by Jeremy Smith
The Ecologist v.35, n.1
1 February 2005
Under the guise of helping
get Iraq back on its feet, the US is setting out to
totally re-engineer the country's traditional farming
systems into a US-style corporate agribusiness. They’ve
even created a new law –
Order 81 – to make sure
Coals to Newcastle. Ice to
Eskimos. Tea to China. These are the acts of the ultimate
salesmen, wily marketers able to sell even to people with no
need to buy.
To that list can now be added a
new phrase - Wheat to Iraq.
Iraq is part of the ‘fertile crescent’
It is here, in around
8,500 to 8,000BC, that mankind
first 'domesticated' wheat, here that agriculture was born. In recent
years however, the birthplace of farming has been in trouble. Wheat
production tumbled from 1,236,000 tons in 1995 to just 384,000 tons
Why this should have happened very much
depends on whom you ask.
A press release from Headquarters United States Command reports
‘Over the past 10 years, this region
has not been able to keep up with Iraq’s wheat demand. During
Saddam Hussein regime, farmers were expected to continuously
produce wheat, never leaving their fields fallow. This tactic
degraded the soil, leaving few nutrients for the next year’s
crop, increasing the chances for crop disease and fungus, and
eventually resulting in fewer yields.’
For the US military, the blame clearly
lies with the ‘tactics’ of ‘Saddam’s regime’.
However, in 1997 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
‘Crop yields... remain low due to
poor land preparation as a result of lack of machinery, low use
of inputs, deteriorating soil quality and irrigation facilities’
and ‘The animal population has declined steeply due to severe
shortages of feed and vaccines during the embargo years’.
Less interested in selling a war
perhaps, the FAO sees Iraqi agriculture suffering due to a lack of
necessary machinery and inputs, themselves absent as the result of
deprivation ‘during the embargo years’.
Or it could have been simpler still.
According to a 2003 USDA
‘Current total production of major
grains is estimated to be down 50 percent from the 1990/91
level. Three years of drought from 1999-2001 significantly
Whoever you believe, Iraqi wheat
production has collapsed in recent years. The next question then, is
how to get it back on its feet.
Despite its recent troubles, Iraqi agriculture’s long history means
that for the last 10,000 years Iraqi farmers have been naturally
selecting wheat varieties that work best with their climate.
year they have saved seeds from crops that prosper under certain
conditions and replanted and cross-pollinated them with others with
different strengths the following year, so that the crop continually
In 2002, the FAO estimated that 97 per
cent of Iraqi farmers used their own saved seed or bought seed from
That there are now over 200,000 known
varieties of wheat in the world is down in no small part to the
unrecognized work of farmers like these and their informal systems
of knowledge sharing and trade.
It would be more than reasonable to
assume that somewhere amongst the many fields and grain-stores of
Iraq there are samples of strong, indigenous wheat varieties that
could be developed and distributed around the country in order to
bolster production once more.
Likewise, long before Abu Ghraib became the world’s most infamous
prison, it was known for housing not inmates, but seeds. In the
early 1970s samples of the many varieties used by Iraqi farmers were
starting to be saved in the country’s national gene bank, situated
in the town of Abu Ghraib.
Indeed one of Iraq’s most well known
indigenous wheat varieties is called ‘Abu Ghraib’.
Unfortunately, this vital heritage and knowledge base is now
believed lost, the victim of the current campaign and the many years
of conflict that preceded it. But there is another viable source. At
International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas
(ICARDA) in Syria there are still samples of several Iraqi
As a revealing report by Focus on
the Global South and GRAIN comments:
‘These comprise the agricultural
heritage of Iraq belonging to the Iraqi farmers that ought now
to be repatriated.’
If Iraq’s new administration truly
wanted to re-establish Iraqi agriculture for the benefit of the
Iraqi people it would seek out the fruits of their knowledge.
could scour the country for successful farms, and if it miraculously
found none could bring over the seeds from ICARDA and use those as
the basis of a program designed to give Iraq back the agriculture it
once gave the world.
The US, however, has decided that, despite 10,000 years practice,
Iraqis don’t know what wheat works best in their own conditions, and
would be better off with some new, imported American varieties.
Under the guise, therefore, of helping
get Iraq back on its feet, the US is setting out to totally
reengineer the country’s traditional farming systems into a US-style
Or, as the aforementioned press release
from Headquarters United States Command puts it:
‘Multi-National Forces are currently
planting seeds for the future of agriculture in the Ninevah
First, it is re-educating the farmers.
