Imperialism and Iraq’s Agricultural System

by Schluwa Sama and Ansar Jasim

Historically and still today, imperialism has had, and continues to have, devastating effects on global agriculture. This is particularly evident in Iraq, which has suffered the consequences of a modern war as well as the long, slower burn, of imperial colonisation. Therefore, although the effects of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq have been catastrophic, the USA is not the only power to blame for Iraq’s devastated agricultural system. Indeed, the failures of the country’s agriculture industry can be traced back to the centralised and highly controlled system of the Ba`ath regime, and to the British colonial system.

It’s April 2023 in the offices of the Department of Disease Prevention and Pest Management arm of Iraq’s Agriculture Ministry, where we are conducting a series of interviews: “We are only making contracts with the big reliable companies like Syngenta and Bayer”, explains one employee, as his laptop mouse glides over a Syngenta-branded mouse map. On the wall behind him, a Syngenta clock ticks steadily. Within the ministry, corporations like Syngenta and Bayer, which are well-established in a global agribusiness context, have come to symbolise the future for Iraqi agriculture. Entering into agreements with these multinational companies will help the country leave behind an outdated, failing agricultural system, the thinking goes. In reality, this is just one more part of the country’s long history of imperial violence. 

British Colonialism and Lasting Social Transformations

During the direct British rule of Iraq, which lasted from 1914 until 1932, the property rights of agricultural land were granted to traditional leaders and to their families, rather than to cultivators and producers. As with many similar instances of colonial divide and rule, these policies led to the creation of a new landlord class, and created a feudal system that resulted in the pauperisation of the peasantry. Simultaneously, the conceptualisation of land as property, the primary purpose of which is to increase agricultural profit, became widespread in Iraq. This continued after British direct rule came to an end and the Iraqi monarchy was installed. 

This unfair system was partly suspended in central Iraq in the wake of the 14 July Revolution in 1958, which resulted in some land distribution to small-scale farmers. But in the parts of the country which were less accessible to the state, such as the mountainous regions of Kurdistan, the system tended to remain in place. This period also saw the integration of Iraq into the international economic system, through its emergence as an exporter of grain, and then of oil. This would then lead to the transformation of Iraq into an oil-dependent economy.

Rather than abandoning the forms of social and political organisation inherited from British colonialism, successive Iraqi regimes have elected to maintain them. In this way, colonialism continues to shape Iraq. This is also the case in terms of the descendants of the powerful feudal landlords of the early 20th century, who still today hold positions of power in political parties and militias.

The Creation of a Vulnerable Agricultural System 

Before the 2003 US invasion, Iraq possessed a very centralised farming system. Characteristic of other countries in the region, including Syria, this meant a high degree of state control. It also meant the state functioned not only as the main supplier of agricultural inputs, but also price control, state distribution systems and more. Beginning in the 1970s, the Iraqi regime had implemented increasingly authoritarian agricultural policies, paired with population control. One of the most notable examples of these initiatives were its mujamm´at or collective towns, in which farmers, mainly in Kurdistan, were expelled from their original villages under the pretext of modernising farming techniques. As a result, Kurdish farmers were cut off from their original villages and traditional livelihoods, leaving them dependent on the state, and in effect granting the state almost total control over their lives. 

The Gulf War of the early 1990s had far-reaching consequences for agriculture in the region. In the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN imposed massive sanctions and an embargo against Iraq, which lasted until the US invaded Iraq again in 2003. These were designed to strip Iraq of its import and export capabilities, and to help boost trade in other countries in the region, like Turkey, as well as globally, such as Australia. To try and restore stability, the Iraqi government focused on two means of gaining control of its population and food production. 

The first of these was through implementing a food rationing system, bitaqa tamwiniya, which had the dual effect of increasing the Iraqi population’s dependence on the regime, while furthering the regime’s capacity to control and punish its citizens. For instance, families with any connection to the resistance movement to the governing Ba´ath regime, or whose members refused military conscription, were excluded from food distribution.

