Iran enjoys good food security: FAO rep.

Gerold Bödeker, FAO Representative to the Islamic Republic of Iran, told Mehr News Agency in an exclusive interview that Iran has good food security.

Gerold Bödeker, FAO Representative to the Islamic Republic of Iran, told Mehr News Agency in an exclusive interview on the occasion of 'World Food Day' that Iran has good food security and food safety index.

Here is the full text of the interview:

What makes the World Food Day different this year?

This year, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the world is experiencing a different situation and all aspects of our routine lives have been affected by the pandemic, including the food we use. According to the latest report the Global State of Food Security and Nutrition released by FAO and other UN agencies about, around 690 million people or 8.9 percent of the world population are hungry. Compared to the previous figures, this number is up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years. At the same time, the report revealed that 750 million are exposed to severe levels of food insecurity, and about 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

In these circumstances, it is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic and its collateral economic consequences may add between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020, depending on the economic growth scenario.

Also, the nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

What are FAO’s key messages for this year’s World Food Day, and how do you see Iran’s contribution to those messages.

The COVID-19 global health crisis has been a time to reflect on things we truly cherish and our most basic needs. These uncertain times have made many of us rethink our appreciation for a thing that some take for granted, and many go without: food.

Food is the essence of life and the bedrock of our cultures and communities. Preserving access to safe and nutritious food is and will continue to be an essential part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for poor and vulnerable communities, who are hit hardest by the pandemic and resulting economic shocks.

In a moment like this, it is more important than ever to recognise the need to support our food heroes - farmers and workers throughout the food system - who are making sure that food makes its way from farm to fork even amid disruptions as unprecedented as the current COVID-19 crisis.

As an old Member State to FAO, Iran has been contributing to FAO’s mandate on Food and Nutrition Security and as an individual country enjoys a very good food security and food safety index.

In your opinion, what are key policies to ensure food and nutrition security for all?

In light of COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world need to work together in solidarity and urgently to address the devastating effects that the pandemic-induced economic slowdown will have on the most vulnerable populations.

Across the globe, the authorities should prioritise the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable households by expanding and improving emergency food assistance and social protection programmes to establish safe conditions and ensure decent incomes to support the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and food chain workers.

It is also required to establish policies and adopt measures that support sustainable food systems and promote climate-smart and environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

Supporting smallholder agricultural producers, promoting market alternatives like e-commerce, as well as advocating nutrition-sensitive and biodiversity-smart food production for improved dietary health are among other recommended measured in this regard.

It is also critical to prioritise innovation and digitalization in agriculture sector. We need to close the digital gap and ensure that technology flows along food supply chain as it has the potential to improve both the food system and the livelihoods of farmers and food chain workers.

Could you please elaborate further on FAO's main activities in the country, especially those domains that are interrelated to food and nutrition safety and security?

FAO retains a comparative advantage in the provision of policy and technical assistance in a broad range of disciplines addressing the challenges faced by the country. With its global capacity and technical expertise, FAO is well placed to support the government's initiatives to reinforce its existing institutional structures and capabilities in promoting more comprehensive and cross-cutting interventions, engaging the participation of all pertinent stakeholders and mobilizing support from other external entities to enable effective and coordinated development programmes in the four priority areas of i) Sustainable and Climate-smart Agriculture, ii) Food and Nutrition Security, and Food Safety, iii) Inclusive and Resilient Rural Development, and iv) Knowledge-based Economy and Society.

FAO is implementing a number of projects in Iran, supporting the government in its efforts to improve the food and nutrition security and safety situations.

The Organization implements an emergency Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project to strengthen the capacity of Iran’s Plant Protection Organization in controlling and monitoring desert locust as the most important migratory pest in the country. This capacity building will contribute to controlling the expected future desert locust outbreaks and mitigating its destructive effects; given the fact that if it is left unabated, it can put millions of livelihoods at risk, and threaten the environment, food security and economic development in Iran.

FAO also implements a TCP project in Iran to assist the country in rehabilitating the soil and water resources and enhancing the resilience of agriculture system and rural communities against climate change and climatic disasters. As part of this project, FAO strengthens national and local capacities, providing knowledge, skills and equipment for climate-resilient irrigation design, flood and drought risk management, and climate-risk informed soil and water management approaches, all aimed at reducing risks and enhancing the resilience of stakeholders, enabling them to cope with future extreme events.

This UN agency, likewise, implements another TCP project to assist the country in improving its marine cage culture sub-sector as an alternative supply source of healthy animal proteins, which could provide alternative livelihoods, particularly to coastal communities. These include technical capacities as well as supporting the Government’s efforts to increase the production from this aquaculture sub-sector sustainably. In the framework of this project, the Organization mobilises international and national expertise on marine cage culture and works with Iran in crafting sustainable development strategies to harness technical improvements in feed production, species selection, biosecurity and disease control, and digital innovations, while setting the foundations for reliable investments and effective trade flow.

