* Government imports wheat to maintain subsidy programme
* 6.5 million people estimated to be food insecure
* Evidence of crop fires being set -FAO/WFP
By Maha El Dahan
DUBAI, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Syria's wheat and barley crops this year improved helped by favourable rainfall and better overall security but food security remains a challenge, a joint report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.
Wheat production for the 2019 season was estimated at 2.2 million tonnes, up from the 29-year low of 1.2 million tonnes produced last year, the report said.
"It is an improvement but a lot remains to be done ... it is still 50% less than the pre-war figures," Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO assistant director general and regional representative for the Near East and North Africa, told Reuters.
The figure is far below a pre-crisis average of 4.1 million tonnes a year, the Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission report, conducted jointly by the FAO and WFP, found.
"This means that the country will still heavily rely on wheat imports," he said.
The figures were based on the mission team's visit to 10 of the country's 14 governorates in June and July. The mission was not able to reach Raqqa and Idlib due to insecurity.
Wheat in Syria is used in the production of flat bread, a subsidised staple for a population that has suffered under a conflict estimated to have killed several hundred thousand people and forced millions to flee their homes since 2011.
The steady fall in output has put President Bashar al-Assad's government under increasing pressure to import grain - process complicated by financial sanctions.
Ould Ahmed said it was difficult to predict how much the government would have to import this year as it depended on how much food assistance would be delivered and its capacity to import in light of financial difficulties.
Almost nine years of conflict have also strained Syrians' access to food with prices steadily increasing over the past year largely due to higher fuel prices and the depreciation of the Syrian pound on the informal market, the report said.
Around 6.5 million people in Syria are estimated to be food insecure and in need of food and support.
An additional 2.5 million people are at risk of food insecurity and need support to strengthen their resilience.
The report also noted a "more frequent and intense" occurrence of field fires in 2019 and found evidence to suggest some fires were started maliciously in areas with active conflict.
A Reuters report in June tracked the crop fire phenomenon across the border in neighbouring Iraq and found wide discrepancies between federal government estimates of deliberate fires and local officials' and farmers' accounts. nL8N23O1JA
In Syria, the government estimates that 85,000 hectares of crop have been burned by fires in 2019.
(Reporting by Maha El Dahan; editing by Jason Neely)
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