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
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
"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
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."
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.
||"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."
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
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.
"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."
||"People have to grow first for
themselves, consciously. Then for their communities, and
only then for export."
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.