Besides, FAO implements a Technical Cooperation project on Rehabilitation of Forest Landscapes and Degraded Land in two provinces of South Khorasan and Kerman. This project focuses on the main threats to land and forest resources in Iran by removing key barriers to Sustainable Land and Forest Management (SLFM). The goal is to restore and enhance biodiversity and the capacity of degraded forest lands to provide for sustainable livelihoods, food and nutrition security and combat desertification. The project achieves this by: (i) strengthening local and national capacity to implement participatory integrated SLFM initiatives; (ii) adopting and implementing sustainable alternative livelihoods options; and (iii) mainstreaming these approaches into national plans, policies, and processes.

Given the fact that Iran is facing an increasing challenge in terms of water scarcity, FAO works on supporting the country in managing its limited fresh water resources. In this regards, FAO provides the country with knowledge, skill and accessibility to data that are required to conduct Water Accounting in two regions of Qazvin Plain (Qazvin Irrigation Network) and the Urmia Lake Basin.

Water accounting is the process of collecting, analysing, summarizing and reporting the water related information, which plays an important role in FAO projects in Iran. The aim of conducting water accounting exercise in a domain, e.g. Urmia Lake Basin, is to communicate key information on water in a standardize language to support decision-making process. Water accounting outputs in FAO projects, reveals how water is used across different sectors and help shape and understanding of the benefits and existing trade-off of the water allocations and use patterns. The integrated and cross sectoral presentation of the information in water accounting helps the users (decision-makers) to see the bigger picture and cross linkage in water management. Thus, it is tool to support integrated water management approach.

As an example, the Rapid Assessment of the Water Accounting conducted in Urmia Lake Basin as a sub-activity under the FAO led project of “Sustainable Water Resource Management in the Urmia Lake Basin”. The aim of Water Accounting in the Urmia Kale Basin was to apply WA+ methods in the area to provide the much needed information on water use and supply pattern in the Basin. It consisted of the three main components, including: 1) Producing original monthly maps of Evapotranspiration for the Basin; 2) Applying WA+ to the Basin as a whole and a simple water balance for a cluster of four sub-basins in west of the Lake; and 3) Capacity Building in providing an understanding of the concept of the water accounting and basic principles behind WA+

There are some claims, by certain experts, that Iran is able enough to produce and supply its demands for strategic agricultural products domestically. In contrast, there are opposite views, arguing that such a policy is a mistake considering the given water and soil resources of the country. In this regard, how do you see the situation?  

The answer, in general terms, is yes, but at high economic and environmental costs. I would like to draw your attention to the development and over-expansion of agricultural activities in Urmia Lake Basin over the last couple of decades, which led to an increase in agricultural water consumption in the area, contributing significantly to the shrinkage of water level and desiccation of Urmia Lake.

In addition, I would like to highlight the essential role played by international, regional and local food trade in making sure the food is produced and available in the most efficient manner in different corners of the world. Trade is both domestic and global. So self-sufficiency is not a master plan being advised to be adopted by all countries. That said, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu has emphasized that all countries should seek to increase food production as a way to keep supply chains alive and ease accessibility for all.

In this regard, the development and implementation of different crop patterns can contribute to the attainment of higher land productivity and increased crop production. This is closely related to the idea of comparative advantage, which indicates that the countries do not need and may not be able to be the best in producing all agricultural products which in the case of Iran is very much linked to water scarcity.

It worth mentioning that Iran covers diverse agro-ecological zones suitable for cultivating different crops, including staple, oilseed, legume, root and tuber, vegetable, and animal feed. It is therefore important to assess and map these agro-ecological zones, water availability and develop appropriate crop patterns, facilitating the securing optimal and sustainable agricultural outputs, while preserving natural resources.

As an example, in one of the FAO ongoing Regional projects, entitled “Implementing the 2030 Agenda for water efficiency/productivity and water sustainability in NENA countries” by developing a theoretical framework and an advanced crop mapping methodology for Qazvin Irrigation Network (QIN) as the study area in Iran, FAO supports the national authorities to prepare two seasonal crop maps for the reference year. In fact, without up to date and reliable crop maps, it is not possible to count on the results of the models and methodologies applied to conduct Water Accounting (WA), estimate the crop Water Productivity (WP) and assess the Water Sustainability. Reflecting crops planted in the QIN, the crop type maps would be provided for two seasons. The first seasonal crop map will detail the crops cultivated in the Fall 2019 and harvested at the end of Spring 2020 including classes of wheat, barley, alfalfa, rapeseed, fallow, orchard, grapes and other cultivated areas. And the second map will delineate the crops cultivated in Spring and Summer 2020 and harvested in Fall 2020 covering the classes of corn, sugar beet, irrigated vegetables, fallow, orchard, grapes and other cultivated areas.

