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Last Updated: 10/10/2008
The creation of Iraq's food insecurity 1980-2008
Ross Ryan

The fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the wheat planes just south of Basra were, until the 1980s, the base of a robust agricultural sector in modern Iraq. This essay traces the steady and tragic decline of the Iraqi food system over the last 3 decades, emphasizing the political and economic policies of the US, Turkey, the former Baathist regime in Iraq, and the UN.

Key words: food security, environmental security, gulf war, Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait, Turkey, Oil-for-Food, sanctions, UN, agriculture, ethnic conflict.

Human insecurity has many dimensions, especially in times of outright conflict. One angle from which infringements on security can be observed concerns the integrity of local agricultural systems, and the extent to which nutritionally and culturally appropriate food is readily available and accessible to a given population. As a consideration of the Iraqi experience from the early-1980s until the current date in 2008 will show, food security in that country has been systematically deconstructed through a series of largely political events. Contributing factors of this decline include historical US foreign policies, Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq, the first Gulf War, thirteen years of UN supported sanctions, the Oil-for-Food program, Turkey’s diversion of water from the Euphrates river, the second Gulf War, the latest wave of US and UN food aid programs, and the subsequent, ongoing militarization of the new government of Iraq. A discussion of these factors will show not only the complexity of the food security situation in Iraq, but highlight the centrality of political and economic forces undercutting it.


The idea of food security covers at least two broad areas. Focusing on the state level, the concept can refer to a nation’s “ability to provide all of its people with diets adequate to sustain work and other normal daily activities,” usually through “domestic food production or the ability to purchase or trade for foodstuffs produced in surplus elsewhere” (Ehrlich 1993). While this level of analysis is helpful for understanding how states can manipulate each other’s food systems for relative gains and power politics, it overlooks a considerable amount of detail relevant to an understanding of how food is actually attained and consumed by individuals and households, and how insecurity is experienced by people on the ground. Therefore, building on Oshaug’s definition, “food security” will refer in this paper not only to a given state’s ability to provide a sufficient quantity and quality of food for its people, but to the ability of those people to access “nutritionally adequate [and] culturally acceptable [food], procured in keeping with human dignity and enduring over time” (Frankenberger and Maxwell 1992). More than a simple measure of calories, therefore, food security is about the quality, appropriateness, and sustainability of food systems as well. 

The cradle of civilization

Agriculture has a long and rich history in Iraq. In fact, archaeologists have determined that this is where humanity first began to depend on farming, allowing some of the world’s first civilizations to flourish on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Tripp 2002). Despite 10,000 years of agricultural activity since then, the soil has remained “rich and productive, particularly in the lower alluvial plain,” and has been counted second only to oil among Iraq’s wealth of natural resources (Library of Congress 2006). In more recent history, under agrarian land reforms enacted by the revolutionary regime of Abd al Karim Qasim (1958-63) and continued under the rule of Hussein’s Baath party (1968-2003), staple crop production was stabilized and arable land was efficiently cultivated by small holders and co-operatives which were established throughout the country side (Tripp 2002). According to the Agricultural Census of 1971, Iraqi farmland totalled over 5.7 million hectares, 30 percent of which had been recently redistributed, and fully 98.2 percent of which was held by “civil persons” (Library of Congress 1988). The implication here is that, given Iraq’s favourable soils and relatively stable climate, the gains in food production and the improvement of rural livelihoods during this period can be attributed primarily to the agrarian reforms pushed through the political process.

While the writers of the 1988 Library of Congress Country Profile: Iraq recognize a clear pattern emerging between the early 1970s, when the country was virtually self-sufficient, and the mid-1980s, when foodstuffs accounted for nearly 22 percent of total imports, they seem mystified by its causes, stating only that “increasing Iraqi food imports [are] indicative of agricultural stagnation,” possibly related to “Turkish dam building” (Library of Congress 1988). While the Turkish engineers have certainly had some affect on Iraqi agriculture, as will be discussed later, the authors of the 1988 report would have been wise to consider the effects of their own country’s policies during this time.

