A woman carries a bundle of newly harvested wheat stalks in Albu Efan village southwest of Falluja
A woman carries a bundle of newly harvested wheat stalks in Albu Efan village southwest of FallujaReuters

Islamic State (IS) fighters are now in control of 40% of Iraqi wheat after seizing vast and fertile swaths of land in five of the country's most fertile province, according to Reuters.

In recent weeks, Sunni militants took control of between 40,000 and 50,000 tons of crops in Tal Afar and Sinjar in Nineveh province from government silos, at the border with Syria.

They even tried to sell wheat stolen from Nineveh back to the government in other provinces. Hassan Ibrahim, director general of the grain board of Iraq, told Reuters that for that reason he stopped purchasing wheat from farmers who act as middlemen with the Islamic State.

But the common procedure for IS is to mill the grain stored in government silos and distribute the flour on the local market. The size of the problem is still unclear as jihadists continue to overrun areas in the five provinces. Iraq's trade ministry says 1.1 million tonnes of wheat is stored in silos in those areas which amounts to 20% of annual Iraqi consumption (6.5 tonnes, half of which is imported).

Iraq does not face immediate food shortages but the Sunni rebellion risk disrupting crops and produce and place farmers who have not fled under extreme pressure.

The harvest began in May, before the uprising, and an estimated 400,000 who remained in the area are still to be paid by the government for the wheat they delivered.

"Now is the worst time for food insecurity since the sanctions and things are getting worse," Fadel El-Zubi, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representative for Iraq, told Reuters referring to the Western sanctions to Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s.

The FAO is working to send 3,000 tonnes of wheat seed to the farmers for planting.

Since the start of their campaign in June, the jihadists have sought to consolidate the victories by grabbing strategic assets in the northern part of the country. They waged battles for the country's biggest oil refinery. But their most most valuable price to date is undoubtedly the Mosul Dam.

Mosul dam provides electricity and water to Mosul's 1.7 million residents, who currently live under the Islamic State's rule.Controlling Mosul dam gives the Islamic State leverage with the central Iraqi government. It is central to its idea of establishing a caliphate, whereby it takes on the role of a state rather than a mere fighting force.