The rich alluvial soil of the lowlands and an elaborate system of irrigation canals made Iraq a granary in ancient times and in the Middle Ages. After the irrigation works were destroyed in the Mongol invasion, agriculture decayed. Today, about 13% of the land is considered arable.
Under various agrarian reform laws—including a 1970 law that limited permissible landholdings to 4–202 hectares (10–500 acres), depending on location, fertility, and available irrigation facilities—about 400,000 previously landless peasants have received land. Agrarian reform has been accompanied by irrigation and drainage works, and by the establishment of cooperative societies for the provision of implements and machinery, irrigation facilities, and other services.
Agricultural production in Iraq declined progressively because of the war with Iran and the Persian Gulf War. In 1992, wheat production was estimated at 600,000 tons compared with 965,000 tons in 1982, but by 1999 was only 800,000 tons. The comparable figures for barley were 400,000, 902,000, and 500,000 tons; for cotton, 5,000, 8,000, and 9,000 tons. Dates, Iraq's most important agricultural export, increased from 374,000 tons in 1982 to an estimated 600,000 in 1999. Crops grown for domestic consumption include millet, lentils, beans, cucumbers, melons, figs, potatoes, corn, sugarcane, tobacco (a government monopoly), and mulberries.
Because of the international embargo placed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, the government has attempted to establish firm control over the distribution of domestic agricultural production. Farmers, however, have been reluctant to adhere to directives requiring them to sell the entirety of their harvests to the state marketing boards set up after the war, since food fetches a considerably higher price on the black market than the state is able to pay. In the early years after the war, the government engaged in terror tactics to intimidate recalcitrant farmers. These essentially stopped by 1995, but the government continued to issue veiled threats to farmers through the media. Nonetheless, most Iraqis were forced to seek about 50% of their food needs on the black market. In 2001, agricultural imports exceeded exports by $1.59 billion.