Interview with Minister of Agriculture

Iraq’s Minister of Agriculture, Sawsan Ali Magid al-Sharifi, faces her biggest challenge yet - how to get the country's food sector moving again after years of international sanctions, free imported food under the former United Nations Oil-for-Food programme and hundreds of displaced farmers now living in other areas of the country.

With a doctoral degree in animal breeding from Iowa State University in the United States and an understanding of the economic forces at work in Iraq’s impoverished economy, al-Sharifi told IRIN in an interview that she is ready for the task.

QUESTION: Now that the former United Nations Oil-for-Food programme has been turned over to the Ministry of Trade (MoT), how does that affect your ministry and food production?

ANSWER: The public distribution system (PDS) [in which most Iraqi families receive enough free food to feed a family of four once a month] has not changed. Whoever is importing the goods, it’s still the same. When it comes to trade, they should think more about the farmers. The MoT should count what we produce instead of buying extra wheat from outside, for example, and then refusing our wheat. They put very strict restrictions on our crops.

Q: How important is agriculture to the Iraqi economy?

A: Agriculture is the main sector to provide jobs to young people instead of leaving them in the hands of terrorists. It creates jobs and produces many different kinds of crops. We used to produce 60 percent of our needs in wheat, except in 2003 because farmers weren’t sure if they should grow wheat when they felt war was coming. The farmers weren’t sure if they would make a profit. This year, we are ready for the winter season in wheat and barley, so we should have a good harvest.

Q: So if Iraq grows so much of its own food, is the PDS still needed?

A: We have had many discussions about this. It is important to keep the PDS going for poor families. If you do something different it will make the situation unstable, so we have to make changes slowly. We talked about giving money instead of food, or making it be just for the poor.

For the farmers, it would be good to end the PDS. Production would go up, especially with milk. For example, now milk producers are losing money because the price of milk is cheaper than the price of mineral water on the market. There is no subsidy for milk and we are importing powdered milk. We used to have 14 daily cattle stations, now we have only four. The rest were sold in 1997, so this shows how the PDS affects all production.

Q: What are the biggest policy issues facing agriculture in Iraq now?

A: The situation is critical, 2005 will be a critical year for agriculture. Policy-makers were talking about imposing general taxes on residents. I said the terrorists have been able to reach unemployed young people. If you charge taxes, it will create more unemployment.

Saddam used to give subsidies to people. People never understand why we can’t continue to do this. I meet with farmers and they say they can’t work if they have no subsidies. I tell them what Saddam did was wrong - he kept printing money and creating huge inflation problems to give away the subsidies. We can’t do this now.

On the other hand, advisers started telling us we had to cut subsidies in April. Even American farmers get subsidies, so why do we have to cut it for the poor Iraqi farmer now? We need Iraqi farmers to be competitive, so we decided to subsidise inputs like pesticides, fertilisers, improved seeds and so on. We cut down on the other subsidies, but we have to become competitive.

Q: What will happen to agricultural land that was seized under Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation programme and is now in dispute?

A: This is a big problem in Kirkuk (in northern Iraq), especially, where many people are trying to return to places they once lived. This is not a question for the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) to solve, though. The Ministry of Justice must solve it.

Every time I meet farmers, they tell me stories about the same pieces of land, which I cannot believe. We are collecting claims from them if they come and sending them to the Cabinet, but we can’t allow this to affect agriculture.

For example, we contract lands taken by the former regime and Saddam’s relatives and sell them by auction. We can’t give land to everybody.

Some people own their own land, but others are farming contracted lands that belong to the government and are administered by the Ministry of Finance. The MoA can control these lands through contracts. Families work the land on a seasonal basis, even if it was taken by the former regime.

Q: What NGOs are you working with now?

A: We have many projects going on with different organisations. We have two big projects with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which are being funded by the United Nations. We signed a US $3 million contract for animal production and a $7 million contract for a veterinary project. In the future, we will do a seed project with them [the FAO]. They provided bulls for artificial insemination, labs and equipment. We will also build labs for quality control and for foodstuffs, and we are importing vaccines.

We are also discussing other projects, but we have to visit them [the FAO] in Amman to make decisions. We’re thinking in the future we should meet in Sulaymaniyah or in Arbil [in the north], we spend so much money in travel to Jordan. Why don’t we spend more money in our own country? I don't believe it’s good for United Nations projects here to be done by remote control from Jordan. We have to keep working with them, though. We also work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) projects, including Development for Alternatives International, or DAI, and the Australian Agency for International Development, as well as various Arab organisations on agriculture.

In addition, we will rehabilitate agriculture machinery free of charge with $50 million from the $18.4 billion approved by the US Congress in November 2003. Our machinery will get a new look and new parts.

Q: How much does the agriculture sector contribute to the economy right now?

A: It is 35 percent of the Iraqi economy right now, which is much lower than it should be, because of the PDS. We want to increase it to 50 percent this year. In addition, the military industry ministry under Saddam Hussein took much of the money needed for direct agriculture and put it into industrial factories. Now, we want to lease or sell those factories. It’s not the government’s job to produce things in the military industry sector. Government cannot control everything.

At the same time, we can improve agricultural production by building up our research facilities. This is our job - not importing goods and produce. We killed the private sector in the former regime. Let’s give them a chance now to grow again.

Q: How will you stimulate agricultural growth?

A: We distribute fertiliser, pesticides and improved seeds at a subsidised price. We don’t subsidise the machinery. But what I’ve done is asked the prime minister’s office to sell machinery which is being kept in warehouses and not used for half price. So if farmers cannot afford the machinery now, we’ll make it more affordable. Prices are still high, though, and nobody came to buy the machinery.

Now I have cut the prices by 65 percent. Farmers used to buy machinery when Saddam printed a lot of money, so they have to adjust.

We are also spraying date palms free of charge and subsidising vaccines and different kinds of drugs for the animals. We also give credits to the farmers - $10 million from the United States for four governorates in the south and $10 million in Iraq’s own money for the other 11 governorates. It’s another way to help farmers start planting.

Q: Since agriculture was basically government-run under the former regime, what is your policy now?

A: We had a farmer’s union during the former regime in which the hand of government was guiding the farmers. Now, we want to have specialised cooperatives of farmers, who will create their own small companies. They will elect their own boards of directors. We will help them with machinery and give them investment start-up costs, which they can pay back over the long term. With this plan, we can get our rice and wheat crops going again and start up the poultry business. USAID and a Danish aid grant will support this programme.

Q: You mention poultry. Isn't that dominated by a Saudi Arabian company right now?

A: We import eggs right now and poultry meat from many countries, even the United States. This makes our poultry producers very angry. They cannot compete in the market right now. We need to allow them to sell what they produce, so we are now importing hatchery eggs. We will reconstruct a poultry plant in Samarrah [northwest of Baghdad] to get the industry going.

Private producers can also help. We should only import one-third of our needs and private producers will pick up the balance. We need to do this now to make private business succeed in Iraq.

We also want to reintroduce the water buffalo, which used to live in the marshlands of Iraq. When Saddam Hussein dried the marshlands, not only did he force people out, but the buffalo also died. They can produce a lot of milk, even living in a harsh environment. They live on reeds in the marshlands and can survive on fibre that other animals have trouble digesting.