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The return of Iran’s agricultural sector

The appointment of the founder of a major biotechnology application to head of the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran (ABRII) has renewed hopes that agriculture in Iran is on the cusp of a revival.
An Iranian artist shows his art work, a grain of rice with a sentence from the Koran written on it, at the annual International Koran Exhibition in Tehran October 24, 2004. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl  MN/GB - RTRE1VH

TEHRAN — The founder of modern agricultural biotechnology in Iran is back, and with him, hopes of much-needed reform in the country’s agricultural sector.

After an eight-year hiatus under the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Behzad Ghareyazie was in January reappointed head of the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran (ABRII), the institute he established 15 years ago.

During Ghareyazie's previous stretch as ABRII’s director, from 1999 to 2005, he tried to create the infrastructure needed for Iran to benefit from modern agricultural biotechnology. This included the production and official commercialization in 2004 of the first genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant rice cultivar in Iran.

Regardless of the arguments in favor or against GM crops, the achievement was considered a great technological step for Iran, a country where rice is a main food source and a strategic agricultural product. It also put Iran’s name on the map as the first country in the region to produce transgenic rice.

This success, however, was short-lived. With Ahmadinejad taking office in 2005, the door was closed to GM rice cultivation. The Ahmadinejad administration decided against supporting the release of GM crops despite the extensive research and development in the area.

More than 120 kilograms (264.5 pounds) of GM rice was locked up in a warehouse in the northern Iranian city of Rasht. Ghareyazie, a vocal critic of the government’s agricultural and biotechnology policies, was relieved of all of his governmental posts.

He continued his research, however, while serving as head of the Modern Technologies Division of the Center for Strategic Research, a leading Iranian think tank headed by President Hassan Rouhani until August 2013. Ghareyazie also acted as president of the Biosafety Society of Iran and Agronomy and Plant Breeding Society of Iran, and he was a member of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI) steering committee.

Ghareyazie earlier attributed the halt to Iran’s transgenic rice cultivation to two main factors: the lack of harmonization among different ministries and organizations in Iran (namely, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Organization) and what was said to be the lack of a national biosafety law in the country.

Instead of introducing more advanced technology in its agricultural sector, Iran’s administration at the time opted to maintain traditional and unsustainable rice cultivation methods practiced throughout the years while importing millions of tons of rice annually from India, Pakistan and Uruguay.

The same administration that claimed GM crops lacked the necessary safety standards also began to import huge shipments of GM soy, colza and corn for domestic consumption. According to Iranian agriculture experts, $5 billion worth of transgenic crops were imported last year alone, while the technology for production existed at home.

Today, some 170 million hectares (1,378 acres) of land around the world are under cultivation with GM crops. Iran, once a forerunner in this field, is clearly lagging behind. But there is hope for change. 

In his inauguration speech as ABRII’s new director last month, Ghareyazie said, “Today is the day when we should join hands and make up for the suspension of our country’s progress, a suspension that was caused by technophobia, and regain Iran’s lost status in the field of agricultural engineering.”

The past years have seen the necessary groundwork laid, including the adoption of a national biosafety law. Now, Iranian authorities must take further measures to fulfill the country’s long-sought goal of achieving self-sufficiency in food production.

The reappointment of Ghareyazie as head of ABRII is a major sign of the Rouhani administration’s priorities. It is not, however, enough. Apart from the incorporation and use of modern technology in the agricultural sector, Iranian producers need much broader support.

Billions of dollars will continue to be spent on importing food unless measures are taken to ensure that the cultivation of strategic crops is profitable in Iran. Here, the Rouhani administration’s implementation of the country’s subsidy reform law is set to play a crucial role. The law sets aside a major share of the resources saved via cuts in subsidies to support domestic producers. Under the Ahmadinejad administration, such support had virtually been nil, because most savings were used to fund cash payments to households.

While renewed efforts to prepare the technological groundwork for Iranian agriculture to bloom are a positive development, broader support for Iranian producers is needed to take this sector into the 21st century.

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