The Looting of Iraqi Agriculture

The war on Iraq couldn’t have come at a more dire time for Iraq’s beleaguered farmers. Spring is harvest time in the barley and wheat fields of the Tigris River valley and planting time in the vast vegetable plantations of southern Iraq.

The war is over, but the situation in the fields of Iraq continues to rapidly deteriorate. The banks, which provide credit and cash, have been looted, irrigation systems destroyed, road travel restricted, markets closed, warehouses and grain silos pillaged.

To harvest the grain before it rots in the fields Iraqi farmers need more than eight million gallons of diesel fuel to power Iraq’s corroding armada of combines and harvesters. But most of the fuel depots were incinerated by US bombing strikes. There’s no easy way to get the fuel that remains to the farmers who need it most and no desire to do so by the US forces of occupations.

Even if the crops can be harvested, there’s no clear way for the grain to get stored, marketed, sold and distributed to hungry Iraqi families. Under the Hussein regime, the crops were bought by the Baghdad government at a fixed priced and then distributed through a rationing system. This system, inefficient as it was, is gone. But nothing has taken its place.

Iraqi farmers are still owed $75 million for this year’s crop, with little sign that the money will ever arrive. There’s speculation throughout the country that one intent of the current policy is to force many farmers off their farms and into the cities so that their lands can be taken over by favorites of Ahmed Chalabi and his US protectors. The post-Saddam Iraq will almost certainly witness a land redistribution program: more farmland going into fewer and fewer hands.

Grain farmers aren’t alone. As in the first Gulf War, US bombing raids targeted cattle feed lots, poultry farms, fertilizer warehouses, pumping stations, irrigation systems and pesticide factories (the closest thing the US has come to finding Weapons of Mass Destruction in the country)-the very infrastructure of Iraqi agriculture. It will take years to restore these operations.

Many fields in southern Iraq lie fallow, as vegetable farmers have been unable to secure seeds for this summer’s crops of melons, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and beans-all mainstays of the Iraqi diet.

“We expect failures,” said Abdul Aziz Nejefi, a barley farmer from Mosul, in a dispatch from the Guardian. “We never had this situation before. There is no government.”

Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis face starvation this summer. A UN staff report from late May paints a bleak portrait. It notes that Iraq’s poultry industry has effectively been decimated. Millions of chickens perished during the war. Millions of others face starvation, since nearly of the chicken feed stored in government warehouses has been looted. Chicken and eggs are staples of the Iraqi, amounting for more than half of the animal protein consumed by the population.

Many other farm animals, including sheep and goats, could be ravaged by disease, since the nation’s stockpiles of veterinary medicines and vaccines have been almost totally destroyed or looted.

Some 60% of Iraq’s 24 million people depend totally for their food on the food ration system that was established after the Gulf War. Each week, these Iraqis could count on a “food basket” consisting of wheat flour, rice, vegetable oil, lentils beans, milk, sugar and salt. That system is now in shambles and is scorned at by US policymakers. And promised grain imports have yet to materialize.

“Before there is unwarranted military technological triumphalism, let those setting out to manage the peace think mouths,” says Tim Land, professor food policy at City University in London. “Grumbling stomachs are bad politics as well as disastrous for the public health. There has to be a food democracy after decades of food totalitarianism.”

Into this dire circumstance strides Daniel Amstutz, the Bush administration’s choice to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq’s agricultural system. Now an international trade lobbyist in DC with a fat roster of big ag clients, Amstutz once served as a top executive at Cargill, the food giant which controls much of the world trade in grain. During Amstutz’s tenure at Cargill, the grain company went on a torrid expansion campaign. It is now the largest privately held corporation in the US and controls about 94 percent of the soybean market and more than 50 percent of the corn market in the Upper Midwest. It also has it’s hands on the export market controlling 40 percent of all US corn exports, a third of all soybean exports and at least 20 percent of wheat exports.

Al Krebs, who edits the Agribusiness Examiner, a vital publication on US farm policy, unearthed a 1982 questionnaire on food, politics and morality that vividly illustrates the Cargill philosophy. The Joseph Project a public policy research group sponsored by the Senate of Catholic Priests of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St.Paul, asked Cargill executives to explain the company’s attitude toward hunger and famine issues. The executives responded as follows:

“The assumption that there are moral priorities that are offended in serving world or domestic markets as economically and efficiently as possible rests on a confusion about economic facts. It is also a highly objectionable characterization of business’s role. Before one makes moral judgments and advocates economic actions, one should understand the economic issues that are involved.

