Iranian wheat imports soar due to drought

Iran's winter crop harvest finished in August and average in-crop rainfall was down by 54 per cent from last year and 41pc from its long-term average.
Iran's winter crop harvest finished in August and average in-crop rainfall was down by 54 per cent from last year and 41pc from its long-term average.

Drought ravaged agricultural production has been an all too common theme across the Northern Hemisphere during the past 12 months.

Unfortunately, Iran is another country to have fallen victim to well below average rainfall and extreme temperatures during its most recent winter crop cycle.

The largest country in the Middle East, Iran has a long history of agricultural production.

It claims to have invented the windmill, with the first ones used in the Sistan region of eastern Iran - bordering Afghanistan - possibly as early as the mid-seventh century.

About one-third of Iran's land area is suited for agricultural production.

But because of poor soil and lack of adequate water distribution in many areas, most of it is not under cultivation.

Only 12 per cent is planted to food crops.

But less than one-third of the cultivated area is irrigated, the balance being devoted to dryland farming.

Wheat, rice, barley and corn are grown on 70pc of cultivated land.

Wheat is Iran's main staple and accounts for more than half of the country's total crop production.

In the 2017-18 season, it was the world's 13th biggest wheat producer at 14.5 million tonnes.

Iran's winter crop harvest concluded in August and average in-crop precipitation was down by 54pc compared with last year and 41pc compared with the long-term average.

Also, heatwave conditions significantly increased evaporation - the combined effect being substantially lower production.

According to Iran's meteorological service, the months from October 2020 to mid-June 2021 were the driest in the past 53 years, and the average temperature in the country has increased by 2°C since the late 1960s.

Meanwhile, rainfall has dropped by as much as 20pc this century alone.

The Iranian government buys wheat from domestic farmers at a guaranteed price to build its strategic reserves and regulate the market.

At the start of the crop cycle, the Agriculture Ministry forecast wheat production would reach 12 million tonnes and government purchases would be 10 million tonnes.

In July, total production was revised lower to 10 million tonnes, with government purchases estimated to total 7.5 million tonnes.

By mid-September, purchases from farmers had only reached 4.7 million tonnes and grower sales had slowed to a trickle.

Assuming farmers retain 2.5 million tonnes for their own use and "over the fence" sales, that puts production at 7.2 million tonnes. This is down by almost 50pc year-on-year.

Based on government data, Iranian farmers produced almost 14.5 million tonnes of wheat in the Iranian calendar year 1398 (ended March 19, 2020) and just over 14 million tonnes in 1399 (ended March 20, 2021).

Iranians are among the biggest consumers of bread in the world.

There are about 350 operational flour mills in the country, with a milling capacity of 24 million tonnes per annum.

Current milling consumption is about 12 million tonnes per year, and total domestic consumption is reportedly around 12.5 million tonnes.

Interestingly, domestic demand projections in the latest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts are much higher at 17.7 million tonnes.

I suspect that reality is somewhere around the midpoint after other uses, such as seed retention, stockfeed requirements and additions to strategic reserves, are built into the equation.

With a supply deficit comes imports.

In July, Tehran was factoring in wheat imports of about 5 million tonnes.

But with lower production, that estimate was revised higher in August to a minimum of 6 million tonnes.

However, the harvest statistics suggest that imports of as much as 8 million tonnes may be required before March next year to ensure domestic requirements are met - and the government has enough stock to regulate domestic prices.

That would push Iran to fifth by volume on the list of global wheat importers in the 2021-22 marketing year - behind Egypt, Indonesia, China and Turkey.

According to Iran's Ports and Maritime Organisation, almost 2 million tonnes of wheat had been discharged from 122 vessels in the first half of the year (from March 21 to September 22).

That is an average vessel size of just 16,400 tonnes.

This suggests that the Caspian Sea trade from Russia and Kazakhstan into the ports of Anzali, Noshahr and Amirabad has been quite active.

Imports have reportedly jumped significantly in recent weeks, with as much as 1.8 million tonnes expected to be discharged in October alone.

Barley output was also adversely impacted by the drought, with final production coming in at about 2.5 million tonnes from 1.8 million hectares.

This is well down on the early harvest expectations of 3.7 million tonnes.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, imports are generally about 3.2 million tonnes each year to meet the country's supply deficit.

But that will need to be increased to more than 5.2 million tonnes to meet domestic demand through to March next year.

While this year's drought has slashed winter crop production, it has also exacerbated several agricultural production issues that have been building for many years due to the scarcity of water, soil salinity, increasing aridity, poor infrastructure and decades of under-investment.

About 90pc of Iran's total water consumption goes into agricultural production.

Groundwater is the primary source, but there is a long history of inefficiency in its distribution network - particularly for the agricultural sector.

The government has been promoting agriculture and allowing the digging of deep wells, but that has exhausted the available water resources and increased soil salinity.

According to official figures, Iran now has 192 dams.

This is about ten times more than it had 40 years ago.

But in such an arid environment, evaporation rates are incredibly high and water transportation infrastructure is poor.

This seriously compromises the efficacy of such investments due to low water use efficiency.

Environmental experts have stated that the current water shortage is also the result of a misplaced perception of agriculture development and progress.

The government continues to be focused on short term solutions to maximise self-sufficiency - not least as a response to economic sanctions and pressure from abroad.

The drought aside, the future of agricultural production in Iran is at a crossroads.

It remains hostage to recurrent volatility, such as drought, floods, locust infestations and earthquakes.

The intense focus on dam construction and tapping the limited groundwater supplies for irrigated crops have exacerbated environmental issues, such as salinity and desertification.

And it has failed in its goal to improve agricultural self-sufficiency and food security.

This story World watches the Middle East crops and grain demand outlook first appeared on Farm Online.