By Andrew Nusca
August 13, 2014

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq have reportedly commandeered some of the most fertile land in the country, where some 40 percent of the nation’s wheat is grown, according to estimates from the United Nations food agency.

According to a Reuters report, Sunni militants are “helping themselves to grain stored in government silos,” which they are milling and selling on the local market or, in some cases, even trying to sell back to the government.

The country does not face immediate food shortages, but the move has further disrupted Iraq’s rural economy. Farmers had already begun to flee the country in advance of the fighters’ arrival, jeopardizing their ability to provide reliable food supplies to a population of slightly more than 33 million people, according to 2013 estimates by the World Bank.

Just over 1 million tonnes of wheat is stored in silos in the area in question, according to Iraq’s trade ministry, or about 20 percent of the nation’s consumption. The country’s wheat harvest began in May, and hundreds of thousands of farmers have yet to be paid for wheat delivered ahead of the conflict, impacting production for next year’s season.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which had predicted an above-average wheat harvest this season, is working to get wheat seed to the farmers for planting. “As the availability of staple food commodities like wheat will be affected, food access for many market-dependent households, poor families and the displaced will likely deteriorate further,” the organization wrote in a memo last month. “And although full information on food prices is not yet available, costs of staple commodities are likely to rise.”

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