In 2003, Iraq’s central seed bank, located in Abu Ghraib, was destroyed by a bombing raid carried out by the US military. The seed bank was tremendously important for agriculture in Iraq and the entire region. Some 1,400 seed varieties had been stored there since the 1970s, some of which have now become extinct. The loss of this thousand-year-old collection of various seeds has had grave consequences for biodiversity and agricultural production in Iraq.
Schluwa Sama works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Beirut Office. She completed her PhD on the political economy of Iraq with a focus on the everyday lives of peasants at the University of Exeter.
Translated by Hunter Bolin and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
What is the current situation of seed production in Iraq? What kind of power do large seed companies have and what do Iraqi farmers think about the situation?
Many farmers in Yousefiya, a village near Baghdad, no longer know how to find their local agricultural authority. When they have questions about or problems with their crops, they have to rely on the local agricultural retailer, who sells them pesticides and various types of F1 and F2 seeds, i.e. hybrid and genetically manipulated seed varieties, both of which have to be purchased anew after each harvest to prevent the yields from plummeting.
Ahmed, a young farmer from Yousefiya explains: “Those who work at the agricultural retailer advise me about which seeds and pesticides are best suited for our region. The seeds are mostly from Chinese, American, and German companies. It is almost impossible to find seeds from Iraq.”
With the disappearance of state-run agricultural advisory services, the task of advising farmers in Iraq is now left to agricultural retailers, who often act in the interests of seed companies. Knowledge that was once produced and disseminated by agricultural advisors working on behalf of the state now comes from commercial agricultural retailers whose primary interest is in selling their products. It is not always clear which global companies are selling these products.
The lack of transparency in the sale of imported agricultural products such as seeds and pesticides is not unique to Iraq — it is common throughout the entire Global South. In fact, it is a deliberate strategy used by global agrochemical companies that take advantage of the lack of state regulations in the Global South. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, in cooperation with others, released a study on the double standards in the international pesticide trade that denounced this state of affairs: pesticide companies from the Global North sell products which are banned in the EU to countries with weaker regulations, thus endangering people’s health and the environment.
There has been a dramatic decrease in seed diversity in Iraq in recent years and, as a result, some commercial seeds have to be imported. Ahmed reports that around 2010, both the state and the farmers stopped producing local seeds from his region in Iraq: “Until then, we produced some of the seeds for our crops ourselves. I remember my mother and father producing aubergine, okra, and tomato seeds at home. This tradition has been lost.” As the tradition of famers producing their own seeds becomes a thing of the past, local food traditions and identities are also under threat.
How seeds are produced varies from region to region in Iraq. In some regions, farming families continue to produce some of their own seeds. Most of the time, however, farmers use imported seeds. Aras, a farmer from a village in the Iraqi-Kurdish region of Duhok, explains that farmers buy most of the seeds they use: “Since 2003, we have mainly grown tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, okra, wheat, and maize. We buy the seeds for these crops. Sometimes we can use them a second time, but the harvest is usually not reliable when we do so. By the third time, we definitely have to buy new seeds”.
Dependence on commercial seed companies is one of the biggest obstacles to self-determined agricultural production in Iraq and Kurdistan. A new network called Guez u Nakhl (Walnut and Palm), supported by farmers, activists, and scientists in Kurdistan and central Iraq seeks to change this. One of their goals is to revive peasant seed production by establishing small seed banks. To this end, in April 2022, agroecological methods were introduced in the provinces of Duhok, Baghdad, and Sulaymaniya. The first seeds will be collected from the harvest in October 2022.
Farmers regaining control over the production of seeds is a first step towards establishing food sovereignty in the region. Renewed calls demanding food sovereignty also emerged in the wake of the October Revolution in 2019, in which the Iraqi people demanded a total overhaul of the political system. Part of this includes opposing the economic and political power of Iran and Turkey in Iraq, whose food market is flooded with imports from these countries.
To demonstrate their own vision for the future, activists emphasize the importance of local production. Haider, 27, a political activist from Baghdad, is enthusiastic about the start of agroecological farming in Dora, Baghdad: “Food sovereignty is an important part of the socialist struggle for us.”