Seven years of civil war has caused widespread devestation in Syria, yet amidst the battles there are farmers who remain committed to producing food for the people who still live there.
Sobhee Rasheed is proud to talk about everything he’s achieved on his farm.
Having grown wheat and vegetables on the edge of Damascus, Syria’s capital, for 25 years, he invested in infrastructure, worked hard to drive yields, and created a business he hoped to pass on to his children.
Sobhee was part of Syria’s flourishing agriculture sector; a heavily government-supported industry which accounted for 18% of the country’s GDP, 23% of its exports and provided jobs for some 8m people.
Its Mediterranean climate saw farmers produce everything from wheat and sugar beet, to cotton, tobacco and livestock, and their sugar, fruit, cattle and olive oil were shipped around the world.
But in 2011, civil war changed everything. As the country was torn apart by fighting, its food and agricultural system suffered massive losses.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), since the conflict began more than £12bn has been lost in production and destroyed assets alone. The virtual extinction of the country’s export trade has lost it £106m every year.
These issues, combined with farmers fleeing insecure areas, loss of cultivated land, and shortages of farm inputs, has had a devastating effect, the FAO says.
If the sector has any chance of kickstarting its recovery, anything between £8bn and £13bn needs to be invested.
Food production hit record lows in 2016 and, according to latest UN figures, things are barely improving, meaning many people are struggling to get enough food.
Wheat and barley production over the last year was about 1.8m tonnes — less than half of the pre-conflict average — while herd sizes are estimated to be at a fraction of what they were in 2011.
In many regions some of the biggest problems arise from government grain storage facilities and farm infrastructure being targeted by fighters. But even on the farms that haven’t been directly caught in the crossfire, the effects of the conflict are almost as damaging.
“We haven’t been besieged in this area, but the past few years have been very tough,” Sobhee says. “The cost of equipment has become too expensive, cultivation is very expensive, and farm incomes aren’t good.
“Farm inputs aren’t available locally any more, and even if I do find them at specialist sellers they are too expensive. Their costs have increased by ten times.”
Costs of war:
• £12bn total damage to agriculture
• £2.2bn in lost assets such as machinery, farm buildings, irrigation systems, processing facilities and veterinary clinics
• £4.8bn in lost crops
• £4.2bn damage to livestock
• £106m/year in lost exports
• £13bn costs to repair the farming sector
The spiralling costs have forced farmers to change the way they operate, which has had a dramatic effect on the amount of food they are able to produce.
The sector used to be highly mechanised, but what machinery hasn’t been damaged has either been stolen or left to rust as it is too expensive to run or find replacement parts.
Farmers are also having to change the crops they plant. Seed used to be made available through Hoboob, the government’s cereal processing and trade agency, but farmers are having to rely on what they can produce themselves — which is often poorer-quality — or switch to alternative crops which are easier to grow.
‘Before I was producing 7t of crops across each hectare, but now I only get 2t. It’s been really tough.’
Perhaps the biggest impact however is the cost of fuel and its impact on irrigation. It’s normal now for crops to go unwatered, which has hugely damaged yields, says Amgad Almassri, who produces vegetables and wheat with his family on their farm outside Damascus.
“I can’t afford to run my irrigation system because of the lack of fuel and the cost of it,” he says. “Before the crisis fuel cost 7SY£ (1p/litre), but now it costs 180SY£ (27p/litre).
“Sometimes fuel is available at the market, but most of the time I struggle to find it.
“Because we can’t find the inputs we need, very often we just leave the crops,” Amgad adds. “We either don’t cultivate an area, or we’ll only grow a very small amount.”
Sobhee says irrigation is a huge issue for his farm which, coupled with the lack of access to fertiliser, has badly hit yields.
“I have to use waste from animals instead of chemicals to fertilise my crops, and it’s not as good,” he says. “Before I was producing 7t of crops across each hectare, but now I only get 2t. It’s been really tough.”
Despite the smaller yields, in many respects, Sobhee is lucky. He sells his wheat to Hoboob, which also handles the country’s bread programme.
Bread is a subsidised staple for Syrians, and because wheat is in such short supply Hoboob collects all of Sobhee’s grain as soon as it’s harvested, taking it to one of its few remaining grain collection centres.
It means Sobhee doesn’t have to worry about on-farm storage, transportation or selling his produce, but conditions are still difficult.
“I don’t have a tractor, so I have to employ farmers to help me harvest,” he says. “We do it manually and it can take months. It’s very expensive.
“We need to have fuel and fertiliser at sensible prices, not the prices we face right now,” he adds. “I wish things could be better for the farm, but as long as the prices are crazy it’s very difficult to achieve anything in agriculture.”
• Country area: 18.5m ha
• Agricultural area: 14m ha
• Cultivated land: 4.9m ha (31% of total country area)*
• Rural population: 50% of total population, 80% of which earn money from agricultural work*
• Climate: Mediterranean with cool rainy winters and warm dry summers. Average rainfall 252mm
• Crops: Differ by region, but include sugar beet, olives, tobacco, cereals, citrus fruits, olives
• Livestock: Cattle, sheep, goat, poultry
Despite the hardship and dangers farmers face as the conflict wages on, there is confidence amongst farmers that with the right support, agriculture can have a strong future in Syria.
Having spent most of his 10-year agricultural career under the shadow of war, Amgad is positive about what he and others can achieve with access to the inputs they need to farm properly again.
What’s more, if the government focuses on repairing processing, marketing and state credit systems — which in the past provided cheap loans to farmers — farmers will be able to start rebuilding their infrastructure, he says.
“I want to stay here and see how I can make things better,” he adds. “I have never thought of leaving: the land is the only source of income I have for my family. If I leave, how could we live?
“I hope my children will work with me on the farm eventually. My eldest son is interested in planting is hopefully he will want to take over.”
‘I’ve never wanted to stop being a farmer. This land is for my family, and I don’t want to go anywhere.’
Sobhee is similarly hopeful he and his children will succeed in an industry that farmers are committed to rebuilding.
“I’ve never wanted to stop being a farmer. This land is for my family, and I don’t want to go anywhere,” he says.
“In future, I want to have access to the tools and inputs I need to be able to farm as best I can. This is a family business, and I’m proud of what we do.
“We don’t wan’t international aid: when the crisis ends, the government will help us get our infrastructure back in place. I believe we will have the support we need, and I’m confident about the future of agriculture.”
- A version of this story first appeared in Farmers Weekly