After a series of disastrous harvests in the late 1960s, Saddam Hussein applied for an aid shipment of 90,000 tons of American barley and Mexican wheat seed. The seed grain was for planting not eating. It had been coated in methylmercury fungicide and had been dyed bright pink, with ‘Do Not Eat’ warnings on the bags printed in English and Spanish.
When the consignment arrived at the port of Basra some of it was immediately stolen and unscrupulous dealers sold it as fit for consumption. By the time the rest of the shipment had been distributed to the illiterate and semi-starving peasant farmers in outlying rural areas it was long past the planting season. Unable to read the labels on the bags but wary of the pink dye, people washed the seed and started cautiously feeding it to chickens and livestock. There were no immediate ill effects, so they started using it to make bread.
A few months later there was a sudden influx of patients to hospital suffering from mysterious symptoms. Doctors soon realized they were dealing with an outbreak of poisoning; moreover, the symptoms were identical to Minimata disease, or mercury poisoning. Once the source had been traced to the pink grain, the government ordered all remaining supplies to be handed in on pain of death. Panicked, everyone dumped their grain anywhere – scattered at roadsides, in rivers and irrigation channels – to be eaten by fish, birds and wildlife and absorbed into the food chain with who knows what long-term consequences.
To this day nobody knows the long-term effects on the population of Iraq. And of course, since then, so much worse has happened that the toxic seed grain has faded to become just one more tragic incident in the tale of that nation’s appalling suffering.
When was the Iraqi Seed Grain Poisoning: December 1971 to March 1972
Where was the Iraqi Seed Grain Poisoning: Iraq
What was the Iraqi Seed Grain Poisoning death toll: There were 6,530 hospital cases officially recorded and the authorities admitted to 459 deaths, so the likelihood is that the actual number, including those who died at home, is far more, with thousands left permanently brain-damaged.
You should know: The seed grain was distributed all over Iraq but a disproportionate amount found its way to farmers in the northern provinces that were most at odds with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. When the toxic nature of the seed came to light many people thought it was a deliberate conspiracy on the part of the government to kill them.