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U.S. deans hopeful for Iraq agricultural future

Iowa Correspondent

UNIVERSITY PARK, Penn. — During a recent tour to Iraq, Daney Jackson saw firsthand how successful the country’s farmers have been at restoring the food supply, electricity and water that former dictator Saddam Hussein once used to control the people.

“If the new government is successful at distributing the wealth among the people, there will be entrepreneurship and development,” said Jackson, director of strategic projects at Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “The Iraqi people we met were motivated, smart and excited.

“They are excited about the ability to choose their leaders, and excited about building a capitalist democracy,” he added. “There are those in the region who see this as a huge threat and will continue to fight against a strong democratic and successful Iraq. There are risks, but also huge opportunities.”

Jackson was one of seven U. S. agricultural college deans who visited Iraqi colleges of agriculture in December to learn more about the country’s university system. The delegation later submitted a report of its visit to the U.S. Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO).

Sponsored by the TFBSO, the tour included visits to the colleges of agriculture at the University of Baghdad, the University of Babylon and the University of Anbar, where the typical programs available are in agronomy, animal husbandry, horticulture, plant protection, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“We had dinner with Dr. Sami Al Araji, the chair of the Iraqi National Investment Commission,” said Gerald Miller, associate dean of extension and outreach at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“He is a Michigan State University undergraduate and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and is very passionate about rebuilding Iraq and is in a position to make it happen,” he said. “He fully understands that agriculture and extension are critical components of the rebuilding process.”

The Iraqi government had recently approved funding 10,000 scholarships for students pursuing advanced degrees in foreign countries, with more than 1,000 scholarships allocated for agricultural study, where most Iraqi students choose the U.S. as their academic destination.

The deans were able to meet those who created and administered the scholarships at the Iraqi Ministry of Education and were asked to talk about America’s land grant university system and the related research, extension and teaching functions at U.S. agricultural colleges.

Long before the trip, Jackson said, the colleges of agriculture the group visited were vibrant and active places of learning.

“Two of the universities, Baghdad and Anbar, have long established colleges of agriculture, with what appears to be a strong faculty and student enrollment,” he said.

But other institutions like the University of Babel, Karcia and Karballa, for example, Jackson said, were all relatively new colleges of agriculture. 

“These colleges have gone without any substantial investment for some time. Infrastructure of buildings is present but not well maintained,” he said. “Since 1991, they have been unable to purchase basic equipment, books or scientific journals.

“The economic sanctions have had a big effect on the universities [and] the Saddam Hussein regime chose to invest the country’s resources in palaces between 1991 and 2003,” he added.
Sonny Ramaswamy, dean and Reub Long professor and director of Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said Iraqi agriculture in general had suffered during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“The agricultural practices followed appeared to have not changed much since it was invented in the Tigris/Euphrates areas,” he said. “For example, they use flood irrigation that not only wastes water, but millennia of such practices have resulted in serious salinity. They lack modern seed, equipment, technologies, practices, knowledge.”

Iraq has been a net exporter of agricultural products in the past, but today imports approximately 85 percent of their food products.
Currently, agriculture employs around 30 percent of the labor force, which makes up 9-11 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) and is the second largest contributor behind oil, Jackson said.

“This is a country of 30 million people who understand that producing food is a part of their national security, internally and externally,” he said. “Getting the workforce back to work is very important. Roadway and water infrastructure [are] pretty good.
But Jackson said there still needs to be significant work done on the water systems for irrigation.

“They have over-irrigated and caused salinity problems in many soils,” he said. “They are looking for help with these problems. There is significant opportunity in dairy, poultry, grains, fruits and vegetables. Their plant production system will best fit states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.” 

As the group wrapped up their trip, they made some recommendations in their proposal to help further improve Iraq’s agricultural college system:

•Consolidating of some of the 18 colleges of agriculture that are located within about six miles of each other.

•Greater coordination among the American agencies in Iraq, including the TFBSO, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

•Having Iraqi agricultural colleges consider new missions patterned after the American land grant university model of education, research and extension.

•Concentrating educational efforts on helping faculty training to build the capacity of the undergraduate education.
“What we did with the universities was to encourage faculty exchange and encouraged their students to apply to our universities,” Jackson said. “Their faculty needs to update knowledge and skills, and would benefit greatly by doing sabbatical or fellowship work with our faculty.

“Our faculty could learn a great deal from them about challenges of rebuilding a food system and producing food in an arid environment,” he added.

Frank Fear, senior associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, said the next generation of Iraqi leaders, especially young people, will leave a historic mark on the country.

“Highly-educated and motivated young people will have an opportunity to manage and lead at an early age,” he said. “That’s because there is such unevenness in capacity in literally all sectors – public and private.

“National leaders also know that a strong Iraq means moving from becoming a net food importer to a net food exporter,” he said. “They also are in desperate need of a higher quality resource base – land, water and air. Agricultural development and environmental management go hand in hand.”
Other deans participating in the tour included: Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University; Jim Hill, associate dean for international programs at the University of California-Davis; and Ken McNabb, director of international education at Auburn University.