Plowing for Profits
U.S. agribusiness eyes Iraq's
by Christopher D. Cook
In These Times magazine, March
Iraq's fertile crescent, the fabled birthplace
of ancient grains and agricultural civilization, is emerging as
a new market opportunity for American agribusiness. Even as US.
officials tout gracious shipments of food aid and technical assistance
to thankful Iraqi farmers, the agenda articulated by government
agencies and industry groups is clear-Iraq's fragile food sector,
battered by decades of war and sanctions, is open for business.
US. exports of wheat, rice, soybean products
and poultry to Iraq all ballooned in 2003 after sanctions were
lifted. Freshly minted contracts show American wheat exporters
are expanding sales (albeit still small) to Iraq, and congressional
testimony by industry groups shows their keen interest in recapturing
what was once, through the late '80s, a profitable destination
for U.S. crops.
And the American project extends beyond
prying this revived market away from Australia and other nations
that did agricultural business with Saddam Hussein during the
sanction decade. The broader agricultural plan includes privatizing
state-run food companies, phasing out farm subsidies, boosting
food prices and, possibly, introducing genetically altered seeds
that are patented and not reusable-all moves that dovetail with
an overall neoliberal strategy to open up and deregulate Iraq's
This broader push for privatization is
reflected in the language of Order 81, one among 100 legal orders
left behind by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer's departed regime.
This order, which covers patents and copyrights, including "protected
plant varieties' calls for a "transition from a non-transparent
centrally planned economy to a freemarket economy'
Patenting the future
Order 81 paves the way for genetically
modified crops (GMOs), stating: "Farmers shall be prohibited
from reusing seeds of protected varieties." The order, exposed
by Focus on the Global South and GRAIN in an October 2004 report,
does not require Iraqi farmers to use GMOs. But it etches into
Iraqi law WTO-style patent genetically engineered crops-assuring
U.S. GMO-producing firms a legally protected niche in the country's
Agricultural giant Monsanto, for one,
claims to have no interest. "For the record, Monsanto has
no plans to introduce biotechnology in Iraq' insists company spokesman
Chris Homer. "It doesn't fit with our business plans. If
security and other factors improve, Homer says, "there could
be opportunities for conventional seeds and chemicals . ... I
would not characterize it as an emerging market." The outcry
about Order 81 has "no basis in fact," says Homer. "How
many new patented seed varieties are there in Iraq? Zero."
But the law was enacted only last April,
and activists say its implications are far-reaching. "If
seeds had to be patented, there would have to be significantly
more money in the farmer sector:' says Antonia Juhasz, former
program director for the International Forum on Globalization,
who is writing a book about Iraq. "Only those who can afford
to patent or buy patented seeds would remain farmers." At
the same time, she suggests, the order establishes an economic
beachhead into the rest of the region for the GMO industry.
Deborah James, global economy director
at Global Exchange, calls seed-saving prohibitions like Order
81 "one of the biggest assaults on food security." Farmers,
she explains, would be forced "to buy from multinational
corporations like Monsanto, instead of doing what farmers have
done throughout the millennia: guaranteeing food security by saving
Despite Monsanto's assurances, James cautions,
"corporations never announce their plans to flood markets
with genetically modified food." Under NAFTA, "there
wasn't supposed to be genetically modified corn coming to Mexico:'
yet GMO corn from the United States was discovered there in 2001.
This February, a coalition of 70 groups from six Central American
and Caribbean countries announced that GMOs-specifically, the
infamous StarLink maize not authorized for human consumption-had
been detected in UN. food aid and commercial imports from the
Liberation-for U.S. commodities
Meanwhile, the $100 million agricultural
reconstruction project undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) aims to get the government out of food production.
"The idea is to make this completely a free market:' says
Doug Pool, agriculture irrigation and environment specialist with
the USAID's office of Iraq Reconstruction.
The USAID goal-mirroring U.S. and WTO
policies-is to help the new government phase out farm subsidies.
"The Minister of Agriculture has been quite good in doing
that:' says Pool. State enterprises, such as the Mesopotamia Seed
Co., "need to be spun off and privatized:' he said.
Other USAID efforts include an "agricultural
mechanization program:' deploying U.S. companies such as Case
New Holland to rehabilitate Iraq's dilapidated farm machinery.
While this may seem like a goodwill gesture, it has its payoffs.
"Of course, the companies themselves will eventually sell
replacement machinery and parts:' adds Pool, "so it will
be a good deal for them."
Indeed, while Pool emphasizes USAID's
project to expand and revitalize Iraq's farm sector, U.S. commodity
exporters are hungrily eyeing renewed market opportunities-which
could undercut Iraq's farmers. "Iraq was once a significant
commercial market for US. farm products, with sales approaching
$1 billion in the 1980s," former agriculture secretary Ann
Veneman told a conference of farm broadcasters in 2003. "It
has the potential, once again, to be a significant commercial
According to John King, vice chairman
of the USA Rice Council, Iraq was the top market for U.S. rice
in the late '80s, prior to the 1991 Gulf war. "The US. rice
industry wants to play a major role once again in supplying rice
to Iraq:' King told the US. House Agriculture Committee this past
June. "With the current challenges facing the US. rice industry
... renewed Iraqi market access could have a tremendous impact
in value-added sales."
King added: "The liberation of Iraq
in 2003 by coalition forces has brought freedom to the Iraqi people.
The resumption of trade has also provided hope for the US. rice
The American wheat industry is also poised
for a new export banquet. That industry-which at one point in
the '70s had a l00 percent market share in Iraq-recently secured
its first exports there in years. "Iraq is under a lot of
pressure to buy wheat from the United States," said a disheartened
executive from the Grains Council of Australia, a top wheat exporter
Critics of American agribusiness warn
that this confluence of privatization policies, GMO-friendly patent
protections and US. exports is a volatile mix that could further
destabilize war-ravaged Iraqi farmers while producing few benefits
for their American counterparts.
"Any profit that's made will go to
the companies that export it to Iraq, not to farmers:' says George
Naylor, Iowa farmer and president of the National Family Farm
Coalition. Foisting Iraqi growers into a privatized free market
will "destroy" small family farms there, just as similar
policies have done in the United States, Naylor insists.
Mark Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, argues that the U.S.-led
overhaul of Iraq's agriculture is a "completely ideological"
endeavor that ignores historic lessons. Well-recorded failings
of large-scale industrial agriculture in the former Soviet Union
and in the United States, he says, "haven't deterred people
who ideologically think that's the way to go, so we're going to
repeat the mistakes again if we have a chance."
Ultimately, Ritchie says, American taxpayers
may also pay a stiff price for any wartime export bubble. He points
to the Vietnam War, during which the American rice industry was
temporarily enriched by huge exports. Then the postwar market
evaporated, and the industry was propped up with big subsidy payments.
"The US. can create a giant export flow for underpriced commodities,
and taxpayers can just pay through the nose:' Ritchie warns. "The
dangers to producers there are real, and the dangers to American
taxpayers are equally real, and Vietnam has shown us how devastating
CHRISTOPHER D. COOK is an award-winning
investigative journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet:
How the Food Industry Is Killing Us (www.dietforadeadplanet.com).
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