Missing From Syria’s News: The Ag Angle



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?


Not only was he an inspired and salt of the earth person who left us all an amazing legacy, he took the time to answer my letter with encouragement for my small farming venture. The world is a poorer place without him.

Just using Germany as an example, the population in 1940 had grown to about 60 million, and it has since grown to about 80 million.

According to http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.HA.PC, Germany has 0.16 hectares of arable land per person, or about six people per hectare, or about 2.5 people per acre. That seems “in the ballpark” for sustainability.

However, according to https://www.foodexport.org/Resources/CountryProfileDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=1009, Germany imported about $60 billion of consumer-oriented food products, or about $750 per person per year, or $15 per person per week.

So, given current tastes, products, mechanization, and fertilization, Germany seems to have slightly exceeded its carrying capacity. However, as long as they can trade fine Germany automobiles to the Dutch, Italians, and French (their major suppliers) for food, it’s all good. Right? Right, Volkswagen?

Now I see the misunderstanding at the root of our disagreement! I had assumed that South Hill Farm NS meant that “150-200 families per 2 acres” could get ALL of their nourishment from that organic plot. But if SHF-NS just meant how many families can get, say, all of their SALADs (rich in vitamins, but almost totally lacking in calories), then 75-100 might be doable. However, it’s not relevant to the original post, which was concerned with supporting a population, and providing calories is essential (though not sufficient).

I’ve been in a CSA, and my big box of eggs and fresh produce was a nice complement to the grain, dairy, and meat that I got from other sources. But the math says that I would starve if that’s all I had.

Chuck, it is real and not based on any statistic. I have been witness to organic farmers that have box scheme shares of 200 to 250 families on less.that 2 acres of land in production . Are these farmers an exception? Sure they are. But it proves to me and anyone else that witnesses this that it is achievable. Yes the diet is vegetarian based. But I am sure a sheep or two and some goats can fit in there somewhere.

My comment on “calories per acre” was intended as a reply to this comment. “150-200 families per 2 acres” is optimistic by about a factor of 100. It’s easy, by the way, to find statistics on “arable land per person” for all the countries of the world (but you’ll have to convert hectares to acres (multiply by 2.47)).

“75-100 families per acre”?!? I’ve heard 16 *people* per acre, calories only, from maize, as the most calorie-productive crop. Itemized bill: maize can provide 2100 kcal/sq. meter per crop, assume one crop per year, there are 4047 sq. meters per acre, typical diet needs 2100 kcal per day per person (to make the math easy), gives 11 person-years of kcal per year. But you can’t even live on corn-calories alone, and every square meter diverted from maize to something else cuts the calorie production. Soy, for example, is much better for protein and oil, but it’s about half the number of calories, so now you’re down to 5 people per acre. If you need to grow wood, for fuel to cook your food, that requires more land.

I am not too sure how to interpret your last question. But Hitler was not correct on productive land usage. There was no evidence to support his claim. Even today we can feed the world 10 times over with our present food production. It’s politics that get in the way. 150 -200 families can be fed on 2 acres of land with good farming practices and no industrial fertilizer. Old world knowledge and modern technology combined prove that this can happen. There are thousands of acres of prime land that sit fallow in North America ready to be used but people want cereal out of a box and kraft dinner. The best food can be grown efficiently and of the highest quality far better than the industrial methods that are used today as your book the contrary farm suggests. I think these past generations have witnessed these lies come and go long enough. When will people wake up? California was never prime land. I don’t know why American fell into the trap of growing food in a desert. Why do we continue to get sucked I to these snake oil salesman pitches to make money for the very few?

Before the advent of liquid fuels which made possible the production of mass quanities of grains and the transportation to move them around the world, there were regular cycles of famines, which kept populations in check. When those liquid fuels are unavaliable to just decrease in quanity, those luxuries will rear there ugly head and famines will return and it’s severity will depend on the surplus and the willingness to share em. Things will sure be interesting as our resources change in avialabity.

I love most of your posts Gene, but on this one, you missed a few steps.

Industrial society dumped a bunch of CO2 into the air –>
The CO2 caused an increase in temperature –>
The changed climate is much drier in certain areas (e.g. Syria) –>
Dryer climate means permanent drought (it isn’t weather, it’s climate) –>
Drought caused the agricultural crisis –>
Causes hunger and desperation –>
Causes first peaceful protest and then violent revolution against a ruthless and psychopathic leadership –>
Which finally has caused 4 million refugees to descend into other countries including Europe.

