EghtesadOnline: Water scarcity and low precipitation in Iran have impelled the government to take urgent measures, imposing a ban on the cultivation of certain water-intensive crops in different parts of the country.
A working group for managing water shortage was established last year to adopt a unified approach on managing water resources.
Notably, aggravated by erroneous farming methods, soil erosion is also taking a heavy toll on the environment. Experts are concerned that Iran’s agriculture may be at risk, as it endangers food security.
Different administrations have tried, throughout the years, to come up with proper cropping or cultivation patterns to contain the damaging trends, and the lack of such patterns is perhaps felt more than ever in view of the above-mentioned pressing issues, according to Financial Tribune.
> Much-Awaited Scheme
Land-use planning, which refers to the systematic assessment of land, water, social and economic conditions across a particular area to achieve sustainable development and improve the quality of life, is the groundwork from which a well-rounded cropping pattern can be derived, Hamed Rafiei, faculty member at Tehran University’s Agricultural Economy Department, told Financial Tribune.
“The first attempts at arriving at a land use plan were made before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After the revolution, too, measures were taken but to no avail. Nothing practical has been done in this regard and in the absence of a land use plan, no cropping pattern project has been implemented in Iran. The issue is used by candidates seeking high positions in their campaigns to win votes, and nothing else,” he said.
Rafiei, who is also an agronomist, added as there is no land use plan, there is no awareness of what is happening in different parts of the country, which is the first handicap to devising a comprehensive cropping pattern.
Simply put, he explained, cropping patterns tell us what is suitable to plant over what area of land and in what region.
“Allow me to elaborate on the word 'suitable'. A region’s climate, the natural composition of the soil, the amount of available water, as well as all the natural and environmental advantages and limitations of a specific region, make a crop suitable or unfit for cultivation," he said.
"Projects have been carried out where experts were required to define cropping patterns for different areas, but they failed.”
Projects and studies like these, he explained, have been conducted jointly by universities and the Agriculture Ministry in the past. Yet, more often than not, they were incompatible with the characteristics of the areas they were developed for. This raises the risk of developing a defective cultivation pattern, which will be way more catastrophic than what is being practiced now.
The main reason, according to Rafiei, is that farmers were and are not invited to decision-making meetings.
"Cropping patterns in Iran are designed in high-rise offices but, let’s face it, who knows the land better than the farmer who has spent a lifetime working on a farm in a specific region. In fact, farmers have to implement these patterns so we need to include them in the process from the very first stages. We need to take our cropping pattern proposals and put them up for discussion in the presence of experts," he said.
In addition, the faculty member noted that, the government should provide farmers with incentives if cropping patterns are to be implemented successfully.
"We mustn’t force the patterns on farmers, but encourage and support them by lowering their transaction costs, giving them loans, providing them with the required equipment and machinery for new cultivations and putting in place guaranteed purchase plans so that farmers are assured of a market for their products,” he said.
> Shaking Off a Misconception
The aim of developing cropping patterns, Rafiei said, is not to produce all of our domestic demand in the country and arrive at self-sufficiency in everything as some believe.
“The agriculture sector is blamed for using too much water. Iran’s overall water consumption stands at close to 100 billion cubic meters per year and some figures say the agro sector uses around 90% of this sum. Though I believe this amount is not accurate and the actual share is much lower, I agree that agriculture consumes the bigger portion," he said.
The agronomist conceded that water consumption outweighs the pace at which the country's water resources are being naturally restored.
"If we were to domestically meet all our agricultural demands, farmers will need between 35 billion and 36 billion cubic meters. Do we have this much water? No. So, self-sufficiency in all agro products is out of the question,” he said.
> Alternative Goal
Rafiei told us that the goal, rather, is to preserve our resources of water, soil and arable land as well as the labor force, the depletion of which are at alarming levels.
“So first, we need to address environmental concerns and then economic concerns. An efficient cropping pattern can help us reduce excessive production we experience in some crops, which will reduce end prices as a result of increased productivity," he said.
The agronomist stressed that this can help devise plans for cultivating crops in which the country has a competitive advantage such as pistachios, dates, grapes, saffron, apples and so on, and make correct moves in finding markets for others.
"Proper marketing is to gauge market demand and then start production. As for us, we are moving in the opposite direction. Having a systematic cropping pattern will help place us on the right track," he said.
> Lack of Consensus: Major Problem
Rafiei believes that a major problem in the way of devising and implementing an efficient cropping pattern is lack of consensus among the responsible bodies.
"The Agriculture Ministry administers production, the Energy Ministry manages water supply and monitors consumption, and the Department of Environment is responsible for safeguarding natural resources," he said.
“These bodies are constantly squabbling over trivial matters regarding the issue [cropping patterns]. On top of that, there are parliamentarians who only pursue the interest of their own constituencies and their concerns have no reasonable basis and are sometimes contradictory."
> There’s Hope…
Last week, Minister of Cooperatives, Labor and Welfare Ali Rabiei unveiled a project dubbed “Cultivation Based on Contract” in the city of Mashhad in Khorasan Razavi Province for saffron production, IRNA reported.
This, according to the report, was the first step and the project will be extended to other products in other provinces.
The goal is to connect farms to the market and small production enterprises to big exporting units as part of supply and value chains.
Rafiei said this project is a step in the right direction for adopting an efficient cropping pattern, but in a broader context an inclusive outlook should consider the market, the producer, means of production, transportation and facilities with the aim of saving the environment, improving agricultural economy, ensuring food security and fostering development.