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Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought

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A worker at a rice mill in Iraq's central province of Najaf, where water shortages mean a drastic reduction in the amount that can be cultivated
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Drought is threatening the Iraqi tradition of growing amber rice, the aromatic basis of rich lamb and other dishes, and a key element in a struggling economy.

The long-grained variety of rice takes its name from its distinctive scent, which is similar to that of amber resin. It is used in Iraqi meals including sumptuous lamb qouzi, mansaf and stuffed vegetables.

But after three years of drought and declining rainfall, Iraq’s amber rice production will be only symbolic in 2022, forcing consumers to seek out imported varieties and leaving farmers pondering their future.

“We live off this land,” Abu Rassul says, standing near a small canal that in normal times irrigates his two hectares (five acres) near Al-Abassiya village in the central province of Najaf.

“Since I was a child I have planted amber rice,” says the farmer in his 70s, his face wrinkled and unshaven, dressed in a dazzling white dishdasha robe.

“Water enables us to plant every year.”

Except for this one.

Normally, rice fields planted in mid-May should stay submerged all summer until October — but that’s a luxury Iraq can no longer allow.

The country’s available water reserves “are well below our critical level of 18 billion cubic metres (4.8 trillion gallons)”, Shaker Fayez Kadhim, Najaf’s water resources manager, told AFP.

Rice drains between 10 and 12 billion cubic metres during its cultivation period of about five months, so it is “difficult to grow rice in Najaf or other provinces because of the high level of water it needs”, Kadhim said.

Previously, more than 70 percent of the amber crop was grown in Diwaniyah and neighbouring Najaf provinces.

In early May, officials limited total rice crop areas to 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), in Najaf and Diwaniyah only, according to the agriculture ministry.

The normal quota is 35 times that.

Water shortages have also led to reduced quotas for wheat farmers.

The country’s annual rice production had been 300,000 tonnes (tons), according to Mohammed Chasseb, a senior official in the ministry’s planning department.

Iraq is known in Arabic as the “country of the two rivers” — the Tigris and the Euphrates. But despite those two legendary water sources, the supply of water has been declining for years and the country is classified as one of five most vulnerable to climate change effects and desertification.

The consequences are dire: depleted rivers, more intense sandstorms, declining crop yields — all of which add to the multiple challenges the country faces after decades of war and insurgency.

– Fearing the worst –

The Tigris and Euphrates, and their tributaries, originate in Turkey and Syria as well as Iran, which dams them upstream. This reduces the flow as they enter Iraq.

Kadhim says the Euphrates has dropped to about one-third of its normal level. He wants “political action” to get more water flowing.

Ahmed Hassoun, 51, president of the Najaf farmers’ association, fears the worst.

“There is a risk of seeing rice cultivation disappear for lack of water,” he said, blaming authorities.

“We know Iraq will have a shortage of rain in the coming years,” said Hassoun, an agricultural engineer. Despite that, nothing has been done to “modernise the irrigation system”, he complains.

But agriculture is not the only sector where the infrastructure needs upgrading in a country grappling with corruption and a financial crisis after decades of war.

Hassoun lamented that Iraq has become “a market for all its neighbours”, a reference to the deluge of Iranian and Turkish agricultural product imports.

Last year, Iraq’s own agricultural sector contracted by 17.5 percent “following severe droughts, energy outages, and the rising global price of inputs”, according to the World Bank.

That is significant in a country highly dependent on oil income but that wants to diversify its economy.

According to the World Food Programme, agriculture is the second-largest contributor to Iraq’s GDP, after oil, and employs about 20 percent of the workforce.

“We want the state to take an interest in farmers,” says Jassem Zaher, who is in his 60s and also exclusively farms amber rice.

“We don’t have other crops. It’s the farmers’ livelihood.”

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Families of overdose victims demand action from social media platforms

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Protesters march in front of Snapchat headquarters in Santa Monica, California on June 13, 2022 demanding social media companies to block the sale of drugs on their platforms
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Families of teens who died after overdosing on drugs they bought through Snapchat and other social media platforms called Monday for tech firms to do more to address the problem.