Agriculture is collapsing in several regions around the world because of AGW caused drought – California, Syria, Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others come to mind. Other regions will soon mine out their remaining groundwater most of which will never recharge.

Informative post and insightful comments. I am of same opinion with Dan that it is not the production capacity but access. And proper knowledge and skills.
And where are we putting all those refugees…. back into the cities.

Two of my family members travelled to Syria in 2008. That was before the worst broke out in Syria, Lebanon was boiling then. What I remember best from their trip stories was the hotel rooms for $6 a night they booked. And they were offered an even cheaper rate, $2 a night, if they sleep on the mattresses set up on the rood of the building under the stars. 🙂 Syrians were extremely friendly to these young European tourists, however, they did have one incident. An 8 year old boy in a alley pulled a pocket knife on them shouting: Money! They used all the psychological negotiation skills to convince the kid to put the knife away. The country was suffering. I cannot even imagine what has happened there since 2008.

Notwithstanding Hitler’s logic or ravings, I don’t believe we have a production capacity problem, but an access problem when it comes to food. Depending on what study one cites, the world already produced more than double the amount needed to feed its current population. Much is wasted and never reaches our mouths. Where the access problem is dealt with is in local production of culturally relevant foods. The resources that go into, say shipping tropical fruit from Costa Rica to the Midwest, should be reallocated to developing sustainable and regenerative growing systems in places where people need food. And, before we say, “you can’t grow food in the desert” you better take a look at the work that Geoff Lawton and other similar pioneers are doing to green the deserts of what we Westerners refer to as the Middle East and what John D Liu is doing in China in the Loess Plateau https://youtu.be/UAmai36XJDk. The planet was designed specifically for human habitation and it can support an even larger population than we have now. However, living in that future will require a shift in human economy to make what Liu and Lawton are doing to happen at a global scale. There is a solution, but we as everyday people will have to wrest control of our societies back away from those in power, be they elected, appointed or promoted in order to make that future happen. As for myself, I support a re-ruralization of the United States and am conducting activities to make that happen in my own personal environment and social network and none of the food I produce will be transported distances beyond the local economy.

Beneath the overlay of sectarian, political and humanitarian conflicts, the Syrian exodus appears to be a simple matter of forced population reduction in the face of resource shortages. It’s an early edition of a drama that many of us will be actors in throughout the coming decades.

Yikes! It is true that the nuts and bolts of daily living in these countries are so little wondered about, yet that’s where we’re most likely to find solutions. Again we seem only interested in others as they reflect upon ourselves…

How true Brett,it’s amazing how many rural or semi-rural or semi-suburban people don’t take advantage of the land around them.Many don’t hunt,don’t fish,don’t garden or have livestock.Compounding the problem is the growing number of local ” authorities”trying to make it impossible for you to do some of those things.Me and a friend years ago use to make long drives out in the country from the city on our way to go deer hunting or fishing and make comments and dream about some of the incredible farms and countryside we would pass through knowing we could never afford any of it.Some people grow a few tomatoes or peppers and that’s it.It’s sad how much grass is mowed in this country when that land could be put to better use.If you’re not going to use it let it go back to nature.Of course some semi-suburban (or semi-rural) authorities won’t allow you to do that.They will force you to mow it or mow it for you and bill you for it!It is sad how many people think our natural habitat is indoors watching reality tv shows and constantly staring at their computer phones.”Outside” is this uncomfortable thing or environment you have to pass through going from an indoor environment to your car, then drive to another indoor place and briefly pass through “outside” again.Recently we had a few cool days in august which is a treat considering how hot and humid it can be in august.I rode my bicycle around my neighborhood of five connecting streets and saw only one person come outside briefly.And this was ideal weather with temperatures in the seventies!Not one kid was out playing,there were no neighbors talking to each other in the yard sitting in lawn chairs sipping a cool drink!What have we become and what kind of horrible future does this portend for our species?In the 1970’s when i was a kid the neighborhood would have been alive and swarming with people on a day like that.

Perhaps another visionary like the late Bob Rodale will find success in assisting the restoration of sustainable agriculture in Syria – but the current political chaos makes that impossible. The remarkable successes of agriculture in Israel suggest a reason to hope that Syria could recover if it ever stabilizes.

