Iran tackles environmental challenges with new approach to cropping systems
by Katelyn Roett / April 25, 2016
EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) — With a population of almost 80 million people and gross domestic product (GDP) valued at about $400 billion in 2015, according to World Bank data, Iran is projected to become an emerging economy now that long-standing trade sanctions related to the country’s nuclear activities have been lifted. Iran boasts the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, the second-biggest stores of natural gas and hosts a variety of well-established industries.
Agriculture alone has grown steadily from about 7 to 10 percent of GDP since 2010. Iran’s varying climates and geography have made it the center of diversity of many major crops of global importance, including wheat, which plays the largest contribution to grain yield, accounting for almost 70 percent of cereal production.
Iran’s robust agriculture sector can be credited to the country’s push towards agricultural self-sufficiency, part of the country’s agenda since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In 1999, the government initiated a self-sufficiency strategy for wheat by increasing production through input subsidies and the adoption of new methods and technologies such as improved seeds, mechanization and farmer training. By 2012, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Iran had become the 12th leading producer of wheat in the world.
However, that growth was fueled in large measure by unsustainable and environmentally damaging policies. The sector now suffers from land degradation and climate change. Meanwhile, total grain imports remain high to meet local demand and maintain strategic stockpiles. A decrease of support in agricultural development in recent years may also be attributed to sanctions and increased inflation since 2011.
Severe water shortages are now commonplace due to agricultural policies coupled with irregular and declining rainfall and drought. Iran is currently the 24th most water-stressed nation in the world, with water scarcity projected to be at extremely high risk in the next two decades. Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of Iran’s water usage – more than 60 percent of which is wasted in agricultural irrigation according to government estimates.
Located in north-west Iran, West Azerbaijan province is one of the most important centers of agriculture in the country. However, even this resource-rich province has not escaped the effects of Iran’s declining water sources. Climate change resulting in drought, increased water diversion for irrigated agriculture (over 75 percent of land to grow wheat is irrigated in the province) and mismanagement have caused Lake Urmia – Iran’s most famous lake – to shrink nearly 90 percent since the 1970s, causing water shortages for farmers in East and West Azerbaijan. Agriculture surrounding the lake relies on irrigation with groundwater and surface water supplies, which are also being pressured by increasing demand for domestic supply.
In response, the three provinces that share the Lake Urmia basin – East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan – and the Iranian government have joined forces to restore and conserve the country’s water supplies, including stopping dam construction, managing the existing reservoirs and regulating the use of the agricultural lands.
Promoting conservation agriculture (CA) – farming practices that involve minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and the use of crop rotation to simultaneously maintain and boost yields, increase profits and protect the environment – is a keystone of Iran’s Ministry of Agriculture’s current strategy to conserve water and make farming more sustainable.
“These practices reduce costs for farmers, increase soil quality, reduce soil erosion and improve biological activity, all while increasing agricultural productivity,” said Mohammad Esmaeil Asadi, senior scientist at the Agricultural Engineering Research Division of the Agricultural and Natural Resources Research and Education Center and official CA instructor with the Ministry of Agriculture. “Unplowed fields that retain crop residues are better at capturing and holding moisture, therefore raising yields with less water.”
Building knowledge of CA practices at a local level is critical to change agriculture in Iran, according to Asadi. A former CIMMYT trainee, Asadi is one of dozens of Iranian scientists trained by the organization.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT ) has had a presence in Iran since the 1960s, and now supports the country’s move towards sustainable agriculture through scientific research and consulting on CA approaches. More than 90 percent of wheat varieties grown in Iran come either directly from CIMMYT advanced lines or from Iranian cross-breeding programs with at least one parent from CIMMYT wheat germplasm.
“CIMMYT has played a significant role in the development and promotion of CA-based crop management technologies in Iran,” says Mohammad Reza Jalal Kamali, senior wheat scientist and CIMMYT liaison officer for Iran. “By training Iranian scientists and researchers in Mexico and India and holding in-country workshops with the collaboration of national scientists for a variety of stakeholders, we are able to build and expand CA in the country at a local level.” CIMMYT also supports scientific-research and consults on CA approaches for Iran.
Asadi recently led a CA workshop on the latest developments in CA-based crop management technologies in West Azerbaijan, with 70 farmers, machinery manufacturers, agricultural extension officers, researchers and other agricultural experts from East and West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan participating. The event was sponsored by Bukan Kaveh SazehKesht, a CA machinery manufacturer based in West Azerbaijan. Participants produced provincial and national work plans for CA projects as a result of what they learned at the workshop.
“We found from demonstrations that using CA-based crop management practices like minimum disturbed soils, retention of crop residue on the soil surface and crop rotation, you can easily increase yield and improve soil organic matter and biology,” said Asadi.
Iran’s Ministry of Agriculture is currently investing in sustainable solutions to agriculture with the goal of increasing self-reliance for major agricultural commodities including wheat in the next 5 to 10 years, including plans to spread CA-based crop management practices across three million hectares of farmland.
“CA-based crop management technologies and practices can ensure a food secure Iran,” says Asadi. “We live in an arid and semi-arid belt of the world with limited access to water resources – in addition to our declining groundwater reservoirs we receive just one third of the average global rainfall. Sustainable agriculture is the strategy to follow if we are to increase production while maintaining our natural resources base.”
To make this vision a reality, continued investment in CA cropping systems and other sustainable strategies will be necessary to mitigate Iran’s water crisis, adapt to new climates and be resilient against other political and environmental shocks.