“The business of making moral judgments is both hazardous and potentially irresponsible unless one is fully satisfied that all the facts and causal relationships have been explored . . . We are not in a position — given time and other constraints — to provide all the relevant background. Nor are we anxious to make moral judgments — or moral defenses — of our own.”

In 2000, the biggest food companies in the world, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Cenex Harvest States Co-op, DuPont and Louis Dreyfus, got together to form Pradium Inc., a kind of secret, internal grain market that offered real-time, cash commodity exchanges for grains, oilseeds and agricultural by-products as well as global information services. It also offered ways to fix price grain prices on a global scale. Amstutz served as Pradium’s chairman.

Amstutz is no stranger to government, either. During the first Bush administration he served as Undersecretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity programs. He was also the chief US negotiator on agricultural issues for the Uruguay Round of GATT talks, which led to the WTO.

“Daniel Amstutz, an ex-Cargill executive, is there to push the agribusiness agenda, not a democratic agenda,” says George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. “He will excel in telling the world that his policy is good for farmers, consumers and the environment when just the opposite is true.”

The small farmers of the grain belt of the Midwest have a particular loathing for Amstutz. During his stint in the first Bush administration, Amstutz devised the notorious Freedom to Farm Bill, which eliminated tariffs and slashed federal farm price supports-all in an effort to lower grain prices for the benefit of Amstutz’s cronies in the big agricultural conglomerates. As a result, thousands of American farmers lost their farms and monopolists like Cargill reaped the benefits.

The contours of Amstutz’s plan for Iraq are familiar: a combination of free-market shock therapy and predation by multinational corporations. Gliding over a decade of UN sanctions that have starved the nation and a war that ravaged the nation’s infrastructure, Amstutz announced that the real problem facing Iraqi agriculture is, naturally, government subsidies. “Iraqi farmers have had little incentive to increase production because of price controls that have kept food very inexpensive,” Amstutz announced. “With a transition to a market economy, we can see health returning to agriculture and incentives to employ good farming practices and modern techniques.”

The more likely scenario is that Amstutz will use destitute condition of Iraq’s farmlands as a lucrative opportunity to dump cheap grain from American companies like Cargill, all of it paid for by Iraqi oil. If this scenario plays out, it will spell disaster for Iraq’s struggling farmers.

Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq imported more than one million metric ton per year of American wheat. Since then, however, no direct sales of American agricultural products have occurred. Amstutz is anxious to begin flooding Iraq with Cargill grain.

Moreover, Iraq owes the US Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corp. $2 billion on loans that facilitated pre-1991 ag sales and nearly $2 billion in interest on the loans. Amstutz will certainly demand that those loans be recouped through oil sales.

“Someone needs to warn the Iraqi people that other third world countries can already attest that the dependence Amstutz will create surely means that Iraq’s sovereignty will be greatly compromised,” says Naylor.

And Naylor argues that cash-strapped American farmers won’t see any benefits, either. “Even if there will be more exports to Iraq, this little drop in the “Amstutz perpetuates the more exports lie because his agribusiness cronies are encouraging overproduction all over the world, thus being able to sell more genetically-modified seeds and chemicals and buying ever cheaper farm commodities.”

Even as millions of Iraqi’s face starvation under the stern hand of their food pro consul, Amstutz’s appointment has excited little commentary in the US. His most virulent critic has been Kevin Wilkins, Oxfam’s policy director in London. Watkins warns that Amstutz is little more than a carpetbagger seeking to advance the interests of the same food titans that his lobbying outfit in DC represents, Cargill, DuPont, Cenex and Archer Daniels Midland.

“This guy is uniquely well-placed to advance the commercial interests of American grain companies and bust open the Iraqi market, but singularly ill-equipped to lead a reconstruction effort in a war torn country,” Watkins warns. “Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission.”

Amstutz was recently spotted in Iowa, pitching his agricultural reconstruction plan to Iowa feedlot owners. He told the farmers that they stood to profit handsomely from his plan to bring modern feedlots to Iraq, those foul-smelling operations that pack thousands of cattle and hogs into tightly confined pens. “They are meat eaters,” he brayed. “Iraq is not a vegetarian society.”

Iowa doesn’t have many cattle or sheep operation. Most of the people in his audience raised hogs. And unless Amstutz has joined in a partnership with Franklin Graham to Christianize Iraq, there won’t be a big market for pork products in Baghdad.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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