Food Security as Important as National Security in Kurdistan

Ten years since the fall of Saddam and the liberation of South Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional government has come a long way in developing the region which is now internationally recognised as ‘Iraq’s safe haven’. In 2007 there were only 106 hotels in the region today more than 400 hotels are scattered across the different provinces. In 2013, Kurdistan expects to bring in $1 billion in tourism revenues and hopes to quintuple that number in just two years. Hewler, the regions capital, 2030 development plan calls for a wildlife safari park, a Grand Prix race track and a 36-hole golf course. In addition to all of this tourism and investment experts believe the region is in its infancy as far as world tourism goes, “It’s still just the tip of the spear,” says Harry Schute, who runs the Other Iraq Tours.

However, stepping outside of Hewler the infrastructure, agricultural and natural environment is poorly maintained. While the country is rich with castles, old churches of various faiths and other archaeological monuments there is no preservation of their environment or some kind of heritage conservation scheme. Kurdistan is famous for its ancient history and rich agriculture, for years being the “bread basket of Iraq.” There is some evidence that the people of Shanidar, in Kurdistan, were domesticating sheep and planting wheat as long ago as 9800 B.C.

Resurrection of fresh, natural locally grown and therefore healthy produce is vital for Kurdistan’s food security and health of the population living in the region. Talib Elham, the agriculture adviser to the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, told the Financial Times that “Food security is like national security.” He is of the opinion that the Government needs to grant the same attention to chicken feed as it does to its F-16’s.

Over 28% of South Kurdistan’s land is arable soil, meaning land that can be used to grow crops in, that’s more than a quarter of the territory controlled by the KRG one of the highest percentages in the Middle East. Simeon Kerr stated in an article “If Iraq is the cradle of civilisation; the semi-autonomous Kurdish region gave birth to agriculture.” The first ever crops were said to be planted in the plains and mountain valleys in Kurdistan but if the region was known as the bread basket of Iraq and its top quality produce to its neighbours, it is now increasingly a large consumer of imported foods.

One of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s strongest trade partners of imported foods is Turkey with more than seven billion American dollars’ worth of imported goods in 2011, majority of which was food, officials say. Its other neighbour, Iran, came in second for strongest trade partners of the KRG of imported foods, especially livestock. With a massive oil boom, the region now only produces a fifth of its red meat and a quarter of its poultry and even then their feed is imported.

There are many reasons as to the collapse of Kurdistan’s strong produce of crops and livestock, not least the war ragged by occupiers of the land. In the 1980’s Saddam and his regime cleared more than 4000 villages in operations to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish people and suppress dissent in the rural regions. Officials also blame the oil-for-food programme put in place by the UN during America’s heavy sanctions on Iraq, where food and medicine was exchanged for oil exports. The programme left Iraq completely dependent on free food imports which further burdened the domestic agriculture of the Kurdish region.

The greatest reason I believe as to the KRG’s failure in restoring the agricultural culture in Kurdistan during the recovery of the region, is the lack of attention given to the vast urbanisation of Kurdistan. Since autonomy was granted to the KRG in the 1990’s urbanisation was accelerated with the younger generations moving to the cities, completely shattering the intergenerational farming culture in Kurdistan, leaving many farms being replaced with apartment buildings, malls and fancy five star hotels.

The greatest consequence of the urbanisation of the Kurdistan region and the significant decrease of locally produced foods is the dire health effects on consumers. Unfortunately, up until very recently there have been no official reports or data collection on the increased risk of malignant diseases such as cancer in South Kurdistan. There have been reports and studies carried out highlighting the increased risk of cancer in Iraq but they failed to cover the Kurdistan region. However, in 2011 a report produced by several different scientists and doctors, Othman published in the Asian Pacific Journal of cancer prevention, aimed to determine the cancer incidences and identify possible risk of cancer in South Kurdistan specifically.

In a country subject to endless war, chemical attacks resulting in genocide of millions and long lasting, lifetime effects on survivors, it’s a wander it has taken so long for a report on the issue of increased risk of such diseases in the region to be produced. The report specifically highlights that a shift towards a western lifestyle and dietary habits may also contribute to increased cancer risk, pointing to the fact that increased urbanisation and imported food consumption is a major contributor.

There is no national cancer registry in Iraq or South Kurdistan but depending on local resources patients are to be registered as new cancer patients are identified. Cancer registries from 9 different hospitals in Slemani, Hewler, and Duhok were used as a source of data. Data was collected over three years and a staggering increase of cases is visible over just three years, with 1444, 2081 and 2356 cases reported over 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively.

The report shows that stomach and skin cancers where amongst the most common in Kurdish males, while breast cancer followed by skin and stomach cancers where reported to be the most common in females. With haematological cancers (a cancer which effects blood or bone marrow, for example leukaemia or lymphoma) accounted for 21.3% of all cancers in males and 18.8% of females were reported with breast cancers, showing the highest figure of the type of cancer amongst the two genders.

Probably the most interesting point which the report demonstrates with its figures is that in comparison to all the countries in Asia, including Iraq, South Kurdistan has the highest rate of Haematological malignancy (WHO, 2008). Although interesting, this discovery is not at all surprising given the recent history of South Kurdistan, its contact with chemical bombardment during the war and the now accelerated food & water importation in the region.

Agriculture adviser to the KRG Prime Minister has suggested that the government increase its budget devoted to agriculture from the current two per-cent to the UN recommended ten per-cent. The current food important budget is higher at around five per-cent of the budget on average. It is also important to note the two major trade partner countries of the KRG, Turkey and Iran, have also put the Kurdish regions water resources at risk due to diversion from upstream sources from their governments.

Herish Muharam, chairman of the KRG’s board of investment stated in an interview with Financial Times that the Kurdistan Regional Government is doing all it can to improve and reverse the effects of urbanisation on the agricultural of the region. He points out that the government is trying to expand the electricity grid to cover over 80% of rural areas in a bid to repopulate the rural areas. “The level of wheat and barley production has already increased but we need to do more to reduce imports,” stated Muharam. Mr Muharam also pointed out that a few years ago the region imported almost all its bottled water, now 70% of the water consumed is locally produced.

I contacted the DLBA Company one of the largest food trading companies working in South Kurdistan to enquire about the protocols in place to safely import foods without health risks for the protection of their consumers; however I was told the manager was unavailable for comment. In January 2013, the KRG postponed a law which, if had been administered, would require certain certificates for poultry and egg imports to make sure such sensitive food products, commonly known to carry dangerous virus, are safe for consumers.

The KRG needs to start working to completely reverse the depopulation of rural lands and live up to South Kurdistan’s reputation for highly regarded local produce to protect the region’s future food security and to unlock an economy boom which is currently being completely disregarded. More land needs to be reserved for cultivation and livestock and the government needs to constantly interfere in the market to make sure domestic produce is protected against cheap imports. The region is young and the dire health effects of such high volumes of cheap imported goods is yet to be seen, the protection of its population against long-term, terminally diseases needs to start today.