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Between searing drought and Ukraine war, Iraq watchful over wheat

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Iraq's wheat is caught between a rock and a hard place: searing heat and lack of rain is threatening harvests while Russia's invasion of Ukraine has driven up the cost of fuel, seeds and fertiliser
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Iraqi farmer Kamel Hamed looks at the golden ears of wheat waving in the wind, unable to hide his anguish over the baking heat that is decimating his harvest.

“The drought is unbelievable,” said the 53-year-old in a white dishdasha robe and keffiyeh head covering at his farm in Jaliha village of central Diwaniya province.

“Even the well water can’t be used, it’s salt water.”

Searing heat and a lack of rain were already threatening his harvest. Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, driving up the cost of fuel, seeds and fertiliser.

Like all farmers in Iraq, Hamed must follow the instructions of the state authorities who are the main grain buyers.

They determine the areas to be planted and the level of irrigation, depending on rain and water reserves. This year, due to water shortages, Iraq has reduced the area under cultivation by half.

As a result, Hamed has planted just one quarter of his 100 donums (10 hectares), where the combine harvester was now throwing grain into a truck bed.

“This year we didn’t even get 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of wheat from one donum” — less than half the usual harvest — he said.

The war in Ukraine has “pushed up the price of motor oil and of high-yield seeds”, he added — yet “another financial burden for farmers”.

“I don’t know how to support my family. No salary, no job, where can I go?”

– ‘Abandon the land’ – 

After decades of war and insurgency, Iraq faces another huge challenge: severe water scarcity driven by climate change.

It is highly sensitive issue for Iraq and its 41 million people, who feel the impacts on a daily basis, from depleted rivers to rapid desertification and more intense sandstorms.

Iraq’s big rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, and their tributaries originate in Turkey and Syria as well as Iran, which dam them upstream, reducing the flow as they enter Iraq.

Irrigated by the Euphrates, Diwaniya province, where Jaliha is located, normally receives 180 cubic metres of water per second.

This year the volume has been at least halved to “80 to 90 cubic metres”, said Hani Shaer, who heads a farmers’ collective responsible for distributing the water.

The result can be seen in the stagnant water in the main irrigation canal, which serves the 200,000 donums of surrounding land, with some gullies now completely dry.

Shaer denounced a lack of support from authorities, charging that the agriculture ministry provided just five kilos of fertiliser this season, down from 40 kilos in previous years.

“The farmer will leave, abandon the land and head to the city to look for any kind of work,” he said.

– Collapsed harvest –

Agriculture ministry spokesman Hamid al-Nayef said the state was helping by raising the purchase price in order to pay producers around $500 per tonne of wheat.

In 2019 and 2020, wheat harvests had reached five million tonnes, enough to guarantee “self-sufficiency” for Iraq, he told AFP.

This season, Iraq may only grow 2.5-3 million tonnes of wheat, “not enough for a whole year for the Iraqis,” Nayef acknowledged.

“We will have to import,” he said.

Iraq will be confronted with the vagaries of the world market and prices driven up by the conflict in Ukraine, even though Baghdad imports its cereals mainly from Canada, Australia and the United States.

“With the interplay of supply and demand, prices are rising even in the United States and other countries,” Nayef said.

Back in Jaliha, another farmer, Ahmed al-Jelhawi, was questioning his life choices. He said he used to harvest 500 tonnes of wheat, but this year expects just 50-75 tonnes.

“I gave up my studies to devote myself to agriculture,” he lamented. “But this year, agriculture is zero.”

“Between the low production and the rising prices, we probably won’t be able to plant next year.”

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Australian KFC patrons clucking mad over lettuce-cabbage switch

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Australians are up in arms about local KFC outlets' decision to use a cabbage mix on some menu items due to a lettuce shortage
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Fried chicken chain KFC said Tuesday that high lettuce prices in Australia have forced it to switch to a cabbage mix in burgers and other products, prompting customers to complain the result is less than “finger lickin’ good”.

The local price of the verdant leaf has soared by as much as 300 percent in recent months, forcing the fast-food chain to tweak the Colonel’s recipe in some stores.

“We’re currently experiencing a lettuce shortage. So, we’re using a lettuce and cabbage blend on all products containing lettuce until further notice,” the company told customers.

The company blamed widespread flooding in the country’s east for the problem.

But supply chain expert Flavio Macau of Edith Cowan University said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also a factor, pushing up diesel and fertiliser prices.

A single head of iceberg lettuce in Sydney or Melbourne that once sold for about $2 now goes for close to $8.

The company told customers: “If that’s not your bag, simply click ‘customise’ on your chosen product and remove lettuce from the recipe :)”

The change was certainly not the “bag” of some social media users.

“The fact that you are replacing lettuce with cabbage makes me rethink my whole meal at KFC. There’s 4 or 5 other things I would eat before cabbage Its such a weird choice,” said one disgruntled tweeter.

“Feels like a sign of the apocalypse,” said another.