The second of these 1990s responses to boycotts was the government’s increased investment in its centralised agriculture system. The aim of this centralisation was to attempt to prevent hunger crises, and thereby guarantee the regime’s survival in response to sanctions. This played out initially with measures such as desalination campaigns, before the controversial UN-led oil-for-food program started in 1995. Desalination campaigns enabled farmers to use previously unfarmed land (for example in the area of Yousefia near Baghdad). Thereby, the agricultural harvest could be increased to feed the population in periods when food imports were prohibited. Once the UN-implemented oil-for-food system started, the focus on increasing Iraqi agricultural profit lessened. Iraq’s oil was sold on the world market and from these gains, food was imported into the country from various exporters outside of Iraq. 

However, the focus on the productivity of the soil had a clear counterpoint: the newly reclaimed land was provided with water through dams and canals, which were designed to sanction and deprive areas that had been rebellious against the central government of water. This led to the near-extinction of the water-based culture of the Ahwari people in the Southern Iraq’s marshlands.

It is this context which laid the ground for imperial violence to be so effective in Iraq; it shapes agriculture through the dominance it gives to profit. Profit, rather than the provision of the population with local and healthy food, becomes the primary objective of food production. To achieve this, imperial powers (in the case of Iraq this means mainly the US, but also states like Iran or China) “create” the conditions that make local food production unprofitable through transforming markets, state structures, agricultural methods and even the food habits of people.

Corporate Power and the Dehumanisation of Farmers

One of the most visible forms of corporate power in Iraq today is the access and control of the Iraqi agricultural market by international agribusiness. This presence is felt tangibly at large fairs in Baghdad and Erbil, where global corporations like Bayer and BASF display and introduce their products to the Iraqi market. It also dominates the workshops and networking events that encourage the formation of local start-ups. In both cases the actual producers, that is farmers and agricultural workers, are sidelined. 

These trade fairs and agribusiness start-up events began in the early post-2003 war phase, and were part of the USAID’s Agriculture Reconstruction and Development Program (ARDI), which introduced new highly productive seed varieties to Iraqi farmers. 

Under the influence of the US, Iraqi agriculture in this period tended to focus purely on technical-economic considerations. In 2004, sending a clear message to the working farmers of Iraq and Kurdistan, the US-trained interim Minister of Agriculture, Sawsan Ali Magid al-Sharifi, said: “We need Iraqi farmers to be competitive, so we decided to subsidise inputs like pesticides, fertilisers, improved seeds.” This expectation, that farmers should be competitive, prioritises corporate values of economic profit over supporting self-determined farmers to make a living by producing healthy food for the country.

Dismantling and Privatising the State

Maktab, or local agricultural shops, can be found all over Iraq. These are the places that supply farmers with corporate inputs, and they are the sites of the closest daily connection between farmers and corporations. The dismantling of state structures during the US occupation of Iraq left the country with few functioning state services. This vacuum has been filled by militia and corporate control: since 2003, local agricultural retailers have taken over the agricultural extension services of the state. Before the 2003 invasion, local branches of the Ministry of Agriculture offered agricultural extension services and support to farmers. But today, farmers like Ahmed, who is based in the township of Yusufiyah, laugh when asked where the state is: “We have not seen anyone from the state for a very long time. I don’t remember the agricultural office. I would have to ask my mother. We get all our seeds and pesticides from the shop.”

Highly Toxic Pesticides in Iraq 

A recent study by the Beirut office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Iraqi food sovereignty network Gwez w Nakhl, found that 50 tons of Tebuconazole were distributed by the government to farmers in 2021. Tebuconazole has been classified as a Highly Hazardous Pesticide (HHP) by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) for its acute toxicity – it is so severe to be classed as “fatal if inhaled” – as well as its long-term effects; it has been found to be both carcinogenic, and a threat to reproductive health.

This was the first study that documented the sale of ingredients that are classified as toxic to humans by the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as banned in the European Union (EU). It found that along with Bayer, who distributes Tebuconazole, Syngenta also sells its pesticides, containing Thiamethoxam, directly to the government that uses it for its aerial spraying program.

This pesticide distribution contributes to the poisoning of the people and the land. Economically, it also hurts farmers and benefits corporations as it is part of a strategy in which corporations first give their products to farmers for free, or at a substantial discount. Then, once farmers are dependent on the products, they raise their prices.

