Something old, something new
Turkey's organic farmers try to survive their European honeymoon

By Wylie Harris
March 17, 2005

Organic farmers have tilled Anatolian soil since the birth of agriculture, but the modern-day organic movement is a relative newcomer to Turkey. Unlike other agricultural export powerhouses, Turkey has a large farm population living on and from small farms. While many of those farms have always, in effect, been organic, concepts like organic certification and price premia are novel. Now, driven by export demand, they're catching on with dazzling rapidity. Paradoxically, though, the export-oriented growth means that even as more of Turkey's farms become organic, its food system is becoming less local. With the Turkish government having finally secured a date to begin accession talks with the European Union, that trend is likely to grow even stronger in coming years--leaving the lingering question, who will receive the lion's share of the benefits from the country's expanding organic sector?

Turkey's combination of mild Mediterranean climate and proximity to Europe make it a natural supplier to the ravenous EU market for fresh fruits and vegetables. Turkey exports virtually all the organic food it produces, sending nearly 85% of it to Europe. Between 1998 and 2003 the value of that trade doubled, to roughly $40 million. As Europe's demand for organic food continues to grow, it feeds back powerfully on the structure of farming – organic and otherwise – in Turkey.

Some regions of Turkey have been quick out of the blocks in the organic sprint. The farms around the western city of Izmir, in particular, have readily adopted organic methods. But as in California's central valley, large farms that have been operating on an industrial, high-input footing take time to conform to organic certifiers' standards. As impatient exporters' agents soon learned, a quick way to take up the slack is to take to the hills, to the small family farms that have always been organic.

Small farms add up to big profits for exporters

Although the industrial sectors of its economy have expanded rapidly in recent decades, Turkey remains a strongly agrarian nation. It is self-sufficient in food production, and agricultural exports contribute a hearty 18% to the GDP. That bounty flows from three million farms that host 35% of the population, and employ 45% of the labor force. Of those farms, as many as one fifth are organic "by default." The 20,000 that are certified would rank Turkey third in the EU for the number of certified organic farms. However, Turkey has relatively fewer organic acres, reflecting the small average size of farms. Almost all farms in the country are smaller than 20 ha.

These small farms have gleamed as a lucrative solution to Europe’s organic supply problem. It has become common practice for foreign certifiers to seek out de facto organic farms, with a certification protocol in one hand and a contract with prices only slightly better than the going rate for conventional crops in the other. Many villagers, unaware that the potential premium might be substantially higher, are all too happy to accept.

Vakifli, in the southern province of Hatay, is one such village. Vakifli's orchard terraces have commanded a ridgetop view over the sea to the Syrian coast since the first ones were built, over a thousand years ago. Panos Çapar has never used "poison," as he calls synthetic pesticides, in his family's orange groves. "They send it from Europe," he says, "even though they don't use it there." Last year, Panos' son Vahe, together with other younger farmers, convinced the rest of Vakifli's citrus growers – 38 households, all told – to follow suit. This year, the entire village is certified organic.

The subsequent harvest was grand, the receipts less so. A bumper crop had tangerines selling at half the previous year's price. With two-thirds of the crop still on the trees, Vakifli had stopped harvesting. "If England says send more," Vahe says, "we'll pick." At a 33% premium, Vakifli's organic citrus growers are doing better than their conventional neighbors down the hill – but they're still not breaking even. Even with their troubles, Vakifli's farmers are not only in better shape than their conventional counterparts, but also than many other organic farmers in Turkey. According to Dr. Uygun Aksoy, professor of plant pathology at Ege University in Izmir, the price premium usually tops out at 15 or 20% across all crops. And the costs of inspection and certification, she says, are "rather high."

"We're all amateurs here—the state, the exporter, and us—but we're bearing the cost for everyone."

To help counter that, the Turkish Association on Organic Agriculture (ETO), a nongovernmental organization of which Aksoy is the founder and former president, has worked to revise Turkey's original 1994 organic legislation. A law passed late in 2004 removes several obstacles written into the earlier one. It enables village co-ops, like Vakifli's, to be certified as a group, spreading the costs among several farmers. While any change in the old regulations had to wait 2 to 3 years for parliamentary approval, making it all but impossible for Turkey to remain harmonized with the dynamic European regulatory scene. The 2004 law gives the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) the authority to make such changes. The Ministry has also negotiated breaks for the organic sector with the state Agricultural Bank, including lower interest rates on loans, and a 60 % subsidy for producers of organic inputs.

"We're all amateurs here – the state, the exporter, and us," says Agop Kartun, a native of Vakifli who lived for 25 years in Istanbul before returning home to set up a pharmacy and work the family orchard. "But we're bearing the cost for everyone."

The EU effect

Over a rich supper prepared entirely from food grown in the village, Vahe Çapar returns one traditional Turkish toast, "Serefe (to honor)!" with another: "Sagolina (to health)!" "We came to the marketing aspect only later," he says. "We first thought of the human aspect." Kartun agrees, "We did this in order not to poison people. We didn't set out to be organic or to export." The exporters, he says, "told us we were doing organic."

