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Inspections next hurdle for Turkey's growing organic market

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 1/30/2010 12:00:00 AM | Işıl Eğrikavuk

As organic food and products gain more popularity among Turkish consumers, the number of shops and supermarkets targeting 'health-conscious' audiences increase. Some producers, however, have concerns that the popularity of organic products might result in problems in standardization of quality and price

A third Istanbul market selling organic food has opened this week in Kadıköy, providing further evidence that consumer demand for such produce shows no signs of diminishing.

But while citizens concerned about the use of pesticides in food production welcomed the new market, confusion reigns as to what, precisely, constitutes “organic” food and how such products should be regulated.

The new market, a collaborative effort between the Kadıköy municipality and the Ecologic Producers Association, will be held every Wednesday in the Selamiçeşme neighborhood’s Özgürlük Park.

“I used to commute to Kartal every week to buy organic food,” said Kadıköy resident Zafer Günsoy. “I will start coming here every week.”

Another local resident agreed. “I didn’t want to go to Feriköy or Kartal, so I had to buy from the regular market before,” said Nathan Ryerson, a Canadian who has been living in Kadıköy for the past three years.

As organic food becomes more popular among Turkish consumers, the number of shops, markets and supermarkets targeting “health-conscious” people has also risen. On the heels of the new Kadıköy location, there are also plans to open organic markets in the Maltepe and Beylikdüzü districts.

Although the rise of the health-conscious consumer is usually interpreted as a good sign, some people expressed skepticism about what they are actually buying. “I am very glad that there is an organic market in my neighborhood and there should be more,” said Onat Yücel. “But I also want to know whether these [products] are indeed organic or not.”

[HH] Is ‘natural’ organic?

“Natural,” “healthy” or “from nature” are all labels one finds when shopping, but do these terms truly define a product as completely organic?

“Those labels confuse the buyer,” said Batur Şehirlioğlu from the Buğday Association, an environmental organization that has been a pioneer in Turkish domestic organic markets. “What is the meaning of natural? Does it mean not genetically modified, or does it mean collected from the land? But what if that land is next to a factory? There needs to be criteria for all such products.”

“When we wanted to start an organic market four years ago, both the producers and consumers opposed us. But we did it as our social responsibility,” Şehirlioğlu told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “Now organic products have become so popular that every municipality wants to have one. Yet this needs to be done right, otherwise it will make matters worse while trying to be helpful.”

Melahat Özkan of the Organic Product Producers, or ORGÜDER, agrees. “Right now, inspection is the most important issue regarding organic products’ sales,” she told the Daily News.

[HH] Supermarkets show interest

According to a 2009 report prepared by Istanbul Bahçeşehir University’s Center for Economic and Social Research, organic production in Turkey has expanded nearly 50 percent since 2004. At the moment, there are 15,000 farmers organically cultivating more than 200 crops on just 0.5 percent of all arable land, with most of the produce being exported to European countries.

While Turkey’s organic-food exports are estimated at roughly $100 million, only $10 million worth of organic food is consumed domestically. The country’s leading organic crops include cotton, wheat, apples, grapes, corn and olives.

While the statistics point to an increase in production, there is also growing interest in selling organic products in Turkey’s grocery stores. Supermarket chain Migros recently announced plans to cooperate with the Agriculture Ministry in its “good agriculture program” to sell certified organic fruit and vegetables.

“‘Good agriculture’ does not mean 100 percent organic,” said Özkan. “In ‘good agriculture,’ you can still use pesticides, but only to an extent that they cannot do any damage to the human body. In organic agriculture, you cannot use any artificial substances.”

Özkan said Migros was the only supermarket opting for more natural products. “At the moment, many supermarket chains are interested in getting into the organic market in Turkey,” she added. “But there is neither enough production nor enough middlemen between them and the producers.”

[HH] Certification

As the organic market becomes more popular with more producers, both inspectors and conditions are becoming increasingly important. “Organic products need to be observed from their planting until they reach the customers, while the agencies that give out the ‘organic’ certifications need to be watched as well,” Şehirlioğlu told the Daily News. “The problem, however, is that the state thus far has given inspection licenses to more than one institution – to provincial agriculture directorates, to municipalities and other institutions.”

“Customers should look to see whether the product they are buying has a certificate. It’s better to have one than none,” Özkan added. “But, most importantly, the Ministry of Agriculture should get involved in the inspection process.”

“I am not saying organic products should only be sold in organic markets and bazaars. They should also be sold in supermarkets, shops and on the Internet,” Şehirlioğlu said. “But there needs to be cooperation and standardization between all parties, both in terms of price and in terms of inspection.”

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