The Destruction of Iraq’s Seed Diversity

In 2003, the Iraqi National Seed Bank, which was located in Abu Ghraib, was destroyed in a bombing raid by the US military. This act of destruction, and the looting which led to the loss of Iraq´s thousand-year-old seed varieties is often juxtaposed with an image of “flourishing agriculture” before the 2003 invasion. In the words of the US-based corporation-critical NGO, Corpwatch: “The Fertile Crescent [which spans Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria] had developed a system of farming that was the envy of the world. Now, under Occupation, centuries of progress have been destroyed, almost overnight.” 

The bombing of the seed bank is probably the most dramatic act in a string of attempts by the US-occupation to transform Iraq’s economy, and food and agriculture system, into a model of neoliberalism. However, to lean too heavily on just this narrative of destruction risks obscuring the reasons that the pre-2003 system was so vulnerable to US intervention in the first place. 

Prior to 2003, Iraq’s seeds were provided by state-owned companies managed by the Ministry of Agriculture at controlled prices. The Iraqi seed bank, located in the rural countryside near Abu Ghraib, was a dense complex of diverse research and consultancy facilities, as well as a seed storage facility. It is hard to come by data that gives a full picture of the situation before 2003, mostly due to the looting of many of the Iraqi state institutions and their archives. 

However, a 2002 report by the US State Department from the Middle East Working Group on Agriculture paints a picture of a seed multiplication system in crisis: “Planting low-quality seeds during the 1980s and 1990s led to problems of weed and pest infestation, low productivity and an inability to use seed- processing machinery efficiently. Lack of high-yielding seed has reduced farm efficiency and often forced poor farmers to abandon their lands.” 

The same report refers to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) initiative implemented at the request of the Iraqi government to support its seed multiplication system during the 1990s. While such a source should be treated with caution, it does suggest a rather dysfunctional seed production system. Hence, despite these ambiguities, this laid the perfect justification for the necessity to re-engineer the agricultural system.  

In terms of the bombing and its aftermath, the fate of the 1,400 crop varieties stored in Abu Ghraib remains unclear. Some sources describe a “black box” of 200 seed varieties that was sent to the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in 1996, and therefore will have escaped destruction. There are other accounts of the heroic rescue efforts of Iraqi scientists who gathered up all the seeds that they could; many of which had to be scraped from the floor where they were spilled from pilfered glassware. When it comes to rebuilding the seed bank, farmers and food sovereignty activists in the country seeking to recollect Iraqi seeds do not even know where to start. Seeds are not just about the crops and plants that a country can produce, they form a part of the agriculture and historical archive of a country. The inability to recount this history is itself part of imperial violence. 

The Post-2003 Patent Law on Seeds

The centralised nature of Iraq’s agricultural production, and the history of violence enacted against the country’s rural and farming communities, rendered the system very vulnerable. This is part of what made it easy for the US to re-engineer Iraq’s agricultural system in 2003. In 2003 the Coalition Provisional Authority was installed as Iraq’s transitional government during the US occupation. They began to implement “orders”, one of which was the “Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety” order. It amended the Iraqi patent law of 1970, to allow international seed companies to patent seeds in Iraq, while also prohibiting farmers from saving and multiplying seeds. 

In 2013 this order was cancelled and replaced by a law which prohibits the use of any unpatented seeds in farming. On the ground today, the authors found that farmers did not tend to discuss these regulations. Instead, farmers refer to the cycle of debt accumulation they find themselves in, having lost the tradition of producing seeds, biopesticides, and other inputs locally. Today, as already mentioned, farmers are forced to purchase all agriculture inputs from private companies at prices that rise substantially each year.

In Kurdistan, in some of the villages that have not yet been emptied or destroyed either by the former regime of Saddam Hussein or regular bombardments by the Turkish army, people still engage in forms of traditional agriculture. That means that, alongside the purchase of seeds and pesticides, practices like seed swapping and seed production still exist. 