"We first thought of the human aspect. We did this in order not to poison people. We didn't set out to be organic or to export."
Yet while the food Vakifli grows, and eats, may all be organic, the next closest people to savor its benefits aren't at the market down the hill in Samandag, or even in the major cities like Istanbul, but rather at high-end supermarket chains in England, Germany and Holland. Like its flavor and nutrition, the bulk of the economic returns from Turkey's organic produce don't stay at home. The problem isn't that organic doesn’t fetch high prices – it's just that the majority of the increase is in retail markups not in the modest growers' premiums and the retail markups flow almost entirely to European-based exporters and supermarket chains.

Even with the premium balance favoring Europe, the higher prices still represent huge potential for the agricultural sector and Turkish politicians and businesspeople are sparing no effort to attract the foreign investment needed to maintain the sector's heady growth. On a recent visit to Turkey, England's Prince Charles got an earful on the subject from none other than Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a modern-day case of beating swords into plowshares, the Turkish government recently announced that a foreign contractor had been hired to clear the country's border with Syria of land mines, with the cleared land to be devoted to organic agriculture. The European Union has made a €1.3 million grant to MARA to support institutional development, such as the training of extensionists in organic methods. Clearly, foreign investment in Turkish organic farming is beginning to flow – but whether potential translates to farmers' profits is another question.

Twenty-five years ago, when Panos Çapar restored the house his and Vahe's families now share, 2 kilos of oranges brought enough money to buy a bag of cement mix. Now, it takes several baskets. One afternoon in December, the farmer's union in nearby Samandag staged a demonstration. During the rally union president, Selim Kamaci, declared, "The Turkish government's policies are killing the farmer." Declining incomes have plagued Turkey's farmers for decades, despite high tariffs on agricultural imports from other countries and a large agricultural export surplus.

But with Turkish membership in the European Union now within sight, even those supports are living on borrowed time, and export pressures are likely only to intensify. A 2004 report commissioned by the EU is frank in its admission that farming is the sector most likely to suffer as a result of Turkey's accession. Farmers' "deteriorating economic situation," it reads, "together with consumers' welfare gains, can be interpreted as an income transfer from rural to urban sector."

The standard economic prescription calls for shifting the largely rural population to the cities to follow the wealth. Some see that as problematic, noting that unemployment is already higher in urban areas than in the villages. Organic agriculture, with its higher labor requirements and prices, supporters say, could be a win-win solution. But if foreign demand continues driving Turkey's organics to reproduce the structure of the conventional export sector, raising agricultural employment isn't guaranteed to improve farmers' lot, or to extend the benefits of organic food to consumers within Turkey.

Sector growth means organic can finally come home

On Istanbul's bustling Istiklal Street, foreign folk – and their money – intermingle fluidly with their local counterparts. Ambar Organic and Natural Products Store is one quick turn off that bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, but its trickle of customers bespeaks its symbolic position well to the margins of the humming corridor of commerce.

But, says Uygun Aksoy, the domestic market may be poised on the brink of its own boom. She points out that domestic sales of organic food are already growing as quickly as exports, just from a much smaller volume. In 2000, Turkey counted some 50 such organic retail outlets, with the number projected to double by next year. As large organic firms complete the conversion process, and a new crop of trained organic extensionists help even more small farms become certified, all of Turkey's organic production will no longer be tied up in export contracts. With Turkey's large supermarket chains beginning to market organic food to their own shoppers, Aksoy speculates that the domestic market will develop rapidly.

Like their European counterparts, though, Turkish consumers pay higher premiums for organic food than the farmers receive, making organic accessible only to the 10% of the population in this highly agrarian state. To Bugday, the Turkish Association for Sustainable Living, this dynamic points clearly to a need for more fundamental solutions.

"People have to grow first for themselves, consciously. Then for their communities, and only then for export."
"We stand for the side where we create alternatives," says Victor Ananias a coordinator at Bugday. In 1989, he and a group of friends started a market stand for "consciously-produced products" in the city of Bodrum. The stand became a store, and the store developed into a restaurant, whose customers included "environmentalists, farmers, consumers, and even businessmen." "We were offering them a life," says Ananias, "and they were buying a plate of food."

To close that gap between consumer awareness and a truly sustainable food system, Ananias and his collaborators pushed further still, founding Bugday in 1998. "With Turkey joining the EU," he says, "there is all this money available, but the projects are wrong. For example, we don't want to support a project whose goal is to take the rural population from 40% to 20% in a short time." Instead of focusing on the export markets, Bugday has developed organic farmers' markets, community supported agriculture, and online marketing services for farmers without Internet access. The latest undertaking is a plan to promote international agritourism on Turkish organic farms.

"We still have 20% of the people growing organically," Ananias says. "If each of those families could feed four others, that's enough organic for all of Turkey. People have to grow first for themselves, consciously. Then for their communities, and only then for export."

Sowing such changes in Turkey's food system may seem an impossibly large and lengthy task. But in Vakifli, where it takes years to go from wild orange seed to fully productive tree, people are in the habit of patience. Standing in a 20 year-old orchard on the day the EU announced next October as the long-awaited date for the start of talks on Turkish accession, Vahe Çapar was reflective about the prospects for his village and farm. Fundamental change, he admits, is "just a hope. But we could keep on like this for 100 years and nothing would change."

Wylie Harris, a Food & Society Policy Fellow, ranches with his family in north central Texas.