According to Noam Chomsky, this was an era in which American agribusiness was intentionally flooding the Iraqi market with cheap food in order to compete most effectively with local producers (2000). In effect, US companies, supported by their government’s foreign policies and food aid programs, were actively disrupting local Iraqi agriculture systems while creating a new market for their own (Chomsky 2000). In addition to “discouraging local production, resulting in increased poverty and creating long-term food insecurity due to increased dependence on food imports,” OXFAM has noted that this sort of food “dumping” disguised as food aid has consistently been used by agribusiness to sidestep international trade regulations, and as a tool of “surplus disposal and market expansion” (OXFAM 2005). Tellingly, foreign policies designed to disrupt local economies like this have historically preceded imperial ambitions. One well documented case was the British effort to undermine the Indian textile industry two centuries earlier, which was far older and well established, by flooding their market with cheap, industrially produced cloth from English woollen mills (Farro 1997).

Additionally, this initial wave of US food aid was delivered during the time of the Iran-Iraq war, a cause to which Iraq dedicated much of the foreign aid it received. Regardless of US intentions, many of the goods shipped to Iraq as food aid during this time doubled as military aid, including helicopters, trucks, and chemical and biological materials (Chomsky 2000). Running parallel to his campaign against Iran, Saddam Hussein was engaged in an internal effort to repress the Kurds in the north, who have been pressing for independence since at least 1932, when Iraq formally gained its independence from the British Empire (Tripp 2002). Indeed, even as “thousands of Kurds were gassed in the March 1988 Halabja massacre, the US government increased agricultural credits to his regime,” further blurring the line between food and military aid (Arnove 2000). Redirected into the military, US food aid was therefore used to repress the Kurdish independence movement, part of which involved disrupting northern agriculture through such means as the chemical degradation of farmland (Chomsky 2000). In effect, US support for this military action undermined not only the food security of the Kurds, but of Iraqis in general, since the northern uplands represent Iraq’s most fertile lands next to the alluvial plain south of Basra (Chomsky 2000, Library of Congress 2006).

Unfortunately, it was this southern area around Basra, the breadbasket of Iraq, which was affected during the next major conflict in Iraq, the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. More precisely, the alluvial plain was degraded during the first Gulf War, which was a response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and entailed a counter-invasion into Iraq by a UN force led by the US military (Tripp 2002). It was into these fertile agricultural lands, whose harvests sustain the lives of millions of people, that the UN force, chiefly the US and British contingents, dropped thousands of tons of weaponry, including explosives cased in depleted uranium (Fisk 2000). According to one source, the US military “fired more than one million rounds of munitions tipped with radioactive depleted uranium” into the alluvial plain (Arnove 2000). In addition to the immediate environmental and agricultural costs, there is a strong possibility that the use of these weapons can be related to the fourfold increase of cancer rates which have subsequently been observed in the area (UNICEF 1999).

The first Gulf War did not stop at Basra, however, but continued until Iraq had been reduced to a “pre-industrial” state, the expression used in a 1991 Gulf War impact report, presented to the Secretary-General of the UN (Ahtisaari 1991). Despite US attempts to describe the 1991 attack as “clean,” thanks to the use of “smart bombs,” many of the infrastructural targets they so carefully hit left the Iraqis with more mess than they could clean up. These targets included sewage treatment plants, irrigation systems, water purification plants, energy plants, and communications systems (Bennis and Halliday 2000). Entire ecological systems were disrupted by the conflict, including the significant release of air pollution and the degradation of the Saudi Arabian coastline due to the burning and dumping of fossil fuels in large quantities (Gerges 1993). In terms of its direct effect on Iraqi food systems, it is notable that, as the foreign militaries encroached deeper into Iraq, “terrestrial ecosystems also suffered…adversely affecting the land productivity and the region's livestock” (Gerges 1993). The full effects of these initial damages, however, became patently obvious only a few years later, when the UN withdrew its military force and imposed heavy sanctions the country.


