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Syria’s ongoing wheat harvest is not large enough to feed people living in areas controlled by the government, researchers have warned.

According to a study by Syria’s Public Authority for Agricultural Research, Syrian farmers sold 450,000 tons of wheat last year — less than half the quantity needed to supply government-controlled areas of the country with enough bread. In total, the country will need around one millions tons of wheat to avoid a hunger crisis, the centre found.

"Our livelihood depends now on [dwindling] stocks, in addition to imports," says Maamoun Kaplan, a researcher at the government research centre.
The situation worsened in the past months as Russian raids pushed the regime to increase their military operations.

Before the war, Syria used to produce five million tons of wheat pear year. Out of these, two million tons were consumed in the country while the rest was either sold as exports or stored in a stockpile. This stock was aimed at meeting Syria’s food needs for five years but is now nearly depleted, says Kaplan.

At the beginning of the current harvest season, which started in June, the Syrian government raised the purchase price of wheat from local farmers in an attempt to make it attractive for farmers to sell their grain. Ultimately, the government aims to buy the largest possible amount of wheat, but Kaplan says this measure will not be enough.

The wheat crisis “will be exacerbated this season, same as it did a few months ago with potatoes,” he warns.

"The Syrian regime is trying to convey that it is in control of the situation, but this is not true,” says Kaplan, who also owns a large farm in Ghouta, near Damascus. Most areas where strategic crops — wheat, barley, cotton, sugar beets, olives and potatoes — are grown are out of the regime’s control, he explains.

In the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, the production of wheat and chickpeas has dropped by 53 and 30 per cent, respectively since March 2011, according to a study published last year by the Syrian Economic Forum, a local think tank.

In the same period, the production of barley and lentils declined by about 70 per cent, says the study, which is based on a survey of 160 farmers.

Military groups and militias seized territories, either to build their headquarters or to turn them into battlefields. Some farmers in areas outside of the government’s control also saw their crops burned intentionally by the Syrian regime’s shells and missiles at harvest time, or run over by military vehicles, says the study. A research centre in Aleppo, which used to be the head office of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), tried to maintain its activities for a while, says Aladdin Hamaweya, an ICARDA scientist from Syria.

"The centre in Aleppo worked on several plant varieties, especially wheat, developing pesticides to combat plant diseases and producing new infection-resistant varieties,” says Hamaweya — but it ended up shutting down in September 2015.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.