pulses and the famous Iraqi dates are staple diet, and are also exported. Common meals in Iraq include rice, lamb, chicken and locally grown vegetables like cucumbers, onions and tomatoes.

Under the occupation, Iraqis are getting much of their food from companies in Australia and other countries who assisted the United States during the invasion and occupation. This food has often been of low quality.

During July 2006 the Iraqi Ministry of Trade rejected or destroyed thousands of tonnes of contaminated food or food past its expiry date. The food had caused widespread poisoning.

Dr. Rikabi holds both the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and U.S. occupation authorities responsible for the failing food supply. “By the end of 2005 most international NGOs had withdrawn from Iraq on the orders of their governments, who saw the writing on the wall of increasing sectarian violence.”

The security situation and lack of petrol mean that local farmers are often unable to get their food to the markets.

Changes in Iraqi import laws introduced by former administrator L. Paul Bremer, dropped tariffs on import of foreign products, making it impossible for Iraqi farmers to compete. Countless Iraqi farms went bankrupt.

But now prices of imported goods have increased dramatically. And so most of the food in Iraqi markets today is imported, and more expensive due to skyrocketing fuel costs and lack of government regulation. Imported foods like chicken, fruits and vegetables now cost more than locally grown foods.

“Local agricultural production is almost nil,” Majid al-Dulaymi from the Ministry of Agriculture told IPS. “The limited loans given by the ministry to farmers and planters are misused simply because it is not possible to maintain the agriculture production for reasons well known to everybody here. Now the private sector is importing everything, and the prices are too high to afford.”

An official from the Ministry of Trade said his ministry is struggling to provide Iraqis with food rations as before, but the circumstances make it difficult.

“There is the security ordeal that we suffer as well as the problems we had with many companies that supplied us bad quality food,” he told IPS.

Australia provided Iraq with wheat last year that when distributed was found to contain steel fragments. An investigation conducted by Iraqi officials has still not held any company accountable.

The majority of Iraqis still remain dependent on the monthly food ration, a programme set up during the economic sanctions period in the 1990s after the first Gulf war. But a growing number of Iraqis no longer receive their monthly ration due to corruption or sectarian favouritism in the distribution channel.

Statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institute during 2005 showed that nearly 60 percent of the Iraqi population regularly consumes the monthly food rations. And 25 percent, 6.5 million people, are “highly dependent” on rations to meet their nutritional needs.

According to Abdul-Lattif from Iraq’s Ministry of Trade, only sugar, rice, flour and cooking oil remain from the original 12 foodstuffs provided by the former government. Other items such as lentils were removed from the list in May 2006 as a result of budget cuts.

“What food ration are you talking about,” 35-year-old Um Jamila, a mother of five complained to IPS. “The whole country has been stolen from us. If this goes on another six months, we will be just like any starving country.”

A report released Jan. 30 by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) showed that 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq lack basic necessities such as adequate food, drinking water, sanitation, and health and education facilities.

Entitled ‘Iraq Displacement 2006 Year in Review’, the report puts food at the top of the list of the most urgent needs for IDPs in Iraq.

“I was so happy when my salary was increased to around 300 dollars, but I now wish for the times when it was 30 dollars as it used to be before this occupation,” engineer Kamil Fattah from the Ministry of Industry told IPS. “Inflation in the Iraqi market has made it impossible for us to eat decently while earlier we used to get every basic need for almost free of charge.”

The World Food Programme is sending aid to Iraq but its officials say this is running into difficulties.

“The food is either stolen on the way or cannot be inspected on arrival by third party inspectors,” a retired staff member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation which runs the World Food Programme told IPS. “Each shipment needs to be checked by a third party inspector, but the company is facing difficulties in conducting such inspections due to the security situation.”

(Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.)