Sam Chapman, part of a group that staged a protest Monday in front of Snapchat’s Santa Monica headquarters, told AFP his son died in February 2021 after a pill he purchased through the platform was laced with the extremely powerful opioid fentanyl.

“I’m here today to warn people about the dangers of social media, delivering drugs and other criminal acts into the lives of our families, through our children,” said Chapman, 57.

His son Sammy would have celebrated his 18th birthday last weekend.

Chapman described the horrific scene of finding his son dead on the floor in his bedroom, in what he said was called the “fentanyl death pose.”

“He had stopped breathing and fell backwards in his chair and vomited, and he choked on his own vomit… It’s a very common way of going,” said Chapman.

Of the 107,000 overdose deaths recorded last year in the United States, 70 percent were caused by “fentanyl poisoning,” which is now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45, according to the groups backing Monday’s protest.

Chapman said a drug dealer had contacted his son on Snapchat, and sent him a “colorful drug menu with pictures.”

“At the bottom it said that he delivered. And so he connected with our son and delivered the drugs to our home after we were asleep, like it was a pizza,” he added.

Like the other victims’ family members, Chapman is calling on Snapchat and other social media platforms geared toward young people to take stronger action against drug sales.

“We have been working tirelessly to help combat this national crisis by eradicating illicit drug dealers from our platform,” a Snapchat spokesperson told AFP.

“We use advanced technology to proactively detect and shut down drug dealers who try to abuse our platform, and block search results for dangerous drug-related content,” the representative added.

But Chapman said the tools currently in place do not work because dealers use emojis and code words that aren’t blocked.

The group Victims of Illicit Drugs (VOID) is demanding US law to be updated so that social networks are held liable for what happens to their users on their platforms.

“If you’re walking in a grocery store, you slip and fall, you can sue them,” said VOID president Jaime Puerta.

“The law was written in 1996,” he added.

“The legislators had no idea of where the internet would be today.”

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Asian stocks sink again as inflation panic grips world markets

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Expectations for a spike in US interest rates has sent the dollar surging to record or multi-year highs against other currencies
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Equity markets tumbled again Tuesday to extend a global rout fuelled by fears of recession, with the Federal Reserve preparing to ramp up interest rates as inflation shows no sign of slowing.

Panic has swept through trading floors since data on Friday showed US consumer prices rising at their fastest pace in a generation owing to a spike in energy and food costs caused by the Ukraine war, China’s lockdowns and supply chain snarls.

The pain has been felt across all assets, with bitcoin threatening to fall below $20,000 for the first time since December 2020, currencies retreating against the dollar, and even safe-haven plays including the yen and gold feeling the squeeze.

Investors are now laser-focused on Wednesday’s Fed interest rate decision as it struggles to walk a fine line between reining in inflation and trying to keep the economy on track.

Danielle DiMartino Booth, at Quill Intelligence, said: “While tightening into a recession is no easy task, the Federal Reserve must indicate a willingness to raise interest rates by more than a half-percentage point at upcoming meetings if inflation continues to surprise to the upside.”

But JP Morgan Asset Management’s warned: “While there is no doubt that inflation is a considerable challenge for the US at this point, slamming on the brakes too hard risks pushing the economy off its track.”

Before Friday’s news, expectations had been for a 50-point basis hike and a signal that more of the same was to come at the next few meetings. But now analysts say there is a one-in-three chance officials could announce a three-quarter point increase, with some even predicting a one percentage point hike.

That has ramped up fears that the world’s top economy is heading for a recession, and on Monday Wall Street plunged with the broad-based S&P 500 sinking into a bear market after dropping more than 20 percent from its recent peak.

And the selling continued in Asia, with Sydney tanking five percent at one point as it reopened after a holiday weekend to catch up with Monday’s drama, while Tokyo was off around two percent and Wellington more than three percent.

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Manila were also deep in the red.

Commentators warned that the Fed was in a tough place on what to do Wednesday. A decision to lift rates more than 0.50 percentage points could signal its determination to finally defeat inflation but also hit its credibility as it confuses officials’ signals to traders.

“Once the Fed starts moving in 75s it would be hard to stop, and the combination of this and the Fed’s outcome-based approach to inflation feels like it could be a recipe for recession,” said Evercore ISI’s Krishna Guha and Peter Williams.