Eight years after they began, UNICEF calculated that the sanctions, which restricted Iraqi access to basic medicines, agricultural products, and construction materials needed to restore infrastructure, had taken the lives of some 500,000 Iraqi children (UNICEF 1999). In 2000, The Economist reported that under the Iraqi sanctions:

government-maintained irrigation and drainage networks [have] crumbled, leaving much of Iraq's prime agricultural land either too dry or too salty to cultivate, [while] sheep and cattle, no longer shielded by government vaccination programs, have succumbed to pests and diseases by the hundreds of thousands.

Predictably, the most vulnerable sectors of Iraqi society bore the brunt of the sanctions: women, children, and the impoverished. The elite actually benefited from the situation, including those in the Baath party, who managed to generate fabulous wealth from the black market of prohibited goods and focus political discontent in the country outwardly, against the foreign powers responsible for the sanctions (Arnove 2000).

Significantly, it became clear during the sanctions era that food insecurity for Iraqis was not just about the unravelling of their agricultural systems and the poisoning of their lands, which were legacy of the political policies and war efforts described thus far. Rather, under the sanctions and the intense social stratification they generated, many Iraqis found themselves unable to access what food was available. This lack of access led in turn to the widespread instances of hunger and malnutrition observed by UNICEF.

Politics are never far behind, however, and even after the overwhelmingly negative effects of the sanctions were made clear, US politicians maintained that they were necessary for furthering their government’s political goals. Most notoriously, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked how she felt about the death of 500,000 Iraqi children under the sanctions she supported, and responded that “the price is worth it” (quoted in Chomsky 2000). The era of the sanctions, therefore, represent a shift in focus of foreign government policies towards Iraq, from threatening the food security of the state itself, to directly compromising the food security of the Iraqi people themselves, ostensibly to create internal political pressures beneficial to external interests.


The issue of limited access to food, and its relationship to political interests, resurfaces again with the UN’s Oil-for-Food programme, which was established in 1995 with the intention of alleviating some of the food insecurity felt by Iraqis under the sanctions (UNOIP 2003). Unfortunately, the programme fell short of ameliorating the situation in any significant way, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the purpose of the oil-for-food program was never to help rebuild local agricultural and infrastructural systems, but only to maintain them in their severely degraded form (Bennis and Halliday 2000). Furthermore, the programme was highly politicized, with members of the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council routinely at odds with the World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, in underestimating the budgets needed for various projects (Bennis and Halliday 2000). Problematically, this same council was responsible for determining who got what from the programme, which they did through a complex bureaucratic scheme with separate food distribution programs for different segments of Iraqi society (Bennis and Halliday 2000). The net effect of these distribution programs was to further limit the ability of many Iraqis to access much needed foodstuffs.

On a larger level, there is some indication that Oil-for-Food programme funds, which totalled over $65 billion US by 2003, all of which was generated through the sale of Iraqi oil, were misappropriated toward the oil industry and other projects benefiting foreign interests rather than the Iraqi people (UNOIP 2003). According to the UN Oil-for-Food Iraq programme website, 25 percent of oil revenues generated by the programme ($16.25 billion US) went to Gulf War reparation payments (which presumably means Kuwait, and possibly includes covering some of the military costs incurred by the US and others) and 3 percent went to UN administrative and operational costs, including weapons inspection programmes (UNOIP 2003). Of the $31 billion US designated exclusively for “humanitarian projects,” $1.6 billion was used to purchase “oil industry spare parts and equipment,” and “additional goods and supplies [were] delivered from the programme’s multi-billion dollar humanitarian pipeline” in consultation with the Coalition Provisional Authority (UNOIP 2003). According to the UN’s own figures, therefore, approximately half of the total wealth taken from Iraq under the auspices of the Oil-for-Food programme ended up in the pockets of foreign governments, militaries, and the oil industry, none of which can be justified on the basis on alleviating food insecurity.