An article in the Land and Livestock
Post reveals that thanks to a project undertaken by Texas A&M
University’s International Agriculture Office there are now 800
acres of demonstration plots all across Iraq, teaching Iraqi farmers
how to grow ‘high-yield seed varieties’ of crops that include
barley, chick peas, lentils – and wheat.
The leaders of the $107 million project have a stated goal of
doubling the production of 30,000 Iraqi farms within the first year.
After one year, farmers will see soaring production levels. Many
will be only too willing to abandon their old ways in favor of the
Out will go traditional methods. In will
come imported American seeds (more than likely GM, as Texas A&M's
Agriculture Program considers itself ‘a recognized world leader in
using biotechnology’). And with the new seeds will come new
chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, all sold to the
Iraqis by corporations such as
Monsanto, Cargill and Dow.
Another article, this time in
The Business Journal of Phoenix,
‘An Arizona agri-research firm is
supplying wheat seeds to be used by farmers in Iraq looking to
boost their country's homegrown food supplies.’
That firm is called the
Wheat Company (WWWC), and in partnership with three
universities (including Texas A&M again) it is to ‘provide 1,000
pounds of wheat seeds to be used by Iraqi farmers north of Baghdad.’
Seedquest (described as the ‘central information
website for the global seed industry’) WWWC is one of the leaders in
developing proprietary varieties of cereal seeds - i.e. varieties
that are owned by a particular company. According to the firm’s
website, any ‘client’ (or farmer as they were once known) wishing to
grow one of their seeds, ‘pays a licensing fee for each variety’.
All of a sudden the donation doesn’t sound so altruistic. WWWC gives
the Iraqis some seeds. They get taught how to grow them, shown how
much ‘better’ they are than their seeds, and then told that if they
want any more, they have to pay.
Another point in one of the articles casts further doubt on American
According to the Business Journal,
‘six kinds of wheat
seeds were developed for the Iraqi endeavor. Three will be used for
farmers to grow wheat that is made into pasta; three seed strains
will be for bread-making.’
According to the 2001 World Food Program report on Iraq,
‘Dietary habits and preferences
included consumption of large quantities and varieties of meat,
as well as chicken, pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy
No mention of lasagne. Likewise,
a quick check of the Middle Eastern cookbook on my kitchen shelves,
while not exclusively Iraqi, reveals a grand total of no pasta
dishes listed within it.
There can be only two reasons why 50 per cent of the grains being
developed are for pasta. One, the US intends to have so many
American soldiers and businessmen in Iraq that it is orienting the
country’s agriculture around feeding not ‘Starving Iraqis’ but
‘Overfed Americans’. Or, and more likely, because the food was never
meant to be eaten inside Iraq at all.
Iraqi farmers are to be taught to grow crops for export. Then they
can spend the money they earn (after they have paid for next year’s
seeds and chemicals) buying food to feed their family. Under the
guise of aid, the US has incorporated them into the global economy.
What the US is now doing in Iraq has a very significant precedent.
Green Revolution of the 1950s and
60s was to be the new dawn for farmers in the developing world. Just
as now in Iraq, Western scientists and corporations arrived
clutching new ‘wonder crops’, promising peasant farmers that if they
planted these new seeds they would soon be rich.
The result was somewhat different.
As Vandana Shiva writes in
Biopiracy - The plunder of nature and knowledge:
‘The miracle varieties displaced the
diversity of traditionally grown crops, and through the erosion
of diversity the new seeds became a mechanism for introducing
and fostering pests. Indigenous varieties are resistant to local
pests and diseases.
Even if certain diseases occur, some of the
strains may be susceptible, but others will have resistance to
Worldwide, thousands of traditional
varieties developed over millennia were forsaken in favor of a few
new hybrids, all owned by even fewer giant multinationals.
As a result, Mexico has lost 80 per cent
of its corn varieties since 1930. At least 9,000 varieties of wheat
grown in China have been lost since 1949. Then in 1970 in the US,
genetic uniformity resulted in the loss of almost a billion dollars
worth of maize because 80 per cent of the varieties grown were
susceptible to a disease known as ‘southern leaf blight’.
Overall, the FAO estimates that about 75 per cent of genetic
diversity in agricultural crops was lost in the last century.