Bets on a more aggressive approach have sent the dollar spiralling higher against other currencies, hitting a 24-year high Monday against the yen and a record peak on the Indian rupee. 

Both units have clawed back some of the losses but remain under severe pressure, while the euro is in danger of hitting a two-decade low. The pound is at its weakest level in two years.

And bitcoin remains in the firing line, hitting $20,823 for the first time since December 2020, with selling compounded by news that crypto lending platform Celsius Network had paused withdrawals owing to volatile conditions. The announcement raised worries about a possible contagion for other firms.

– Key figures at around 0250 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 2.0 percent at 26,446.82 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.7 percent at 20,926.15

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.5 percent at 3237.98

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 134.40 yen from 134.42 yen late Monday

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0408 from $1.0412

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2142 from $1.2136

Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.71 pence from 85.76 pence

Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.2 percent at $122.45 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.2 percent at $121.13 per barrel

New York – Dow: DOWN 2.8 percent at 30,516.74 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.5 percent at 7,205.81 (close)

— Bloomberg News contributed to this story —

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Keeping China fed as inflation surges brings risk for commodity prices

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Higher costs and a shortage of labour threaten China's autumn harvest, which could have a knock-on effect on global food prices
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Bedevilled by high fuel and fertiliser costs, along with a labour crisis driven by Covid-19 restrictions, China risks a smaller autumn harvest that could supercharge demand for commodities just as the world can afford it least.

Global food prices have spiked since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, a major world producer of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, driving costs to record highs.

Moscow stands accused of pushing the globe to the brink of catastrophe by blockading Ukrainian ports and seizing commodity stocks, driving up prices and leaving the world’s poorest nations facing hunger.

China is relatively self-reliant, producing more than 95 percent of its needs in rice, wheat and maize.

But relentless Covid disruptions — caused by restrictions on the movement of goods and farm workers — on top of higher fertiliser and fuel costs and issues with access to equipment, threaten the autumn harvest of key crops such as soybean and corn.

Experts caution even a small rise in demand from the world’s most populous nation could drive global commodity costs up sharply.

“The last thing the global market needs right now is for China to become a more active buyer,” said Even Pay, an agriculture analyst with consultancy Trivium China.

Corn prices hit a nine-year high in April, while soybean prices traded near a 10-year high this month.

China is the last major economy to adhere to a zero-Covid policy.

How that manifests itself in the next harvest is uncertain, but Pay said “last-mile logistics” have been complicated by virus restrictions in rural areas afraid of the spread of the disease.

“Villages have been very resistant to letting outsiders in during Covid-control periods,” she added.

If China ends up going to the global market to fill any shortfall, there will be “a big impact” on prices, said Darin Friedrichs, co-founder of agriculture research firm Sitonia Consulting.

– Seeds of doubt –

For now, Beijing is keeping a close eye on the country’s wheat harvest.

At a meeting last month, Premier Li Keqiang said a strong summer harvest with manageable prices depended in part on “unimpeded” access of workers and machines to wheat-growing provinces from eastern Anhui to northern Shanxi.

China has harvested about 80 percent of its winter wheat crop so far, according to state media, although Friedrichs cautioned that prices are 25 percent higher than last year, at about 3,000 yuan ($450) per tonne.

While a decent wheat harvest is good news to world markets, “Covid-related disruptions haven’t gone away”, according to Pay, who added that prices of fertilisers and fuels were riding high.

China has “massively ramped up its wheat, corn, barley purchases” in recent years, from below 20 million tonnes a year around four years ago to some 50 million tonnes now, according to Andrew Whitelaw, an analyst at Thomas Elder Markets.

But global inflation and uncertainty will make it expensive for China to import more.

Already, China has bought newly harvested wheat for its reserves at sky-high prices this month.

The political dimension of feeding China’s vast population has not been lost on Beijing.

President Xi Jinping has said China should make “unrelenting efforts to ensure grain security”, state media reported.

The issue has grown in importance since 2020, when the coronavirus spread worldwide, said Friedrichs.

“There were worries about global disruptions to supply chains, and now we have the global food crisis — that’s redoubled focus on food security,” he said.

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