Water is a weapon

Compounding the complexity of challenges to Iraq’s food systems during the time discussed so far, from the early 1980s until the early 2000s, and continuing until today, are a set of external pressures distinct from those previously mentioned, namely, the Turkish and Syrian efforts to divert water from the Euphrates. Similar to the UN sanctions, these large scale irrigation projects affect the Iraqi people and their livelihoods most acutely, but are conceived of by their architects in overwhelmingly political terms. To this effect, Rudolph Kent, a UN policy advisor, has quoted the site manager of Turkey’s Atatürk Dam as saying: “Water is a weapon… we can stop the flow of water into Syria and Iraq for up to eight months without overflowing our dams, in order to regulate the Arab’s political behaviour” (Kent 2002). Indeed, when Turkey first built the Atatürk Dam in 1989 they temporarily stopped the Euphrates from flowing in order to fill the massive Atatürk reservoir, much to the surprise and displeasure of Syrian and Iraqi farmers whose dependence on the river is absolute (Ward 2002).

A 1996 study of the effects of continued water diversion in Turkey and Syria found that the results of new proposals, should they be carried out, would be environmentally and agriculturally detrimental to Iraq, who was already reeling under the sanctions at the time (Beaumont 1996). The study found that new water projects on the Euphrates would substantially reduce the amount of water available of Iraqi agriculture on a regular basis, and sporadically swell the river with “irrigation return waters which may be highly saline and may be up to twice the river’s natural flow” (Beaumont 1996). More recently, Vandana Shiva has written that, as Turkey goes ahead with its $32 billion dollar plan to divert even more water from the Euphrates in order to irrigate another 1.7 million hectares of land, Iraq’s share of the river’s natural flow is expected to be reduced by up to 90 percent (Shiva 2002). Taken together, the reduced flow and increased salinity of the Euphrates River, the systematically undermined Iraqi agricultural system, degraded lands from previous conflicts, and the cumulative effects of 13 years under the UN sanctions all combined just before the US and Britain invaded the country in 2003 to create conditions of extreme food insecurity for all but a minority in Iraq.

Although credible independent assessments of the agricultural impacts incurred during the 2003 invasion of Iraq have yet to be published, we can assume that they were comparable to those observed following the 1991 invasion. Perhaps, since there were certainly fewer functioning infrastructural and agricultural targets to aim at, and the most intense bombings were focused on urban areas, such as the “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad, the scale of food security disruption may have been slightly lower in 2003 than it was in 1991. Even so, The World Bank estimates that at least $25 million US dollars worth of damages were sustained to public infrastructure during the initial attacks, not counting damages to private property (McGovern 2006). Of course, there have also been the livelihood security challenges posed by disrupted communities and social networks, through loss of life and internal displacement, all of which will have to be accounted for eventually.

Foreign “aid” and state building

Particularly devastating for the long term food security of Iraq have been USDA and WFP food aid projects, and the relatively recent push to militarize the Coalition Provisional Authority as part of the American exit strategy. Ironically, the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) begins its 2006 Fact Sheet: US Agricultural Programs in Iraq with the statement that: “Agriculture serves as the foundation on which many countries build their economies. The U.S. Government is therefore helping Iraq revitalize its agricultural sector” (FAS 2006). The document goes on to say, under the heading of “agricultural trade,” that “USDA efforts in Iraq have helped establish a growing market for U.S. agricultural exports of wheat, rice and poultry,” before proudly reporting that:

During the period January-October 2006, U.S. agricultural exports to Iraq increased to $339 million compared to $244 million for the same period in 2005—a nearly 39-percent increase in one year. Iraq was the No. 2 buyer of U.S. hard red winter wheat in marketing year 2005-2006. In addition, Iraq was the No. 1 buyer of U.S. long grain milled rice in 2005. In the late 1980s, it was our top market for rice and one of our top 10 wheat export markets (FAS 2006).

Clearly, this is an extension of the pre-Gulf War foreign policies Chomsky wrote about in 2000, through which US agribusiness dumped surpluses as food aid and opened up new markets for itself. This connection is suggested by the authors of the 2006 FAS Fact Sheet themselves by their reference to the extensive exports of US rice and wheat to the Iraq during the 1980s (FAS 2006). In any case, food aid in the early 2000s has closely followed the pattern of the 1980s.

