by Austin Bodetti
As Iran wrestles with devastating economic sanctions imposed after the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the news media has highlighted the impact on Iran’s economy as a whole, noting predictions by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that it would contract by between 3.8 and 6 percent this year. The potential effect on Iran’s food security, however, has received less attention. In the wake of the sanctions, several top Western agribusinesses opted to stop selling food to the import-dependent country.
Despite Iran’s sizable deserts and troubles with water scarcity, agriculture has managed to thrive in the country for much of its history. Iranian farmers grow products as varied as barley, grapes, melons, rice, wheat, and medicinal plants, and agriculture represented 9.5 percent of Iran’s gross domestic product in 2016. The sector employed about 17 percent of Iranians in 2018.
“Despite being located in an arid and semiarid area, Iran benefits from having weather diversity, and the difference between the coldest and hottest areas reaches 40°C, making it possible to grow a variety of products at any given time,” says Mohammad Bakhshoodeh, who heads the department of agricultural economics at Shiraz University. “Iran has comparative advantages in dozens of agriculture products, especially in horticultural ones and, of course, in saffron.”
In a semi-successful bid to withstand decades of sanctions, Iran has long endeavored to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. This quest began soon after the Iranian Revolution, and, in fact, the role of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in undermining agriculture in Iran fueled much of the rebellion against him. To insulate farmers from sanctions and protect them from the turmoil of the global economy, Iran has relied on a mix of subsidies and tariffs on agricultural imports. The United Nations has noted that Iran considers its goal of self-sufficiency “a top national priority.”
“To keep national food security, the Iranian government focuses on self-sufficiency policies, concentrates on domestic production of food and other agricultural products, and encourages productivity enhancement of basic inputs, particularly that of water,” Bakhshoodeh tells LobeLog. “Moreover, the government supports farmers with policies of guaranteeing purchases, expanding agricultural insurances with significant coverage, and so on.”
Iran’s investment in agriculture has yielded noticeable results, potatoes providing one example. Iranian farmers cultivated 5,102,340 metric tons of potatoes in 2017, over five times as many as in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution. Nonetheless, the country has a long way to go before it realizes self-sufficiency. In 2017, Iranians imported 1.2 million metric tons of rice, 1.3 million of barley, and 9.5 million of corn, a sign that, while Iran has lessened its reliance on other countries, recessions and sanctions can still threaten its food security.
“Imports of agricultural products have always been an obstacle to sustaining agriculture in Iran, and they may cause farmers’ income to decrease,” notes Bakhshoodeh. “However, to ensure greater food security, Iran allocates subsidized foreign exchange to importing critical foods such as wheat and rice, promotes the optimum use of scarce inputs in the agricultural sector, and relies on domestic production for the purpose of food security.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that sanctions have already started to bite at agriculture and food security in Iran. Earlier this year, Iranian officials banned the export of potatoes and onions to guarantee a supply for the domestic market. In a more bizarre example, Iranian-backed Syrian militias complain that Iran is feeding them less meat and more potatoes because of sanctions.
“Iran is a net importer of agricultural products, so it might be affected by foreign policies such as sanctions,” says Bakhshoodeh. “It seems that the availability of food, a pillar of food security, has not been seriously affected by the sanctions. However, because of price increases, many poor households cannot afford enough food and cannot easily buy as much food as they need in the long run. In general, the dominance and traditional structure of Iranian agriculture prevents or at least postpones the negative impacts of sanctions on the availability of food.”
Climate change and environmental degradation have aggravated Iran’s difficulties. Droughts and floods—environmental issues compounded by global warming—affect farmland in much of Iran, and the problem seems on track to grow far worse in the coming years. On the World Resources Institute’s list of the world’s most water-stressed countries, Iran ranks fourth. If Iran ever wants to end its dependence on imported food, the country will have to overcome water scarcity.
“Given the problem of water scarcity, achieving food security in Iran has been a big challenge,” says Gholamreza Soltani, a professor of natural resource economics at Shiraz University and the editor in chief of an academic journal on agricultural economics. “Iran needs to import water to sustain the intensive agricultural commodities necessary for achieving food security.”
Experts expect that, as Iran’s economy deteriorates and environmental degradation worsens, Iran will have to retool its agricultural and economic policies to depend less on imports.
“In the face of sanctions, Iran must improve agricultural trade patterns to import water-intensive commodities and export water-efficient ones,” Soltani tells LobeLog. “This would result in the net import of virtual water, contributing to food security.”
Though the recent reimposition of sanctions has only renewed Iran’s fervor for self-sufficiency in agriculture, guaranteeing the country’s food security amid a financial crisis will likely demand a far more comprehensive strategy. Much of Iran’s domestic policy has contributed to its problems with agriculture, and sanctions are limiting Iranian officials’ ability to reform their environmental policy. Even so, some scholars argue that Iran is coming closer to accomplishing its agricultural objectives than it appears. For now, though, food security remains a pressing challenge.
“The major issue with food security is that food is becoming less affordable for the middle class,” says Sina Azodi, a foreign policy advisor at Gulf State Analytics. “There is plenty of food available in stores, but inflation has made [it] less affordable. Adding to the problem is that, as the economy shrinks, people are losing jobs, and, thus, less food is getting to their tables.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.