However, military encroachments by Turkey on the one hand, and the increasing privatisation and support of agribusiness, puts small-scale food producers under increasing pressure. Overall, rather than developing a neatly neoliberal economy according to the US play book, the economic system in Iraq today is a highly privatised and corrupt system.

One way to remedy this would be to help Iraqi farmers access original Iraqi heirloom seeds. At present, the seeds stored at ICARDA are only available to institutional players, but not farmers themselves. 

Enabling better, fairer access to seeds would mean supporting activists in building up grassroots seed libraries across the country, through accessing the Iraqi seeds that are preserved in seed banks all over the world. 

This would involve strengthening the structures that activists and farmers have already created, especially as international development agencies are mainly focused on building up the capacities of Iraqi state agencies. 

At present, ordinary Iraqis can only access state resources through political connections, and these are definitely not supporting Iraqi small-scale food producers striving to build independent food production. Therefore, the main way forward is to support the transition from conventional to agroecological agriculture through starting to build on local knowledge, and creating decentralised seed libraries among other things. 

The Reappearance of Legacies of Resistance 

Despite Iraq’s long history of violent repression, resistance movements have proved impossible to stamp out. Notable chapters in this story of resistance, like that of Khaled Ahmad Zaki in 1963 against the Ba´th regime in the Ahwar region, were echoed during the 2019 Tishreen Movement. This was a one-year-long political movement which involved occupying squares all over central Iraq, with the central demand of cancelling the post-2003 implemented constitution. This represented an attempt from below to reverse the political, social and economic system that was forced upon the people of Iraq through the US-led invasion. 

The protesters also raised the question of sovereign food production in Iraq, and developed an understanding of its necessity in achieving political change. Sovereign food production is especially necessary in a wider context in which Iraq´s neighbouring states, be it Iran or Turkey, are major food importers into the country. In its demand for a new constitution, this 2019 uprising can be regarded as a major anti-imperialist movement, or at least as a vision for one, in the sense that it wanted nothing less than the overthrow of the entire post-2003 system.

The Tishreen Movement paved the way for a new vision of food sovereignty and organising across Iraq. People of different backgrounds began to meet and discuss what food sovereignty would mean in the context of Iraq, and these meetings resulted in the formation of the Gwez w Nakhl (which means “walnut” in Kurdish and “palm tree” in Arabic) Network for Food Sovereignty in Iraq and Kurdistan. This group is an obstacle to imperialist expansion on several levels. Iraqi imperialism is based on a discourse of sectarianism, and a vision of modernism that divides between rural areas and cities. People coming together in Gwez w Nakhl Network counters this vision, particularly through the formation of an alliance between Kurdistan and Iraq, which takes a history of anti-authoritarian struggle from the countryside as a baseline.

Transnational Organising

Imperialism and corporate power in the food sector are organised globally, so networks of farmers, activists, and researchers who are striving to build alternatives to the current food system must organise internationally. There are already some examples of this transnational organising. For instance, the exchange of knowledge between the Buzuruna Juzuruna (our seeds are our roots) collective in Lebanon and the network of Gwez w Nakhl-Network for Food Sovereignty. Also, the creation of different gardens in the villages around the cities of Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Baghdad, as well as Kurdistan more broadly. 

In these gardens people are committed to shifting from conventional agriculture to agroecology, planting without pesticides, producing seeds and carving out a space of independence from corporations. With few original Iraqi heirloom seeds available to farmers to set up community seed banks, Buzuruna Juzuruna have provided seeds and knowledge to Gwez w Nakhl. 

This South-South solidarity builds organisations and collectives that can support other farmers in times of crisis, and overall this could lead to socio-ecological transformation. South-North connections though are no less important, either, and it is necessary to practise an internationalism where the Global North is pressured by its own citizens.



Schluwa Sama and Ansar Jasim

* Schluwa Sama is a researcher. She has recently written a study about the trade in pesticides in Iraq. Schluwa holds a PhD on the political economy of Iraq with a focus on the everyday lives of peasants at the University of Exeter.

* Ansar Jasim is program coordinator for Iraq for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Beirut Office. She is interested in civil society solidarity from a theoretical and practical perspective, with a special focus on Syria and Iraq.


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