Supporting farmers in Syria now is essential for a sustainable future

Supporting farmers in Syria now is essential for a sustainable future

The brutal and protracted conflict in Syria has taken an enormous human toll and the surge of refugees has catalyzed a host of worrying collateral effects in the region and beyond. 

While we all hope for peace, it is imperative to enable those who are in the country to maintain the basic lifelines of the land where wheat was first domesticated. 

Amid reports of decimated cities and more than 13.5 million vulnerable or displaced people as well as the 4.4 million refugees, we must not forget Syria’s farmers. Agriculture once employed half the country’s population, and will continue to be a main driver of the economy. Those who remain to till the land remain the backbone of Syria’s food supply today. Without their work, not only will Syria’s food security crisis go from bad to worse in the short run, but serious damage will be done to the country’s longer-term resilience and potential to regain its stature as a self-sufficient middle-income country able to export wheat. 

Failing to support Syria’s farmers now will give them no choice but to abandon their land, move to the cities and ultimately migrate to other countries.

There is no peace without food security and there is no food security without peace.  No peace is sustainable without food security, which in turn is not only about having enough to eat today but knowing you will sustainably produce it tomorrow. 

That is why agriculture cannot be an afterthought for governments gathered at this week’s Syria Donors Conference in London, called by the governments of Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Kingdom along with the United Nations. 

Currently, soaring food prices – exemplified by the threefold jump in wheat flour, the local staple in some markets – are crushing the budgets of households already pummeled by military operations that destroy homes, wound citizens and upset the chain of activities that make food production possible. 

As things stand, Syria has lost half of its herds, and while the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has managed to treat some nine million animals, the risk that unvaccinated surviving livestock will trigger the spread of diseases beyond the borders is real. Wheat production, estimated at 2.4 million tons in the latest marketing season, is 40 percent lower than the pre-crisis average even though weather and cropping conditions have been favorable. 

Farmers and pastoralist simply do not have adequate access to the tools of their trade. Inputs like seeds and fertilizer are hard to procure, equipment and infrastructure have been damaged, labor is scarcer, animal feed is lacking and local veterinary services have collapsed or are under enormous strain. 

In 2015, FAO has strengthened its presence in Syria and last year assisted 1.5 million people across 13 out of 14 governorates through support to cereal and vegetable production, seed distribution and preservation and protection of remaining livestock.  

And yet emergency agricultural interventions in Syria were more than 70 percent underfunded in 2015. Much more can be done, and much more must be done. 

With $200, a Syrian farmer (keep in mind that rural women now make up 63 percent of the agricultural workforce) can produce two tons of wheat, providing valuable income and a year’s worth of food for a family of six. On top of that, she or he becomes a protagonist of the effort to overcome the crisis. 

Agriculture is also a key channel creating economic opportunities and jobs, a high priority of the renewed U.N. appeal for Syria. U.N.-led efforts have done much to mitigate the short-term suffering of a large share of target aid recipients. We must now further expand their scope to bolstering the sustainability of Syria’s food producers. 

FAO’s appeal represents a tiny fraction of the funds needed for the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria. Donors must think like farmers: One must sow in order to reap. 

*José Graziano da Silva is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations