While there have been significant developments in terms of the regulation and infrastructure relating to the water resources of the Kurdistan Region, the same can not fully be said for the agriculture sector. Indeed, continued regional instability has negatively impacted the agriculture industry of the Kurdistan Region. Conflicts in Syria and greater Iraq have limited export opportunities, thereby reducing the appeal for new entrants into this high-potential sector. These issues have also slowed the necessary process of diversifying source locations for agricultural imports. Despite positive advances, the water resources of the Kurdistan Region still remain in a precarious position. As the countries surrounding the Region look to shore up their own domestic water supplies, the Kurdistan Region could potentially see its generally plentiful water resources dwindle. Despite these obstacles, local production of domestic agriculture products continues to increase, and new treatment and processing facilities will help to modernize the Region’s water supply system. It is expected that these efforts will in turn go a long way towards reducing the wasteful usage practices that have existed for so long within Kurdistan. The political stalemate that took place over the first half of 2014 compounded many of these issues, as there was subsequently only limited ministerial oversight for these critical areas. However, a new Minister of Agriculture (who took office in late June) and a re-dedication to the twin policies of conservation and local production will no doubt help bring these vital industries back to a level commensurate with their historical significance.
Ideal Setting for Farming
The unique topography of the Kurdistan Region makes it ideally suited to the development of a prominent agriculture industry. The gentle hills and rolling plains are ideally appropriate for the cultivation of wheat and barley (the two primary grains concerned by the Region’s population). Abundant water sources have allowed for the growth of vegetable and fruit production, although not yet on a massive scale. Livestock farming represents yet another major opportunity for the Region’s burgeoning agriculture industry, as meat remains the most critical element of any Kurdish menu.
Infrastructure and Knowledge Lacking
While the transportation infrastructure of the Kurdistan Region has developed by leaps and bounds, it is still ineffective in helping connect growers in remote rural areas with the urban centers that require their produce. Local farmers complain that shipping options are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, non-existent. The process of carrying products to market can therefore be time consuming and deleterious to the quality and condition of the items. Similarly, a lack of storage facilities (specifically cold storage units) provides little incentive for farms in the Region to expand their output capacities. With a limited growing season and rapidly changing weather patterns, farmers can ill-afford to miscalculate projected yields. As a result, there is little to no impetus for local growers to expand their operations, let alone consider shifting to the factory-farm systems that would better promote self-sufficiency. Instead, Kurdish farmers tend to rely on historical practices and situation-specific knowledge rather than more modern techniques, and are content to remain small-scale in terms of overall operations.
Markets in the major cities of the Kurdistan Region are packed with fresh produce, delivered daily to ensure it is of top quality. The only problem with this fact is that a significant majority of these items are imported from Iran, Turkey, and other countries in the surrounding region. The KRG has made limited steps to implement a tariff system that would favor local production, but the widespread availability of cheap, foreign foodstuffs further inhibits the development of the Kurdish agricultural system. In addition, with the influx of foreign products, dietary patterns and culinary practices have changed as items that were previously unavailable have now become ubiquitous. Kurdish farmers, who have a long, established history of growing select crops, are not well-suited to cater to this rapidly evolving market.
Investment and Employment
A 2014 study conducted by Rand Corporation found that agriculture continues to account for only a small percentage (6.63%) of employment throughout the Kurdistan Region; this represents a 0.5% decrease from the previous year. Employment rates in the agriculture sector were higher in Slemani (7.7%) than in Duhok (7.1%) or Erbil (4.9%). Despite being identified as a priority development area, the agriculture sector in the Kurdistan Region has seen limited investment in the past year. Board of Investment (BOI) statistics indicate that a total of 25 agriculture projects (3.61% of all projects) have now been licensed for a total of $704 million (1.79% of all investment). Both of these precentages represent decreases from the corresponding figures IIG reported in its 2013 report. Agriculture projects in the Erbil Governorate continue to receive the largest amount of allocated land (1,023 acres) compared to Slemani (24.5 acres) and Duhok (217 acres). However, in terms of investment capital by governorate, Duhok leads the way, increasing its share to $430.4 million (about 61.4% of all agriculture investment). Erbil ($263.1 million) and Slemani ($10.6 million) constituted smaller percentages.
Impact of Governmental Transition
Continued debate over political power and ministerial appointments lasted until June, and allowed for only limited government involvement in the promotion, regulation, and facilitation of the agriculture industry in 2014. The Islamic League of Kurdistan (Komal) gained six seats in the Kurdistan Parliament in the 2013 elections, and was also given control of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources (MOAWR). On June 18th, the eighth cabinet of the KRG was sworn into office, and Abdulstar Majeed (the appointee from Komal) was named Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources. Minister Majeed will be tasked with modernizing the MOAWR, improving sector infrastructure (namely in regards to factory farming), and developing new long-term plans to promote food security and overall self-sufficiency.
Agriculture continues to account for only a small percentage (6.63%) of employment throughout the Kurdistan Region.
Value of Meat Industry
Although demand for red meat continues to increase, the available local supply does not. As a result, the Illegal Transboundary Animal Trade (ITAT) has flourished. Instability in surrounding countries has allowed for an influx of animals from as far away as India and Pakistan; this reliance on cheap and illegally imported livestock has hindered efforts to increase local red meat production. In addition, with no way to inspect or regulate these animals, there is also potential risk in terms of human health. Indeed, with illegal markets still in operation and no centralized approach in place to combat cheaply available imported meat, risks of disease or contamination remain constant. Increased government oversight is necessary to clamp down on this issue; in addition, experts predict that increased government subsidies to those individuals or groups targeting domestic animal farming could help promote the growth of a critical local industry.
Opportunities and Challenges
Wheat and barley remain the two biggest crops in the Kurdistan Region, and combined constitute a significant percentage of all agricultural production. However, there have been dramatic improvements in other target areas. A study conducted by the Kurdistan Region Statistics Office (KRSO) for 2013 found that agriculture production had increased in key areas, ranging from a 33% improvement in tomatoes (136,054 tons) to a 454% increase in okra (34,327 tons). Foods that make up a significant portion of diets of the people of the Kurdistan Region remained strong, with final production totals including 15,204 tons of eggplant, 12,626 tons of onion, 88,063 tons of watermelons, and 47,610 tons of cucumber. Meat production (specifically red meat) has also witnessed growth, as local agriculture companies have begun pursuing mother herd agreements with their European counterparts. Fruit production remains a primary area of need, with statistics indicating that the production and infrastructure costs associated with fruit cultivation (specifically those that necessitate orchard development) serving as a deterrent to small-scale local expansion into the sector.