The challenges faced by nature-inclusive agriculture in Iran are multifaceted. Yet, the number of private sector initiatives in Iran is mushrooming. For Dutch companies, there are several opportunities for collaboration, trade and knowledge exchange in the areas of nature-inclusive agricultural technologies, biofertilizers and biocontrol, IPM as well as water management in agriculture. The recognition of the quality of Dutch agricultural inputs and of Dutch innovation is high. In the area of marketing, Dutch and Iranian companies could learn from each other, as online marketing in Iran is very advanced.
Over the past few decades, Iran has seen a steady increase in agricultural production and productivity, making it one of the leading agricultural countries in the Middle East. Although most of its agricultural systems are conventional, Iran’s nature-inclusive practices are becoming more successful. At government level, water efficient agriculture is high priority. Also, organic agriculture is identified as a new topic for innovation.
UN support through small grants and research
The UN Development Programme (UNDP), FAO and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) support Iran's transition towards a more nature-inclusive approach in agriculture. In a wetland program, UNDP seeks to balance wetland conservation and agricultural production. In another project, UNDP and GEF facilitate training for farmers in ecologically sound farming techniques such as agroforestry and integrated pest management, and in supply chain development and marketing. The Small Grants Programme (SGP) of the UNDP funded small projects that promote nature-inclusive agricultural practices. The FAO supports the Iranian government in setting up research networks and developing sustainable agriculture policies.
Many consumer labels
Unfortunately, consumer awareness of sustainable agriculture and food is low in Iran and there is no national system in place for certification of organic or environmental-friendly produce. ‘Developing a good marketing concept is key to be able to make up for the higher costs of nature inclusive agriculture. Consumer behavior needs to change towards healthier food, but higher costs may be inhibitive as the value of healthy and sustainable food is not fully recognized yet,’ says an Iranian online marketeer. ‘There are too many labels that the Iranian consumers can choose from. Having producers with a good story can make much difference,’ adds another marketeer.
Despite these obstacles, many start-ups are venturing into the new subsector and consumer markets are allocating more and more (online) shelve space for nature-inclusive products. Entrepreneurs develop farm-to-fork concepts, launch regional labels of origin, or focus on technology transfer for agro-ecological farming.
Wild almonds and urban Farm-to-fork concept
One particularly inspirational example is Parvand. Starting as a joint marketing initiative for rose water essence from rainfed farms, Parvand has grown into a platform for nature-friendly foods and handicrafts from villages in the southern part of Fars province. The farmers use rainwater only, leaving the overstretched groundwater sources alone. When collecting wild almonds and pistachios, they leave part of the fruits on the trees to share with the wild bears that roam the mountains. Parvand sells its products in its Tehran shop and online, with a region of origin label.
Another initiative is Farm Café, located near Teheran. Farm Café is an ecotourism start-up that offers a range of programs, events, and educational trips involving agriculture and nature themes. With a two-hectare farm that boasts over 100 types of medicinal herbs, the company receives 15,000 visitors each year, of which children make up the majority.
Opla City Farm in Mashhad is challenging the perception of urban areas as consumers and rural areas as producers. With the support of Mashhad municipality (three million inhabitants), Opla started a one-hectare urban farm. It has 400 members who each rent 25 square meters of urban land to cultivate their own healthy vegetable basket. Opla centrally organizes the access for its members to biofertilizers and -pesticides, to assure safe food and sustainable agriculture practices. In addition to this farm, Opla supported Mashhad city to establish 40 green waste collection points to make compost. Part of this compost is used on the farm.
Technical or marketing support is essential for scaling up. Cenesta, the Centre for Sustainable Development, is an organization dedicated to promote sustainable community- and culture-based development. Presently, it concentrates on enhancing wheat and barley seed quality. It has established a network of farmers in Kermanshah and other provinces and supports them to preserve and breed superior quality local seeds that require minimal fertilizers and pesticides by applying agro-ecological principles.
Keshmoon is a start-up that set up an online marketing platform for farmers who prioritize water. The company offers vocational training and consulting services to assist farmers on environmentally friendly production. Not only do these farmers produce in a water-efficient way and conserve the water quality, but they also assure irrigation via rehabilitation of ancient underground Persian Qanats. The produce is organic, such as saffron, honey, berries, dates, and rice.
Recently, with the assistance of national, Dutch and international consultants, a feasibility study has been launched into using international standards in fisheries for Iranian producers. It developed a road map for the introduction of Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards for the shrimp supply chain.
Supermarkets and e-commerce
What do the supermarkets and e-commerce platforms do? Digikala is the largest e-commerce platform in Iran, say the Amazon of Iran. It attracts almost 40 million unique visitors to its website each month, for over 7 million products. In 2020, the company launched the Boomi Mahalli initiative which aims to empower local businesses in underprivileged areas. The initiative provides support, streamlined registration and product submission processes, and offers shipping and warehousing services. Currently, there are approximately 3,500 local retailers participating in this project. A good part of these are producers of healthy food products for which no chemicals are used.
There are a few specialized shop chains for organic products serving the high end of the market. The bigger supermarkets do not yet have much shelf-space for environmentally friendly products. In meetings they indicated however to be doing studies and developing business cases on environmentally friendly product lines.
Would you like to know more about the current developments in the domain of agriculture and nature in Iran or contact the agricultural team at the Netherlands Embassy in Iran?
You can visit the country page of Iran at the website agroberichtenbuitenland.nl of the Netherlands ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. You can also send an email to TEHfirstname.lastname@example.org