It is expected that since autumn cultivation season, Phase I of crop pattern is going to be implemented in the country. Do you think it is feasible? And what impacts will the crop map implementation have on the country's agriculture sector?

Regarding the first part of your question, I would like to mention the fact that Iran is a country with different agro-ecological zones. In this regard and based on the different agro-ecological factors, such as weather (temperature, rainfall), soil characteristics and fertility, water and other natural resources, the country can map and test the crops that are suitable for different agro-ecological zones. Furthermore, as per crop season, growth period, and output of interaction of different crops, the cropping patterns for those agro-ecological zones can be further developed and implemented.

For that purpose, Iran has very strong capacities in research and extension in crop production in the country and is strengthening the capacity of human capital in the agriculture sector, particularly the young generation of researchers, extensionists, and farmers.

In respect to the potential impacts of the implementation of such crop patterns on the country's agriculture sector, we can expect an increase in productivity of farmlands and sustainability of crop production, more efficient utilisation of natural resources, improvements in food and nutrition security and betterment of livelihoods. Likewise, implementing certain crop patterns, including crop rotation or intercropping, can disrupt the pest cycle, helping the farmers to contain the diseases caused on routine.

Considering the fact that vast/extensive forest fires cause huge damages to Iran's forest and natural resources; in your view, what are the main causes of such fires and how these disasters can be prevented?

It is a well-documented fact that across the world, people are the cause of 90% of fires. Challenges such as limited access to alternative approaches to fire, accidents, weak understanding of fire risk, machinery, negligence, carelessness and poor practices are among the main human-induced factors causing forest fires.  However, the occurrence of forest fires is also related to the amount of fuel available to burn in concerned areas, the dryness of the fuel, which is the result of the annual dry seasons when there is a lack of rainfall or drought and the activities of people are the main source of forest fire ignitions.

To prevent the re-occurrence or mitigate the wildfires, it is crucial, at the first step, to obtain a well understanding of such disasters. In this regard, the first step is to review and analyse the fires in the country systematically. Where do they occur? How many? How large? What time of year? What are the sources of fires? Who lights the fires? Why do they light the fires? 

This step of review and analysis of fires is essential in planning for risk reduction, readiness to fight wildfires including monitoring and early warning early action, response to wildfires and recovery of the restoration of landscapes, livelihoods and assets impacted by wildfires, which constitute the concept of Integrated Fire Management.

Furthermore, FAO has developed Voluntary Guidelines and Fire Management Strategy, providing a set of ideas to use in assessing needs and to build a soundly based and sustainable fire management system.

Over the last two years, the Desert Locust infestation has challenged the country extensively. There are some claims, implying that certain countries that were invaded by this pest before Iran have failed in fighting against Desert Locust and as a result, such tremendous infestation occurred in our country. Does FAO confirm this issue? Why did those countries fail to act appropriately in this regard? Why was the invasion over the last two years such extensive and widespread?

All affected countries by Desert Locust have mobilized teams and national resources to combat the infestations in their territories. They are certainly doing the best possible to contain and reduce locust numbers. But we must bear in mind the inherent difficulties of controlling Desert Locust because they exist in large, remote areas which are difficult to access. There are other challenges in trying to find all the infestations and treat them on time. This is normal in the management of Desert Locust. This is vastly different than managing a seasonal pest that stays in a farmer’s field.

According to what was forecasted, as vegetation dried out over early summer and adult locusts form swarms in southern Iran and moved east to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. Therefore, locust numbers declined as they migrated, and the situation improved significantly in Iran.

The Ministry of Agriculture Jahad and its Plant Protection Organization have done a tremendous job in controlling the Desert Locust infestations in Iran. According to Plant Protection Organization, a minimum damage has accrued to food production section.

The occurrence of desert locust infestation dates back thousands of years, but the recent intense outbreaks can also be linked to climate change, and the increased frequency of extreme weather events across large parts of the African continent, Middle Eastern countries and Indian subcontinent region. Climatic events such as increases in temperature and rainfall over desert areas that led to an increase in the moisture of soil and green vegetation as well as strong winds associated with tropical cyclones create favourable conditions for desert locust reproduction, development and migration.

FAO Representation in the Islamic Republic of Iran is continuing to support the national authorities in the Plant Protection Organization to enhance the existing capacity of national pest management officers and enable them to perform an even better control and monitor operations. FAO is determined to extend its support through pesticide and sprayer restocking to raise the preparedness level of Iran for future invasions.

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