Conflicts pose ‘spill-over threat on food security in Middle East’

Conflicts pose ‘spill-over threat on food security in Middle East’

Emre Kızılkaya - ISTANBUL -
Conflicts pose ‘spill-over threat on food security in Middle East’

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. Hürriyet photo / Levent Kulu

As record-high food prices and the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees have become outstanding political issues before the upcoming elections in Turkey, United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva has warned that escalating conflicts in the neighborhood have threatened food security in the entire Middle East.

“A reliance on imports for staple food commodities poses its own problems, especially during rising or volatile international prices,” Graziano said in an interview with Hürriyet Daily News on the sidelines of the G-20 Agriculture Ministers Meeting, which opened in Istanbul on May 8. “However, the main threat to food security in the region stems from the protracted and escalating conflicts - mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen - and the spill-over effect on neighboring countries,” he added.

In Turkey, where the number of Syrian refugees has approached two million, food inflation rose to 14 percent in April, as world prices saw five-year lows, according to the FAO. 

On April 27, Turkish Central Bank governor Erdem Başçı said in a presentation to cabinet members that the hike in food prices limited improved inflation, warning that measures were needed to improve food supply. 

Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker, who represented Turkey at the G-20 ministerial meeting in Istanbul on May 8, ruled out any problems in farming output. The Turkish government has blamed middlemen, whom some have accused of stockpiling food products only to sell them after scarcity skyrockets prices.

Still, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi recently signaled that the government could allow imports from Iran to rein in on the price of potatoes, which recently hit five Turkish Liras per kilogram.

The problem is larger than potatoes, though. “Everyone in Turkey should be asking why one kilogram of tomatoes now costs five liras,” İş Bank Chairman Ersin Özince said in an interview this month.

The rising cost of living is among the leading issues that Turkey’s opposition parties have stressed in their economy-heavy campaigns for the June 7 general elections, challenging the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decade-old domination on ideologically and culturally-driven campaigns.
FAO head endorses Ankara’s policies

In this regard, the U.N.’s top food and agriculture official did not see any problem with the Turkish government’s policies - at least in the past eight years. 

“There is high demand for basic food products in the world mainly due to rapid population growth in the context of limited natural resources, in particular, land and water and the impact of climate change. With regard to this, Turkey is no exception,” Graziano said on May 8.

“According to Turkish government figures, the agriculture sector has witnessed constant growth since 2007. During the period as a whole, Turkey has experienced an increase of production and employment in the agriculture sector. This has been mainly thanks to government policies introduced after 2007,” he added, noting Ankara improved the quality of some agricultural products, improved rural infrastructure and diversified the sector.

Graziano, who has worked on food security, rural development and agriculture issues for over 30 years, was also known as the architect of Brazil’s Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) program.

As the world’s 7th-largest agricultural producer according to estimates, Graziano predicted that Turkey has a “great potential” to export agricultural products to bigger foreign markets in the Middle East, North Africa and the Near East regions. 

However, there are also fundamental threats, as he warned about the ongoing conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq, which have displaced millions of people. 

“Although the international community continues to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, resources in the host communities are under severe strain,” he said.

In this regard, Graziano says Turkey’s new role as G-20 president is important. After noting that the partnership between the FAO and Turkey had started in 1982, he described Ankara as an “active resource partner.” 

At a time of regional political crises, the FAO director-general expects that the Turkish presidency would contribute to the international organization’s “high priorities” for global food security, nutrition, sustainable food systems and waste.

“A peaceful resolution of the armed conflicts is fundamental and intricately linked to the improvement of food security in the region,” Graziano concluded. “The FAO, together with partners, is working on increasing the resilience of farmers and the rural population to better withstand shocks, including from conflict.”