The agricultural sector in Syria accounted for 29 percent of the GDP in 1997 and employed an estimated 40 percent of labor in 1996, including a significant proportion of townspeople. The primary agricultural products are cotton, olives, wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, sugar beets, beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, and milk. Cotton, grown on irrigated land, is Syria's premier cash crop . Besides providing employment and income for a significant amount of the population, it also has provided Syria with much needed hard currency . Until 1974, when it was superseded by oil as the largest Syrian export, cotton accounted for about one-third of Syria's total exports. By the late 1990s, cotton accounted for almost 50 percent of the agricultural sector's contribution to GDP. Nearly half of the cotton produced is used for local consumption by the largely export-oriented clothing and textile industry. Syria is also the second largest olive exporter in the Arab world after Tunisia and is sixth in the world after Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Italy, and Turkey. According to the EIU Country Report, the total value of agricultural exports in 1998 was about 24 percent of total exports, while the share of agricultural imports in 1998 was nearly 16 percent of total imports.
The average farmer's reliance on outdated and inefficient irrigation methods is a major obstacle to improving agricultural outputs. The introduction of drip, sprinkler, and subsurface irrigation methods is handicapped because of the limited amount of money available to the common farmer. Because of these shortcomings, Syria is susceptible to food shortages during long droughts.
Because of the government's revitalization efforts during the 1980s and 1990s, the agricultural sector recorded a 10 percent increase in its share of GDP in 1998. This kind of liberalization effort has been essential to increased agricultural production. The enactment of Decree #10 in 1986 allowed joint sector companies to be established with a minimum 25 percent stake to be held by the public sector. Pricing, production, and marketing of fruits and vegetables have also been placed in private hands. Liberalization measures since 1991 include the lifting of subsidies for seeds and pesticides, and the reduction of the fertilizer subsidy.
Because of geographic and topographic conditions, Syria has no forestry sector. Fishing is also quite limited, with a few small and medium-sized boats fishing off the Mediterranean coast.