It seems the destruction of culture, “anthropological culture” is a key to keeping the masses disrupted, infighting and out of control of their own destiny, happiness, health, etc. Gene, as usual takes a deep look a life situations in other place besides his own back yard, then precisely sees the same influences there. We are one, despite geography, language, economics or supposed causes of war. The world is a mess and it’s mostly human doings. I’ve heard it said recently that the most sustainable resource in modern times is denial. I’m not denying any of it, fresh out of denial here on our little farm, I burn my share of oil and make more than my share of horse manure into compost.
I just try to own my own life choices and activities in a thoughtful, positive way. Wealth is so concentrated at this point that equality will have to be about liberty and freedom of choice, because the rich have stacked the deck, bought the politicians and made most of the rules in the game of life. Free thinking folks like Gene are a blessing and inspiration to all who can think for themselves. Write on my friend!

Overcrowd animals and they’ll got to attacking each other,I guess its nature’s way of thinning out the herd by Survival of the fittest not to mention the meanest.Pretty much the same with humans the barbarians have almost always been able to over run the so called
civilized folks.

I find Jeannies response true… all my new neighbors on farm land fit the bill and none garden or would even walk across the road for a real egg or tomato though they may buy approved organic foods at Whole foods of the local grocery store . I am a widow ,part of the back to the land crowd that is about done trying to sell anything or create community . I do grow most of my own food but am seriously thinking of selling and moving somewhere…. maybe Ireland or even someplace more cooperative than here . (southern Delaware ) My kids (for those regretting not having them have no interest in being here… not so much because of me or the place but that it is just not the way things are in todays modern world )

What I see in my rural area are lots of 1-5 acre lots with cheap houses on them. More all the time. Plenty of room in the city, where the jobs are. I’d like to see young people buying sites out here and growing small gardens, but, the people that live around me grow nothing but grass that they mow with expensive little (financed…) tractors, then they go back inside thinking they did real work and watch football. They have all the drawbacks of living in the country (a drive to everything), but take no advantage of their land.

We get laughed at for growing our food and planting fruit trees, “the deer will eat all yer apples”, maybe, but the deer taste better for it.

I’ve been to many middle eastern countries, including rural areas, and just like here in the states, very few of the people out in the sticks grow anything on their own. With Syria, I wonder if we ever get the straight story on anything these days.

Always a good post, Gene, now I’ll get back to something I can control, cleaning weed seeds from the tractor radiator.

You’re always ahead of your time on local and world politics. But don’t look to main stream media to talk about anything relevant. Here in Columbus the newscasters major in hair and makeup and only talk about Ohio State football.

Thanks so much for your research and thoughtful commentary, Gene. We seem to be emptying out the countryside here too and filling up the urban areas. Aside from a small back-to-the-land movement, most young people are moving to the cities to be close to jobs, transportation, and services. There seem to be only about 5 farmers left to “feed the world” inedible corn. Maybe that’s why the countryside looks so empty. Would that more families could stay out here on small acreages and make a living growing real food–as you and others espouse.

The problem is that we do not have a way for most of our young people to make a life for themselves. And cheap food is just supposed to show up at the grocery store when needed. When people are hungry and desperate it becomes a problem for everyone. Population control is one very necessary if unpopular solution (although for the life of me I don’t know why people deny this so), but “politics” is also an enduring problem–“who decides who gets what” I believe is close the the definition of politics.

Unfortunately, I believe that people in any given civilization will continue to overshoot resources, their way of life will collapse, and some may be lucky enough to start anew until their civilization does it all over again. Humans aren’t much different from other species in this regard. To think otherwise is to deny history.

War causes food shortages because it destroys land and the humans who work the land. And as far as over population, I wonder how accurate the idea is when I see hundreds of empty farm houses along all the major highways in the US. Over population does not seem to be the problem so much as artificial manipulation of population locations in the name of profit, and industrial, high-input ag being pushed on locations that cannot handle it (even Iowa wont be able to handle it eventually, but it’s certainly a more resilient place than a desert).

I find it telling that most of the people fretting over “overpopulation” are white and comfortable and upset about how many poor brown people there are. Unless we are willing to move to Syria and spend time living with them to understand all the factors in their troubles, it does no good to say it all happened because there are too many Syrians.

Hitler was an idiot and a fear monger. Germany has some incredible land for farming and they would have been absolutely fine had they not been set on decreasing their “overpopulation” of unwanted people and grabbing up everyone else’s land.

Those are my strong words. I generally love everything you write, but on this I disagree.

I have always thought overpopulation was at the root of most of the world’s problems. I and my husband are childless by choice…we did not want to add to the population burden of this world. Makes it harder as we age, as we have no kids to help out. Maybe we could get a cpuple of young Syrian refugees with agricultural backgrounds?

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