AMMAN (Reuters) - Intensified fighting in Syria’s main wheat growing areas in the north this year will make it even more difficult for farmers to access fields and could hamper planting more cereals this season, a senior United Nations food agency official said.
Conditions for farmers were deteriorating despite a favorable weather outlook indicating a good rainy season for a second year in a row, said the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for North Africa and the Near East.
“The conflict in Syria has further escalated and its impact on production has worsened,” Abdessalam Ould Ahmed said.
“Conditions are extremely difficult inside Syria today for agriculture production and there are many disincentives for farmers to keep farming on their fields, including security concerns, difficulties to store and sell their products.”
“Fighting has intensified in Syria’s bread basket provinces,” he said referring to the provinces of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor that alone account for nearly 70 percent of the country’s total wheat production.
These areas have seen heavy fighting this year between the Kurdish YPG militia, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, and Islamic State militants. It is the heaviest fighting in those areas since the start of the war.
Fighting has also intensified in Aleppo province, in the rich agricultural Sahl al-Ghab Plain in Hama province, and in the northwestern province of Idlib, all of them arable areas.
The growing conflict would hamper the planting season even if rains were excellent as in last year, Ould Ahmed said.
Last year’s rainy season, which came early and helped timely planting, was the best in a decade, helping boost wheat production to an estimated 2.445 mln tonnes of production in 2015, significantly better than the drought-stricken year before.
Barley production was 986,000 tonnes in 2015, the best since 2006 even though it came from a smaller cultivated area, the FAO official said.
But the heavy rainy season did little to halt the drop in the cultivated area in 2015, which had fallen “systematically” since the start of conflict in 2011, with the estimated harvested wheat areas now the smallest since the 1960s.
Wheat production was still 40 percent lower than pre-conflict levels.[L5N1032W2].
The FAO was expanding operations across Syria with more seed distribution and boosting technical assistance in both state and non-government controlled areas to partially slow the shrinkage in farmland, Ould Ahmed said.
Ould Ahmed also warned that the scale of conflict was worsening the already difficult conditions the farmers are facing in the storage, transport and marketing of agricultural goods.
Inflation has also risen due to the depreciation of the local currency against the dollar and higher fuel costs alongside chronic shortages of fertilizers have pushed up the cost of production, he added.
“The difficulty facing farmers in transporting their harvest across frontlines where each time they cross they have to pay a part of their product are all going to get worse,” he said.
Lower food production was now making Syria more dependent on food handouts by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies. Import needs were also growing even though the presence of millions of refugees outside Syria had in general reduced food needs inside the country, he added.
“Imports will grow but they would be more expensive due to insurance premiums that have increased dramatically, making the cost of a tonne of imported wheat to Syria much higher,” Ould Ahmed said.
Now more than half of Syria’s population were undernourished and food-insecure in a country that once was self sufficient and which is now producing only half the food it consumes, according to Ould Ahmed, citing FAO statistics.
The agricultural sector was also dealt a heavy blow by the breakdown of a centralized government system that provided farmers with subsidized seeds, fuel and an elaborate attractively priced buy back of wheat immediately after the harvest.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry and William Hardy