BLOOM & BUST

Iran 2017 | AGRICULTURE | REVIEW

The recent removal of sanctions and a wave of new state investment has given the agricultural sector reason for optimism.

Iran's size and diverse climate give it a great foundation for agriculture, but lack of consistent access to water and investment have limited the sector's potential. Once a primarily agricultural economy, Iran now depends on foreign imports for many of its agricultural needs, paying for said imports with oil revenues. In an effort to increase self-reliance and hedge against fluctuations in the price of oil, Iran is now working to bolster its agricultural industry by increasing production of staple crops and forming international partnerships to open new export markets.

Though total agriculture work is the primary source of income for more than 30% of Iran's population, the sector's share of GDP has been declining over past 20 years. The Central Bank of Iran puts the its share of GDP at 10.8% for the fiscal year spanning 2015/2016, ahead of the oil industry but behind services, manufacturing, and mining. The sector saw moderate growth across the board, with the Central Bank reporting that production of farming products rose 4% in 2015/2016 YoY to account for 69.7% of all agricultural output. Horticultural products saw the largest growth of any subsector, with a 17.3% rise YoY that led to a resulting high of 17.5% of the sector's growth. While Iran exported more than 5.1 million tons of agricultural goods worth USD6 billion in 2015/2016, it imported more than 18.8 million tons of products worth USD4.3 billion. Although this represented a 24.5% fall over the previous year, demand for key agricultural commodities such as rice, soybeans, and sugar products still well outstrips the Islamic Republic's ability to produce them. The agriculture sector's trade deficit dropped by 41% YoY but still represents more than 56% of the total Iranian trade deficit. Indeed, much of the decrease in import value came from a fall in global commodity prices.
Iran's primary agricultural crops are wheat and barley, with wheat accounting for almost 70% of total cereal production, according the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). These two crops take up the majority of Iran's cultivable land; Central Bank data from the 2014/2015 farming year reported that wheat farming takes up more than 5.7 million ha and barley another 1.7 million ha, while no other crop was at more than 712,000ha. Yet while the available land is great, the size belies the difficulties Iran faces in reaching self-sustainability. The FAO reports that only one-third of Iran's wheat-growing regions are irrigated, leaving the crop vulnerable to the whims of rainfall. Water shortages have hit the agricultural sector hard, forcing farmers to dig for quickly depleting groundwater resources and limiting the diversity of crops planted. The agricultural sector consumes 91% of Iran's water, above the global average, and the sector's aggressive usage of available resources has led to concern over the long-term environmental sustainability of the industry.
In response, the Iranian government has begun to take steps aimed at strengthening the sector. The government plans to introduce irrigation systems to more than 450,000ha of farmland in 2017, and the budget for the 2017 fiscal year calls for more than USD450 million for agricultural mechanization equipment, a 25% increase. The government has also instituted guaranteed purchases of wheat at a fixed price. Wheat's productivity in uncertain conditions and the government's guaranteed buyback programs have led to production rising significantly in recent years, and in 2017 the government plans to purchase 11 million tons of wheat to bolster the domestic market. Relief should also be forthcoming from the end of economic sanctions in early 2016 thanks to the Iranian government's agreement to limit its nuclear program. One estimate puts the loss of foreign investment due to the sanctions at over USD100 billion, and the Islamic Republic's return as a full participant in the global marketplace can only have positive effects for the agriculture industry. New partnerships will help Iran become a significant exporter by boosting investment that will allow for increased production and value added throughout the production chain.