Recently I heard on the news that a widespread sandstorm was blanketing a large part of Syria. The farmer in me immediately perked up but there was no commentary, no details, and I did not hear the news repeated. I admit, ashamedly, that I know nothing much about Syria, but a widespread sandstorm indicated a situation that deserved a little more attention, it seemed to me.
I started doing a little digging into Syrian agriculture, and just as I suspected, the farm news there is not good, and is connected directly to the terrible upheaval and conflict going on there. Syria’s population is estimated at around 17,000,000 and is about the size of Iowa whose population is right around 3,000,000. That should tell us something right away. About 20% of the land in Syria is barren desert and 50% is pasture of very limited productivity, so it seems obvious that most of that population is concentrated in a relatively small part of the country. Then in 2007 and 2008, the worst drought in 40 years hit the most agriculturally productive part of the country. Some 800,000 rural people, including 60,000 herders, were forced to abandon their land and migrate to city slums (I am reading this from the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace website, a post titled “Drought, Corruption, and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis,” but you can find the same information from many sources). The tragedy was enhanced because the government under the Assads, father and son, has been following a policy of shifting farm laborers into the cities to increase the growth of the urban service sector. Earlier there had been a vigorous attempt on the part of big business to get into farming since increasing demand for food suggested that it was a good way to make some fancy profits with the help of advanced technology. This move to industrialize Syrian agriculture proved disastrous. Officialdom did a turnaround and made valiant attempts to encourage small farmers, even enacting laws to limit the size of farms in some areas. But the old rural society was broken and that didn’t work either. That was when the Assad regime started shifting farm labor into city jobs. Then the great drought came along. And the weather has only improved a little since then. Irrigation that seemed so promising in the days of big business farming has lagged. In some places ground water simply dried up.
I need not point out that a lot of this sounds very familiar to other parts of the world too. What makes the Syrian example so horrendous is that all these farm problems have been occurring against a background of almost constant warfare. Going back at least to when Europe started getting involved in the Middle East, there has been, in Syria alone, an uprising against government or between ethnic groups literally every decade. How can any agriculture endure when both nature and human society seem out to destroy it.
My complaint is that while these problems are being addressed by various private and public organizations, they are almost totally ignored in the news, so most people know little about them. Every day, along with telling us the number of deaths and fleeing refugees, the news should give the agricultural outlook with commentaries from scientists and academicians who can discuss intelligently the possible connections between a broken agriculture and a broken political system.
Worldwide, the intellectual, economic, and political spheres of influence decided about twenty years ago to quit talking about overpopulation because no one involved in business or social activity really wants population decreases. Malthus became a dirty word. But surely, it is time to discuss the matter sanely and apart from ideologies. Do food shortages cause war or does war cause food shortages? If the Middle East population were less by half, would it still be in turmoil? What is the effect of crowding on social stability? If humans had more elbow room of natural, open space could they quit killing each other en masse?
This is far from idle speculation. We are chillingly close to another terrible genocide not unlike what occurred in Nazi Germany. If you read Hitler’s insanely tormented writings, he was convinced that the only way Germany would avoid starvation was by getting more land. Increased agricultural productivity on current land would not be enough, he wrote. The Nazis justified killing hundreds of thousands of Jews and gypsies by rationalizing that it was the only way they could save themselves from starvation. (An excellent commentary on this subject titled “The Next Genocide” by Timothy Snyder, appeared in the editorial review section of the New York Times, Sunday, Sept. 13.) Was Hitler with some grotesquely grisly mathematical logic, sort of right?