Agriculture not as rosy as gov’t would have us believe

Although officials have been talking about a major leap forward in agricultural production in Turkey since the ruling party first came to power, the recent plummeting of food prices indicates that the country’s agriculture is besieged by many problems.

Mehdi Eker, minister of food, agriculture and animal husbandry, recently boasted that Turkey ranks seventh in the world in terms of agricultural production, but the picture is not as rosy as the minister would have us believe. A recent statement by a leading representative of the agricultural sector reveals that the government must change its agricultural policy.

In the statement, released at the beginning of the past week, the Chamber of Agricultural Engineers (ZMO) said: “As a result of agricultural policies that the [ruling] AK Party [Justice and Development Party] government has persistently sustained in accordance with [norms set by] global powers, our farmlands have shrunk by around 2.7 million hectares over the last 10 years. The amount of land that our farmers have given up to cultivate is about the size of the European country of Belgium.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoilu boasted at a meeting of the Turkish Union of Agricultural Chambers (TZOB) last weekend that Turkey is Europe’s biggest agricultural producer, with the revenue from its agricultural production last year having reached $61.3 billion.

Eker pointed out, in a May 14 statement issued on the occasion of World Farmers’ Day, that the government would give farmers a total of TL 10 billion ($3.8 billion) in subsidies this year.

But the government has been much criticized by the opposition, which says that if the subsidies offered to farmers had been sufficient, they would not have stopped cultivating a significant portion of the country’s land.

The agricultural subsidies provided by the government to farmers amounts to about one-half of 1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), but it should really be as high as 1 percent, according to a law on agriculture introduced in 2007.

“The subsidies provided to agriculture in 2014 should have [actually] been TL 17 billion. You are entitled to bigger [subsidies],” Kemal Kilicdaroilu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told farmers’ representatives at last weekend’s TZOB meeting.

He suggested that the farmers would win their case if they were to take the issue to court, underlining that the financial aid transferred in subsidies to the sector is well below what it should be.

The country’s agricultural exports, valued at around $4 billion in 2002 when the ruling AK Party came to power, increased to $18 billion last year.

Minister Eker also stressed in his statement that Turkey has become a net exporter of food, but the country’s imports in agriculture have also skyrocketed.

According to the CHP leader, who said farmers were paid TL 9 million ($3.5 billion) in subsidies in 2014, Turkey paid TL 350 billion ($135 billion) in imports in food and agricultural products.

Noting that Turkey last year paid TL 44 billion ($17 billion) for imports in food and agricultural products, the CHP leader said at the meeting: “This is exactly five times higher than the subsidies [for 2014]. If Turkey had been governed intelligently, this picture would be in reverse.”

“If they [the government] had paid half this amount to farmers [in subsidies], I assure you that we could have raised enough food to sustain not only Turkey but also the Middles East,” the CHP leader explained.

The yearly cost of Turkey’s agricultural imports has risen more than four times since the AK Party came to power in 2002, suggesting that the country’s performance with regard to self-sufficiency in agricultural production is on the decline.

While the amount of money Turkey paid for imported agricultural products was $1.69 billion during 2002, it totaled $8.62 billion between April 2014 and March 2015, rising by a dramatic 409 percent.

Turkey’s imports in food products last year reached more than $5.6 billion, iemsi Kopuz, the president of the Federation of Food and Drink Industry Associations of Turkey (TGDF), said at a press meeting last month.

According to official data, Turkey imported agricultural products from 153 countries in 2014. Bahrain, Belize, Cambodia, Djibouti, the Dominican Republic, Iceland, Jamaica, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Qatar, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Surinam, Venezuela and Zambia are among the countries which have been added as import partners of Turkey for agricultural products over the years.

The sharp hike in recent months in the prices of certain food products, which is not surprising given that farmers have given up farming a sizable portion of land in the past 10 years, also indicates problems waiting to be resolved in agriculture.

Unusually high potato prices — as much as TL 5 ($1.9) a kilogram — have made the news at various times in Turkey this year. The government pins the blame on speculators, vowing that it would fight against the stockpiling of food. Potato prices have as much as tripled since last year. Stockpiling is generally conducted by middlemen who withhold large quantities of produce, only to release it on the market when prices increase.

The opposition also indicates that the share of agriculture in national product has diminished by half since the ruling party came to power.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman