Dr Gholamreza Amini Ranjbar is an Advisor to the Minister of Jahad-e-Agriculture and Director General of the Office for Environment and Sustainable Agriculture.
Events- Nowadays we hear a great deal about environmental protection and the human being's treatment of nature. When did it all start and how has it affected us?
Gholamreza A Ranjbar- Well, some people have always been aware of mankind's mistreatment of nature, but the issue became a serious matter in the second half of the 20th century and culminated in the Stockholm meeting in 1972 which was followed by the Rio de Janeiro meeting in 1992, twenty years later, and the Johannesburg meeting in 2002. The Rio meeting dealt with environmental protection and the preservation of nature very directly and resulted in Agenda 21 which has 40 chapters of which a few chapters concentrate on sustainable agricultural development.
The Johannesburg meeting was the largest ever held, in which more than 100 heads of state and 200 ministers from 180 countries, participated.
But it was the Rio meeting that first gave our country the alarm and warned it about the dangers ahead. So, the High Council for Environmental Protection, which had been formed earlier, was taken more seriously, was consolidated and was helped to form the "National Committee for Sustainable Development," as an arm for the Council to deal with practical issues concerning sustainability. The main point was to bring to view the importance of social, ecological, cultural… dimensions of development which had thus far been based on only two factors of economy and production.
In 1998, Ms Dr Ebtekar submitted a proposal to the government that in all executive organizations and all large companies an office should be set up to deal with environmental issues. All such organizations were notified accordingly and today in most ministries such as the Ministry of Jahad-e-Agriculture there is such an Office and it operates very seriously as one of the Ministry's specialized offices under the direct supervision of the Minister himself.
E- What are the major tasks of this Office?
AR- Our Office has the responsibility of revising the trend of development of the agricultural sector and defining a suitable framework and the related criteria for sustainable agricultural development and environmental issues. The Minister supports this Office to ensure that all the executive sectors of the Ministries believe in it and take it seriously.
During the last two years, that is since the Office was set up, it has been creating specialized groups and bringing about interaction between the Office and universities and higher centers of research and education related to the Ministry. Another important task of the Office is participation in international gatherings.
It is important to note that during the last few decades, particularly, the last four, Iran, like all other countries, has been concentrating on meeting the people's need for food at any cost, irrespective of environmental harms that maybe caused. Now, we are trying to base development on views that take into account all aspects of development: social, economic, technological, environmental, cultural…
We must highlight the importance of preserving the main resources of nature, that is water and soil, as well as the diversity of animal and plant species. We must develop among the people in charge and ultimately among the whole nation a culture that takes into account such matters, through a number of teams that deal with monitoring pollutions, standards and criteria, clean or environmental friendly technology, preservation of basic resources, and development of organic as against synthetic agriculture. I must admit here that we have so far made slow progress and are behind developed countries, but we are in a better situation than many Asian and developing countries.
Following the Rio meeting a commission was set up known as the UN Commission for Sustainable Development which has so far held 12 meetings. The next meeting is to deal with policy-making and is to be held in April or May 2005. This Commission is another outcome of the Rio meeting. We must participate in this meeting as well as in the next meeting of UN Commission on Climatic Change. We participated in the last held in Milan but not in this year's which was held in Argentina. It is very important for us to be present in these meetings to exchange our experiences and information with other nations.
To have safe and healthy food, we must use environmental friendly technology in our agriculture and make sure that we harm nature the least possible. Today, there is even an argument against tillage. In some parts of the world they don't till the ground at all, but this is not possible everywhere and depends on the soil and climatic conditions. Utmost care must be taken that if there is any waste, it can be turned into "green" compost.
E- Isn't shortage of water in the country one of your concerns?
AR- It certainly is. Already our country is faced with shortage of water and severe inefficiency in its use. From the time water is diverted to agricultural fields from wells or dam reservoirs, till it reaches the farm, 60% of the water in this country is lost whereas the average figure for the world is 30%. In the world today, on average, one cubic meter of water gives 1.5 kg of dry agricultural product (e.g. wheat), but in this country the figure is below 0.9 kg. This is a disaster! Furthermore, experts forecast that by 2025 we will be in the red zone of the world, i.e. among countries which face a crisis of water shortage.
But water is not the only problem. We have serious problem with our soil as well. The organic material content of our soil is below 1% whereas in Europe this is 5% on average and in some regions as high as 7%. (Of course the figure is 3% in northern Iran but we have regions where the figure is zero).
Yet we damage this soil, that is already poor, very rapidly by using chemical fertilizers and insecticides without proper control. Another trend that is common in our country as in many others is setting on fire the plant residues that remain on the ground every year thinking it will act as fertilizer. But this works only once and repeating the process will only harm the soil.
In this regard, this Office has recently held The First Seminar on Management of Plant Residues with Emphasis on the Destructive Effects of Burning. This seminar was held with the aim of informing farmers of the adverse consequences of burning residues and issuing regulations to stop such action.
Yet another tragedy is the use of chemical insecticides, i.e. poisons that badly affect the agricultural products and inevitably the people who eat them. And, now, we have the biotechnology coming in that will produce better and juicier oranges, say, but may have side-effects. It is always dangerous to play with nature.
E- But can we feed the whole world through organic, non-chemical agriculture?
AR- It would not be easy. As long as 20% of the world population consumes 80% of world production and that the colossal gap between the poor and the rich keeps on widening, we would face great difficulty in providing safe and healthy food for all the people of the world. The poor are not in a position to demand safe and healthy food. They have to feed themselves simply to stay alive and they cannot afford to pay high prices, whereas the organic agricultural products that we talk about are at present four times as costly as the chemical agricultural products. On the other hand, human greed blinds the farmers who seek larger production and they use chemical fertilizers and insecticides that are harmful to the food they produce, to the soil, to water and to the whole nature in fact. So, as you can see we have a great deal of hard work ahead of us, to teach farmers and consumers, to help farmers to grow healthier food and not to harm nature. We must develop a new culture. It's not going to be easy but it will not be impossible either.
Naturally, the policy-makers of all countries are aware that comprehensive management of all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of this affair is both important and complicated. But it must be proved to the coming generations that they need to benefit from natural resources and God's blessings.