The impact on small farmers worldwide
has been devastating. Demanding large sums of capital and high
inputs of chemicals, such farming massively favors large scale,
industrial farmers. The many millions of dispossessed people in Asia
and elsewhere is in large part a result of this inequity. They can’t
afford to farm anymore, are driven off their land, either into their
cities’ slums or across the seas to come knocking at the doors of
those who once offered them a poisoned chalice of false hope.
What separates the US’s current scheme from those of the Green
Revolution is that the earlier ones were, at least in part, the
decisions of the elected governments of the countries affected. The
Iraqi plan is being imposed on the people of Iraq without them
having any say in the matter. Having ousted Saddam, America is now
behaving like a despot itself. It has decided what will happen in
Iraq and it is doing it, regardless of whether it is what the Iraqi
When former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator
Paul Bremer departed Iraq in June 2004 he left behind a legacy
of 100 ‘Orders’ for the restructuring of the Iraqi legal system.
Of these orders, one is particularly
pertinent to the issue of seeds.
Order 81 covers the issues of ‘Patent,
Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and
It amends Iraq’s original law on
patents, created in 1970, and is legally binding unless repealed by
a future Iraqi government.
The most significant part of Order 81 is a new chapter that
it inserts on ‘Plant Variety Protection’ (PVP). This
concerns itself not with the protection of biodiversity, but rather
with the protection of the commercial interests of large seed
To qualify for PVP, seeds have to meet the following criteria: they
must be ‘new, distinct, uniform and stable’.
Under the new
regulations imposed by
Order 81, therefore, the sort of seeds Iraqi
farmers are now being encouraged to grow by corporations such as WWWC will be those registered under PVP.
On the other hand, it is impossible for the seeds developed by the
people of Iraq to meet these criteria. Their seeds are not ‘new’ as
they are the product of millennia of development. Nor are they
‘distinct’. The free exchange of seeds practiced for centuries
ensures that characteristics are spread and shared across local
varieties. And they are the opposite of ‘uniform’ and ‘stable’ by
the very nature of their biodiversity. They cross-pollinate with
other nearby varieties, ensuring they are always changing and always
Cross-pollination is an important issue for another reason. In
recent years several farmers have been taken to court for illegally
growing a corporation’s GM seeds.
The farmers have argued they were doing
so unknowingly, that the seeds must have carried on the wind from a
neighboring farm, for example. They have still been taken to court.
This will now apply in Iraq. Under the new rules, if a farmer’s seed
can be shown to have been contaminated with one of the PVP
registered seeds, he could be fined.
He may have been saving his seed for
years, maybe even generations, but if it mixes with a seed owned by
a corporation and maybe creates a new hybrid, he may face a day in
Remember that 97 per cent of Iraqi farmers save their seeds. Order
81 also puts paid to that.
A new line has been added to the law
‘Farmers shall be prohibited from
re-using seeds of protected varieties or any variety mentioned
in items 1 and 2 of paragraph (C) of Article 14 of this
The other varieties referred to are
those that show similar characteristics to the PVP varieties. If a
corporation develops a variety resistant to a particular Iraqi pest,
and somewhere in Iraq a farmer is growing another variety that does
the same, it’s now illegal for him/her to save that seed. It sounds
mad, but it’s happened before.
A few years back a corporation called
SunGene patented a sunflower
variety with a very high oleic acid content. It didn’t just patent
the genetic structure though, it patented the characteristic.
Subsequently SunGene notified other sunflower breeders that
should they develop a variety high in oleic acid with would be
considered an infringement of the patent.
So the Iraqi farmer may have been wowed with the promise of a bumper
yield at the end of this year. But unlike before he can’t save his
seed for the next. A 10,000-year old tradition has been replaced at
a stroke with a contract for hire.
Iraqi farmers have been made vassals to American corporations. That
they were baking bread for 9,500 years before America existed has no
weight when it comes to deciding who owns Iraq’s wheat. Yet for
every farmer that stops growing his unique strain of saved seed the
world loses another variety, one that might have been useful in
times of disease or drought.
In short, what America has done is not restructure Iraq’s
agriculture, but dismantle it. The people whose forefathers first
mastered the domestication of wheat will now have to pay for the
privilege of growing it for someone else.
And with that the world’s oldest farming
heritage will become just another subsidiary link in the vast
American supply chain.