Economy, Domestic Economy

Is Food Self-Sufficiency Achievable?

Is Food Self-Sufficiency Achievable? Is Food Self-Sufficiency Achievable?

Food security and self-sufficiency have often been discussed in Iran as two interdependent variables in the context of food policy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, experts now believe due to ecological constraints, among other reasons, the two concepts might need to be separated from each other.

While the notion of food security (access to adequate and safe food for all) does not necessarily call for attaining self-sufficiency (through domestic production of food), food self-sufficiency itself closely depends upon certain factors, the lack of which might make it quite impossible for some countries to meet their food demand on their own.

The Persian daily Ta’aadol has analyzed the status of food policies in terms of the two notions of food security and self-sufficiency.

The report is based on the result of a study prepared for the Center for Strategic Studies of the Presidency by Abdolmajid Mahdavi-Damghani, deputy head of the Agroecology Department at Shahid Beheshti University, who is also the secretary of the Agroecology Association of Iran.


  State Responsibility

Providing the population with healthy and adequate food is the responsibility of the state, which is also in charge of formulating related policies on food security.

Over the past three decades since the Islamic Revolution, successive administrations have, without exception, focused on the necessity of food security.  Development plans and other strategic documents at the macroeconomic level all state that the country must attain self-sufficiency in food.

A glance at statistics, however, reveals that practically speaking they have barely proven successful so far, Ta’aadol daily writes.   

The newspaper cites from statistics published by the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) that the country meets almost half of its demand for food via imports, stating that Iran annually purchases almost 60% of wheat and 72% of red meat it needs from other countries.


Certain criteria need to be observed, if self-sufficiency is to be attained in food, Mahdavi-Damghani underlines in his survey.  

“To achieve food self-sufficiency, several political, economic, technical, and ecological capacities must be available,” he says.

At policy level, agriculture has never been given priority for the past five decades. “The prevailing atmosphere has hindered investment in agriculture, as high-lever policymakers and officials believe investment in agriculture is not “justifiable”, as the rate of return on investment for industries is “at least four times higher than that of agriculture,” according to the expert.

“Instead of focusing its resources on a wide range of industries, the state could have allocated a budget to the development of the required equipment for developing food sufficiency,” notes the export, adding that this could have improved the current situation with food security in the country.  

From an economic point of view, prolonged bottlenecks faced by the country after the revolution have impeded the development of agricultural infrastructure. The Iraqi-imposed war (1980-88) and the post-war economic crisis, plunging oil prices, and new round of sanctions imposed by West are named in the study as some of these obstacles.

Mahdavi-Damghani goes on to examine the available technical capacities in the country for achieving self-reliance in providing food. Lack of knowledge in food production and agricultural research, and poor knowledge of management at high levels indicate that Iran lacks the required technical capacity to achieve self-reliance in the field of food security.

While all the three criteria discussed (political, economic, and technical) can be attributed to mismanagement of food planners, there is still a fourth factor that might not have anything to do with human factors, i.e. the ecological capacity.    

  Ecological Factor

Regardless of other farming factors like land and soil fertility among others, and assuming that the cultivation methods – most importantly the improperly managed irrigation system —  are revised, “our limited water resources still do not allow for meeting the food demand of the whole population,” according to Mahdavi-Damghani.

The agroecology expert said that this is even intensified by the fact that the country has been suffering from prolonged droughts in the past 30 years.

Any effort to meet food demand domestically will thus intensify the pressure on available water and soil resources, he concludes, which will undoubtedly produce disastrous results.

“The ecologic capacity of the country cannot tolerate any further pressure on the resources,” he said, adding that if the authorities keep insisting on self-sufficiency, we might lose more lakes, as in the case of Lake Urmia.  

  Change of Approach

Considering the restrictions, it might be better not to bind food security with food self-sufficiency, Mahdavi-Damghani suggests in his study.  

The government might thus need to change its motto, he says, shifting its focus from sole emphasis on self-sufficiency to providing food via all domestic and international channels.

“Too much emphasis on self-sufficiency has had no result but to confuse farmers and experts, wasting the budget, and leading to waste of land, time and basic resources,” he adds.  

Mahdavi-Damghani however says that still all policies need to be focused on maximization of self-sufficiency and cutting dependency on others via enhanced domestic production and efficiency, suggesting that international policies can be adopted to complement domestic efforts.

  Trans-Territorial Culture

The prospect of food grain does not look very promising in the long-run, said the expert, as due to rapid economic growth, countries like China and India are experiencing a change in their demand for food, and becoming more dependent on imports.

The expert concludes: “Thus, we cannot rely on international markets to meet our food demand forever.”

Instead, he suggests we can grab the opportunity to produce our agricultural products – especially the ones that need high amounts of water or those that negatively affect the environment – outside the country.

However, certain security, geopolitical, and economic considerations need to be thoroughly investigated and explored before taking any measure in this regard.