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Asian markets mixed as rate hike woes offset China tech hopes

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Traders were cheered by reports that China was close to ending a crackdown on ride-hailing app Didi, lifting hopes of a similar move for the rest of the tech sector
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Asian markets struggled Tuesday on long-running worries over surging inflation and rising interest rates, which overshadowed hopes that China would ease off its regulatory drive against the country’s beleaguered tech giants.

A spike in US Treasury yields took the wind out of the sales for Wall Street, with focus now on the release of inflation data from the United States and China at the end of the week.

Analysts are tipping the Federal Reserve to lift borrowing costs by half a point at its next three meetings as officials try to get a grip on runaway prices.

But that is causing discomfort on trading floors as investors fret over the impact on economic growth and firms’ bottom lines.

“Inflation concerns are not going anywhere fast,” Fiona Cincotta, at City Index, said. “Rising crude oil prices and a strong labour report have lifted bets that the Fed may need to act aggressively to rein in inflation.”

And SPI Asset Management’s Stephen Innes added: “Investors are hyper-focused on inflation, economic growth, and future Fed policy.

“Most assume the worst and think a financial tsunami will hit the US and global markets thanks to the quorum of US-based bank CEOs that have given the gloomy growth narrative their imprimatur. Anything less than that outcome is going to surprise a lot of folks.”

Equity markets were mixed in early trade.

Tokyo rose, helped by a softening of the yen to a two-year low owing to expectations the Bank of Japan will not tighten monetary policy just as US rates climb.

Manila and Jakarta also edged up but there were losses in Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Wellington and Taipei.

Hong Kong dipped and Shanghai was flat, even as heavyweights Alibaba and JD.com led gains among tech firms following a report that China was close to ending a painful crackdown on ride-hailing app Didi Global and restore its main apps this week. Didi’s US-listed notes soared more than 20 percent.

The Wall Street Journal added that probes into two other firms — Full Truck Alliance and recruitment platform Kanzhun — fanning optimism for the sector’s outlook after a long period of hefty selling pressure.

“This was seen as a signal that the regulatory crackdown on Chinese tech firms was starting to end… as China focuses on stabilising the economy following Covid restrictions,” said National Australia Bank’s Tapas Strickland.

Markets have seen some levelling out in recent weeks as the easing of lockdown measures in China helps to offset some of the worries about higher rates and the impact of the Ukraine war.

But market-watcher Louis Navellier warned there was still plenty more volatility to come.

“If history repeats, we could be down tomorrow, then up on Wednesday, then down on Thursday, and possibly up on Friday,” he said in a commentary. “So just get used to these up-down, up-down oscillations because they are going to continue.

“I want to remind investors to not get too excited when the market rallies because it is going to continue to oscillate. There is just too much uncertainty out there.”

– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 0.4 percent at 28,031.15 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.2 percent at 21,609.25

Shanghai – Composite: FLAT at 3,237.14

Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.6 percent at $120.28 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.7 percent at $119.29 per barrel

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0675 from $1.0699 

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2500 from $1.2528

Euro/pound: UP at 85.42 pence from 85.37 pence

Dollar/yen: UP at 132.60 yen from 131.88 yen

New York – Dow: UP 0.1 percent to 32,915.78 (close)

London – FTSE 100: UP 1.0 percent at 7,608.22 (close)

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Apple unveils message recall, other ‘wish list’ features

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Apple CEO Tim Cook poses for a portrait at the Apple Park campus in California
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Apple opened Monday its first in-person developers conference since the onset of the pandemic with chips, maps and a way to delete precipitously sent messages, but was mum on any virtual reality offerings.

The tech giant touted new features and capabilities being built into the operating systems running iPhone, Apple Watch and more, along with a speedy new MacBook Air computer driven by a second generation of its custom chip.

Apple chief Tim Cook and his team showed off coming innovations during a keynote presentation at its first developers conference to be held at its campus in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino — and the first in-person version of the gathering since Covid-19 struck.

“It’s so good to see you all,” Cook said from a stage set up on a lawn next to Apple’s ring-shaped headquarters, as an audience of several thousand developers cheered in the morning sunshine.

No updates, however, were forthcoming on a rumored virtual reality operating system or hardware.

Still, developers will get to meet with Apple engineers during the weeklong conference, and even work in a new building with soundproof rooms to let them discuss ideas without being overheard.

Aside from new MacBook models, the event was a deep dive into coming new generations of operating systems for Apple’s line-up of offerings.

Apple will start letting people delete and edit messages after they have been sent as part of the latest update to its operating software, as well as customizable options for the iPhone main screen.

Users of its digital wallet should soon also be able to pay for purchases in installments.

Relying increasingly on custom made chips has enabled Apple to make its devices and software work more seamlessly together, and catch up a bit to features offered by rivals such as Google Maps and even Microsoft Xbox video game platform for Windows-powered computers.

Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi saw it as Apple filling “users’ wish-list,” adding capabilities to make its apps, services or hardware the natural option in an increasingly competitive market.

“They are listening to what the users are saying and they’re making changes,” Milanesi said.

As increased dependence on computers and the internet caused by the pandemic shows no sign of abating, and by better tuning hardware and software for convenience promises to keep people in Apple’s money-making ecosystem, the analyst added.

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