High food prices are a result of neglecting agriculture

High food prices are a result of neglecting agriculture

Once known as one of the few countries self sufficient in agriculture, long years of neglect of the sector led Turkey to import products that it used to be a top producer, said Refika Birgül, a prominent writer on the food and beverage sector.

High food prices and the problems in the agriculture sector were high on the agenda during the electoral campaign period. It seems they have been overtaken by short term issues like paid military exemption or amnesty on the construction sector. However, there was huge criticism when Turkey imported potatoes from Syria before the elections.

The prices of many products in Turkey continue to rise and we have come to a point where we import many agricultural products from abroad. Sadly, some of them are products Turkey was the leading producer of not long ago, or was among the top three producers. We hold the title of having the best quality product in the world for some of them like lentils.

Ironically, while we export Turkish lentils to Europe, we as Turks resign ourselves to eat imported, cheaper lentils of lower quality.

How did we end up like that? What lies at the root is the fact that we have not prioritized agricultural production in terms of development and healthy progress of our country. Agriculture was low on our list of priorities, while we gave importance to the construction sector or car factories.

You are talking about Turkey’s aspiration to become a developed country by transforming from an agriculture based economy to an industrial economy.

Exactly. The two could have gone hand in hand. So, that goes as far back as the 1950s. But what has been happening in the course of the past two decades is becoming a severe problem that has been growing exponentially, especially in the course of these past five years.

Twenty to 25 years ago, organized retail used to revolve around supermarkets that targeted the a and b segment consumers. In recent years, discount markets have started to operate and have gained dominance in the sector. As they are racing to sell the cheapest products they have started to import, the trend started with dried package food, with pulses, which is easier to transport. And we ended up importing products that Turkey has been a leader of in the sector, like lentils, chickpeas, beans.

Why is exporting from far away countries like U.S., Canada, Peru, Mexico, Chile cheaper than local production?

When you do not import the most recent year’s but the previous years’ harvest, it becomes cheaper. In addition, production costs are higher in Turkey. In terms of energy, for instance, we are using the most expensive oil, the work force has become more expensive in comparison to other countries.

What started with discount markets has spilled over to other supermarkets that had to compete as well.

With the increase in imports, farmers have been left with their products on their hands and next year they stopped growing it.

But at the end of the day, isn’t it only natural for customers to buy the cheapest products? Especially for lower income families, as long as they can afford it, they may be willing to sacrifice from the quality.

The customer always goes to the cheaper one. However, the sector and the shareholders, like the unions and collectives, should set the price accordingly. But what happened additionally is that a few months ago, the government removed the import taxes of some of the products so that prices would not go higher. The government is under the pressure of high inflation and the first thing you look to calculate inflation is food prices. The fast and momentary solution to inflation was seen as more imports but that has made the life of farmers even more difficult. 

To resort to imports for that one year is fine but then what should be done is to help subsidize those sectors in the upcoming years. When this is not being done, what happens is that for the very few left in the agriculture sector, farming becomes meaningless. So, they sell their lands and migrate to bigger cities trying to find a job. This is why cities like Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Bursa, Adana, and Mersin are receiving so much migration and why they are surrounded by shantytowns. Villages are emptying. You can no longer find anyone under the age of 40 in the villages. The agriculture tips that were transferred from generation to generation in Ottoman times are disappearing. In 15 to 20 years’ time, all production will end if it continues like this.

At first glance, it might be ok to eat cheap things, but the price we have to pay for them later increases exponentially. Among other things, when you do not have production, you become dependent on foreign products and big production companies become the price setters.

But some could say this is about laissez-faire laissez-passer. That is how liberal market economies function. Are you defending that we should endorse protectionist policies? 

Until the early 90s, we were taught in school that Turkey was one of the seven self-sufficient countries in terms of agriculture. Today, we even import straw for animals. If you do not grow lentils then you have to produce some other goods with added value. If you import lentils because they are cheaper and if farmers lose their livelihood and then migrate to big cities and your villages that can be farmed cleared and you do not produce anything to offset all of this, then there is a problem.

We can disrupt the agriculture cycle in five years but it will take 25 years to recover if we can ever recover.

We have lost our upper hand in products like beans, lentils, and sugar. From tea to bananas, all sectors are ringing alarm bells. Turkey is the number one producer of hazelnut in the world but an Italian company is setting the prices. Becoming a strong country in agriculture will be much more important in a decade’s time.

Currently, there is some frenzy in Turkey for chia, quinoa, and healthy products that are imported from abroad. 

Peru for example is the exact opposite of Turkey. They were not in a very good economic position a decade ago. They decided to focus on agriculture and gastronomy, and turn it into a state policy. They have promoted their goods like chia. They have a success story. 

The Anatolian siyez (einkorn), known as the oldest variety of wheat, is very precious for those suffering from gluten intolerance. Thanks to Mustafa Afacan from Kastamonu and the promotion of prominent chef and food and beverage experts, it is being grown in many places over Anatolia. In fact, some restaurants in London proudly say they have used Anatolian siyez in their dishes. So, we need to encourage people in the agriculture sector.

In a way, you argue that we have not taken the necessary measures while being subjected to globalization. 

Indeed. During what we describe as globalization, westernization, and progress, we should have built on what we had on our hands but what happened is while we tried to construct something else, we sacrificed our fundamentals. 

Natural and organic agriculture is growing exponentially. In this respect, Anatolia is way more valuable than the country of Turkey. Anatolia’s biodiversity is huge and it is an asset that not only Turkey but the whole world should protect. It is a legacy that needs to be safeguarded for a healthier and sustainable world.

High food prices are a result of neglecting agricultureWHO IS REFİKA BİRGÜL?

Born in 1980 in Istanbul, Refika Birgül is a Turkish cookbook and newspaper writer and television presenter.

She is the co-founder of refikadan.com, which increases awareness of artisanship and its value in Turkish culture.

She writes a food column called “Refika’s Kitchen” for the weekend supplement of Turkey’s top-selling Hürriyet newspaper.

She is the producer and presenter of the TV food shows “Mucize Lezzetler” (Miraculous tastes) and “Fast Recipes from Refika,” broadcast on several TV channels like Star, NTN, CNBC-E and E2.

She is the writer of five books on Turkish cuisine, the first of which is Refika’nın Mutfağı / Cooking New Istanbul Style was published in April 2010 in English and Turkish.

Refika Birgül, food, agroculture, interview, prices