Country profile - Iran
The largest country in the Middle East, Iran has a long history of agriculture. The goat is believed to have been domesticated first in Persia around 10,000BC and wine has been produced in the north of Iran since 5,000BC. The country also lays claim to the invention of the windmill. But, despite being buoyed by its oil wealth, modern-day Iran faces a number of challenges to agricultural production, with the growing problems of water scarcity, soil salinity and decades of under-investment all taking their toll.
With an average rainfall of 240mm per year, Iran is a dryland area. Approximately 90 per cent of its territory is classed as arid and semi-arid, of which about half is characterised by low- or medium-quality rangeland, wasteland and mountains. Agriculture accounts for ten per cent of GDP, employing about 30 per cent of the population.
Wheat, rice and barley are grown on 70 per cent of cultivated land, with wheat - the country's main staple - accounting for over half of total crop production. Other important crops include potatoes, dates, figs, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cotton, sugarcane, sugar beet, tea and tobacco. Sheep are the primary livestock with smaller numbers of goats, cattle, donkeys, horses and water buffalo.
One of five littoral states on the Caspian Sea, Iran's most important fishery produces sturgeon (primarily for its roe, which is used to make caviar), bream, whitefish, salmon and mullet. Lately, the government has introduced schemes to develop shrimp farming in salt marshes on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
Iran's forests cover some ten per cent of the country, with those in the wetter north-western Caspian region producing valuable hardwoods and softwoods.
Trouble in a dry land
Agriculture has suffered from a lack of both public and private investment, partly due to protracted land disputes following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which sought national self-sufficiency in food production. Many farms are smaller than ten hectares and do not benefit from economies of scale; around two-thirds of cultivable land is not in use and the majority of farms operate well below full capacity. Poor quality seed, outdated farming techniques and scorched soils from overuse of fertilisers are ongoing issues.
Water scarcity is also a major constraint to agricultural production, partly due to low rainfall, but also poor water distribution systems. In ancient times, Persians introduced the Kareez system - a series of wells and water channels - to irrigate crops, but although still widespread, many are poorly maintained and result in significant losses through evaporation and leakage.
Soils in the Central Plateau, the Khuzestan and Southern Coastal Plains and the Caspian Coastal Plain are severely saline and insufficient rainfall means there is little or no natural leaching of surface salts. Although some salt-tolerant plant species have been trialled at a local level, the lack of an official national strategy means that farmers have been unable to invest in remediation technologies. Soil salinity affects half of all irrigated land and is a major cause of low crop yields, human health problems, rural poverty, farm abandonment and rural-urban migration, causing annual economic losses exceeding US$1 billion.
Iran is the world's largest producer of saffron. The spice, derived from the stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativas), has been cultivated in the South Khoresan region for about 3,000 years. It is an important source of income to the rural poor and in 2005 President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad more than doubled the price of saffron; domestic farmers have seen their incomes and standards of living rise as a result but it is likely that the artificially high price will stimulate other countries to increase production, perhaps diverting future demand away from Iran
The country is a major importer of rice, currently importing in the region of 450,000 tonnes per year, and the Ministry of Agriculture looks set to miss its projected target of achieving self-sufficiency in rice production during 2008. This will leave the country subject to spiralling world prices affecting all cereals.
A further threat to domestic food production is that in March 2008 FAO confirmed the discovery of Ug99 wheat stem rust in western Iran, which has the potential to devastate much of the country's wheat crop. This virulent strain of black stem rust (Puccinia graminis) had spread by windborne spores from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsular as a result of Cyclone Gonu. It is estimated that 80 per cent of Iran's wheat crops are susceptible to the disease, and the government has pledged more research to develop resistant varieties. Meanwhile, the country is expected to import some two million tonnes of wheat during 2008 to meet domestic demand.
A rocky road
While there appears to be sufficient capacity in Iran to increase farm output and therefore farm incomes, the future of agriculture faces serious challenges. Although the country's oil reserves will keep it afloat in the short term, myriad global and domestic threats to agricultural production mean there are certainly tough times ahead for producers and consumers.
- Country: Islamic Republic of Iran
- Capital: Tehran
- Area: 1.648 million sq km
- Population: 65,875,223 (2008 est.)
- Population growth rate: 0.79% (2008 est.)
- Life expectancy: 79.86 years
- Ethnic groups: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%
- Languages: Persian and Persian dialects 58%, Turkic and Turkic dialects 26%, Kurdish 9%, Luri 2%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, Turkish 1%, other 2%
- Inflation: 17% (July 2007 est)
- GDP purchasing power parity: $852.6 billion (2007 est.)
- GDP per capita: $12,300 (2007 est.)
- GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 11%; industry: 45.3%; services: 43.7% (2007 est.)
- Land use: arable land: 9.78%; permanent crops: 1.29%; other: 88.93% (2005)
- Major industries: petroleum, petrochemicals, fertilisers, caustic soda, textiles, cement and other construction materials, food processing (particularly sugar refining and vegetable oil production), ferrous and non-ferrous metal fabrication, armaments
- Agricultural products: wheat, rice, other grains, sugar beet, sugar cane, fruits, nuts, cotton, dairy products, wool, caviar
- Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulphur
- Export commodities: petroleum 80%, chemical and petrochemical products, fruits and nuts, carpets
- Export partners: Japan 14%, China 12.8%, Turkey 7.2%, Italy 6.3%, South Korea 6%, Netherlands 4.6% (2006).
Date published: May 2008
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