IRAN: 2008/09 Wheat Production Declines Due to Drought
Iran had experienced a more favorable early season rainfall situation than its drought-plagued neighbors of Iraq and Syria, but conditions rapidly deteriorated in February, March, and April 2008. Well-above-normal temperatures combined with well-below-normal rainfall caught much of the country’s 2008/09 wheat crop at critically sensitive yield formation growth stages. Drought and heat stress is expected to cause significant losses to the nation’s winter grain crops. Wheat production is expected to decline 20 percent compared to last year, to the lowest level in the past six years. As the map at the right illustrates, most of Iran’s non-irrigated wheat area is concentrated in the northwest sector of the country where drought and extreme temperatures have been especially prevalent. This year’s projected shortfall in winter grain production could lead to a significant increase in grain imports, with the government already reported to have sanctioned the importation of 2.0 million tons of wheat.
Rainfall conditions have been significantly less favorable than last year across most of Iran during the 2008/09 grain growing season, averaging 50 percent of normal or less. The latter half of the season proved the most unfavorable, with most wheat growing areas receiving less than 30 percent of normal moisture. Last year’s above normal rainfall led to near-record wheat yields, and allowed the country to be essentially self-sufficient in wheat production. This year’s adverse weather will substantially reduce wheat yield potential in the major non-irrigated portion of the crop, which in a normal year accounts for about 30 percent of total production or 5.0 million tons. Extreme temperatures which averaged 4-7 degrees Celsius above normal for the 45 day period of March 1-April 15, may also cause some yield decline in irrigated crops owing to heat stress. Irrigation supplies may also be somewhat inadequate this year, as farmers in Iraq and Syria have experienced both falling water tables and reduced flow through major river systems. Agricultural areas receiving near-to-above normal rainfall this year were very limited. These areas in normal years account for 15 percent or less of the nation’s total wheat output.
Like its neighbors in Iraq and Syria, there was a problem with insufficient rainfall this year during the main planting period (October to December) in the primary wheat producing regions of Iran. Little to no measurable rain fell in many areas during October and November, until finally arriving in December to support crop emergence and early establishment. Much of the northwestern rainfed grain heartland received near-normal rainfall accumulations during December and January, including moderate levels of winter snowfall. As the season progressed however into February, March, and April, rainfall systems rarely penetrated into Iran, and moisture accumulations were extremely light. Just as crops emerged from dormancy beneath light snows, they quickly ran out of available soil moisture as daytime temperatures rose to the 30-35 degree Celsius range. Evaporative loss of moisture in these conditions was well in excess of available supplies, resulting in widespread crop moisture stress.
In March Iran reported that approximately 50 percent of its agricultural lands were being affected by drought conditions this year. Given a review of current moderate resolution satellite imagery from the Spot satellite, this appears to be an understatement. Widespread drought conditions appear to be affecting the majority of agricultural areas, with 65 percent of the nation’s rainfed wheat area and 80 percent of its irrigated wheat area lying within the affected regions. The only areas at this time which appear to have relatively positive vegetative conditions are in the provinces of Kordestan, Hamedan, Zanjan, and Khorasan which collectively account for only 25 percent of national wheat production. These four provinces account for approximately 1.5 million hectares of rainfed wheat area and 1.35 million tons of rainfed wheat production, or 35 percent of total rainfed wheat area and 30 percent of rainfed wheat production respectively. These provinces also contain about 20 percent of the national irrigated wheat crop area and 18 percent of irrigated wheat production. The worst-affected areas appear to be the provinces of Mazandaran, Fars, Bushehr, Kohkiluyeh va Boyrahmad, Khuzestan, Ilam, Lorestan, and Kermanshah.
Wheat production prospects in the 2008/09 growing season are expected to be the worst since the 1999-2001 period, when total production fell to between 8.0-9.5 million tons. Region-wide drought was prevalent in the Middle East during these years, with Iran’s subsequent wheat import needs rising to record high levels of 6-7 million tons each year. As illustrated in the regional wheat production map below, at least 75 percent of the country’s wheat production is focused in areas affected by deficient moisture that are showing much reduced vegetation in the satellite image analysis.
Owing to the severity of current conditions and the breadth of areas impacted, wheat production in 2008/09 is forecast by USDA at 12.0 million tons, down 3.0 million or 20 percent from last year. Wheat harvest activities generally occur between May and August, with the rainfed crop being the earliest to mature. Given the continuing development of the drought, and its intensification in recent months, even later maturing winter grain crops are potentially in danger. Seasonal rainfall typically falters after April, so only crops with adequate irrigation reserves will survive to produce near-normal yields this year. Losses to winter grain production are expected to be substantial enough to have serious ramifications in the domestic food and feed grain market during the 2008/09 marketing year.
Iranian farmers cultivate an average of 6.6 million hectares of wheat each year, of which about 2.6 million or 39 percent is irrigated. The remaining 4.0 million hectares or 61 percent of total wheat area is totally reliant on rainfall during its growth cycle. Both irrigated and non-irrigated wheat production is widely distributed throughout the country, with virtually all provinces contributing to overall production. However, the majority of both rainfed and irrigated crops are concentrated in the northwestern region of the country where drought and excessive heat have been prevalent this year.
In 1999/00 when Iran suffered from extreme drought, total wheat production declined approximately 3.3 million tons or 28 percent from the previous year. On a regional basis the drought impact was felt the greatest in the northwest provinces, which experienced an almost 50 percent drop in total wheat production. The central and eastern regions experienced less severe conditions overall, recording production losses of 17 and 12 percent respectively.
Since the drought years of 1999-2001 Iran has gradually expanded the proportion of its grain acreage that is irrigated, though total wheat area has remained relatively stable. The growth in irrigation has contributed to the gradual but persistent increase in national wheat yields, which have risen almost 40 percent since the mid-to-late 1990’s. As long as irrigation reserves are adequate in most provinces, Iran has the capability of producing at least 10.0 million tons of wheat on a regular basis. The expansion of irrigated crop area had the general benefit of providing relative self-sufficiency in grain production, but has not completely insulated the grain economy from significant setbacks during years of extreme weather. The satellite imagery analysis above clearly shows that rainfed wheat crops are suffering significant declines this year in important northwest and central growing regions. What is unknown is whether irrigation supplies are adequate to keep irrigated crop yield potential at normal levels, or whether total irrigated wheat area will decline as a consequence of drought. Crop water demands in the current hot dry weather conditions are expected to be above normal levels, as there have been little to no supplemental rain since January to carry the crop between irrigations. If nothing else, it is reasonable to assume that irrigated crop yields will show some decline, and therefore that irrigated wheat production will fall below last year.
Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.