This second wave of food aid was extended in 2007 through a $10.8 million Food for Progress aid agreement signed with the U.S. Grains Council, through which the USDA has pledged to provide Iraq with 21,250 tons of corn and 8,750 tons of soybean meal (FAS 2006). This deal, which is highly favourable to US agribusiness, dwarfs the much lauded USDA project announced in December 2006, whereby “a team of U.S. universities will receive $5.3 million to strengthen agricultural extension and training at Iraqi universities” (USDA 2006). Although the USDA has stated that the goal of this funding is to “help Iraq develop strategies to rebuild and revitalize its agricultural and agribusiness sector,” the benefits will surely be slow to arrive in the country, especially since the participating Iraqi universities have still not been selected, and the immediate beneficiaries are US schools, particularly Texas A&M (USDA 2006). So far, the extent of this “revitalization” effort has been “12 extension seminars including a few field demonstrations to 270 extension personnel of the Ministry of Agriculture and Iraqi university faculty” (USDA 2008). To be sure, the long standing pattern of Iraqi dependence on food aid and agricultural imports will take many years, and much more than a few million dollars donated to US schools to overturn (see FAO statistics on imports and exports at

Certainly, the pledge of $5.3 million US to revitalize agriculture in the country pales in comparison to the billions of dollars currently being invested in the reconstitution of the Iraqi military (McGovern 2006). Among the problems associated with this policy is the detraction of money from more beneficial projects relating to Iraq’s reconstruction. Supporting this point, researchers have found that arms imports and military spending directly and consistently detracted from food security across a survey group of less developed countries (Scanlan and Jenkins 2001). Furthermore, the development of a fighting force loyal to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has little legitimacy among the Iraqis, will go a long way towards ensuring that Iraqis will be enveloped in civil conflict for years to come. As George McGovern has pointed out, even if the new military were strong enough to hold Iraq’s warring factions together, there is no guarantee that it would behave differently from previous Iraqi militaries who “frequently acted against civic institutions,” and disrupted agricultural systems, as Saddam’s government did against the Kurds (McGovern 2006).

Similar to the problem of WFP and USDA food aid, the fact that America is supplying this new military, and not the Iraqis themselves, means that Iraq will get all the negative social effects of having so many weapons in their country, without any of the positive economic effects associated with the production of arms, such as “human capital, economic infrastructure, better work discipline, [and] technology spin-offs” (Scanlan and Jenkins 2001). Instead, these benefits are reserved for the American military industrial complex, while Iraqis are left increasingly food insecure. For all these reasons, prioritizing the growth and armament of a new military machine in Iraq is definitely a bad decision for food security, but can be understood as a response to internal political pressure from US military lobbies, eager to secure contracts, and the US public, eager to transfer military responsibility from the US to the new Iraqi government.


Political pressures have been instrumental in undercutting Iraqi food security over the last 30 years. Agribusiness lobbyists from the US out-competed Iraqi food producers through floods of food aid in the 1980s, and again in the 2000s, solidifying Iraqi dependence on food imports, while the Turkish and Syrian drive to expand agriculture upstream has severely diminished the water resources available to Iraqi farmers. In terms of direct conflicts, Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds, the invasion of Kuwait, the UN supported counter invasion, and the most recent US led invasion, can all be explained in terms of ethno-political conflict, imperial legacies, and the strategic importance of securing oil reserves. The UN sanctions and Oil-for-Food program also appear to have been hijacked by political and corporate interests, as evidenced by the behaviour of the Sanctions Committee and the gross misappropriation of oil revenues.

Combined, these factors have contributed to food insecurity in Iraq, both in the sense of limiting Iraq’s ability to produce its own food, and limiting the ability of ordinary Iraqis to access what food could be made available. The further implication here is that Iraq’s food insecurity goes far beyond a simple lack of food (the “food first” fallacy), and, in some cases, even beyond issues of household entitlement. Instead, Iraqis have been guided towards food insecurity through internally bad governance and externally hostile political and economic forces. Any effort to resolve the situation, therefore, would have to look towards reorganizing political and economic systems from the smallest agricultural communities on the degraded fields south of Basra to the highest offices of the UN in New York.

Works Cited

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Ross Ryan is Editor-in-Chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.