War-ravaged Syria may face worst wheat harvest in 40 years
War and drought have crippled Syria's wheat crop, with some experts now forecasting output of the staple food could fall to around a third of pre-war levels, and possibly even below 1 million tonnes for the first time in 40 years.
Agricultural experts, traders and Syrian farmers who talked to Reuters gave crop estimates ranging from one million tonnes to 1.7 million at best, a more pessimistic range than that given by the United Nations earlier this month.
Before the war, Syria produced around 3.5 million tonnes of wheat on average, enough to satisfy local demand and usually permit substantial exports, thanks in part to irrigation from the Euphrates river that waters its vast eastern desert.
The last time its wheat harvest failed to exceed 1 million tonnes was 1973, although catastrophic droughts have pushed the crop close to that level in 1989 and 2008.
"This year the maximum that Syria will reach in terms of local wheat production will not exceed 1 million tonnes," a Middle East-based commodities trade source with knowledge of Syrian grain markets said.
"One of the main factors limiting production is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce it given the extent of the war. There is genuine fear on the ground in traditional production areas and the risks are high."
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) had cited an estimate of 1.7 million to 2 million tonnes for this year and said that rainfall relied on for crops in Syria's northwestern region was less than half of the average since September.
"There are a host of factors, starting from the start of ploughing to soil fertilisation to harvesting and transport and marketing, and the whole process is disrupted, all is reduced to a minimum level," Hillal Mohammad, a UN agricultural expert based in Amman, said.
Before the war, the Syrian government typically bought around 2.5 million tonnes of wheat each year to distribute to bakeries that feed the public subsidised bread, and to bolster its strategic reserve.
Government purchases of domestic wheat have declined and are expected to fall further as chaos caused by civil war and drought hurt the state's ability to secure supplies.
Nearly a third of Syrians have either fled the country or are displaced within it, and swathes of territory are in the hands of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, where the government food distribution system has crumbled.
The agriculture ministry told state media earlier this month that wheat was being grown on 1.2 million hectares of land but did not give an estimate of how much would be produced or bought by the government. Syria typically planted 1.7 million hectares before the war, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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