POLATLI, Turkey — Spring is in full swing in the sprawling, fertile fields of Polatli, not far from Turkey’s capital, Ankara. But the bright sky and the riot of green belie the gloom of local farmers as they grapple with skyrocketing costs that have forced many to leave their croplands unsown.
Polatli has been one of Turkey’s main onion-producing and exporting regions for years. But it might fail to live up to its potential this year. Murat Bircan, a local farmer, said his production cost had soared by more than 300%, reaching 2.5 Turkish liras per kilogram of onion, up from 0.6 liras last year. “I’ve reduced fertilizers by a fourth compared to last year. I used to plow the land twice; now I do it once. Naturally, all this will affect the produce,” Bircan told Al-Monitor.
Such grievances are rife among farmers across Turkey, whose currency has fallen dramatically since 2018, amplifying the cost of imports and fueling inflation. The government’s controversial economic policies are primarily blamed for the slump of the lira, which lost more than 40% of its value against the dollar in 2021 alone. The commodity shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have only aggravated the woes of the Turkish economy, which relies heavily on imports, especially in terms of energy. Turkey’s annual consumer inflation hit a two-decade high of 61.1% in March, with food inflation topping 70%. The price of diesel — a crucial material used by farmers — rose by 32% in March alone. Annual producer inflation, meanwhile, hit nearly 115%.
The rising costs come atop long-running structural problems in the country’s agricultural sector, including a growing reliance on imported materials to make fodder and fertilizers and a flawed chain from the farm gate to the consumer, in which middlemen make exorbitant profits.
Fertilizer prices rose 233% to 344% over a year in March, and fodder prices were up 130%, Semsi Bayraktar, the head of Turkey’s Agricultural Chambers Union, said in a statement on April 1. The price of diesel increased 249% in the same period, and the price of electricity used for irrigation rose 103%, he said.
“The world is on the verge of a big food crisis. Countries that are not self-sufficient cannot weather that crisis,” Bayraktar warned, calling on the government for urgent measures to support farmers. The authorities should also rein in “arbitrary price hikes” by retailers, he said, noting that the difference between farm-gate and retail prices reached more than 300% in some basic products such as lemon, lettuce and parsley and more than 200% in cucumbers, lentils and haricot beans in March.
In Polatli, agricultural engineer and producer Hasan Kilinc said the average cost of producers had increased by about 250% over a year. “So, the capital that producers need [to sustain cultivation] is much bigger compared to last year. This need should be urgently met,” he told Al-Monitor. An estimated 20% of croplands in the region have been left unsown, while about half of the sown fields have been given only 50% of the standard quantity of fertilizers, he noted.
Some farmers, meanwhile, suffer further as they fail to sell their products, mainly because of rock-bottom prices offered by middlemen. Many citrus producers in the southern province of Adana “are devastated because they failed to sell their lemons even for 0.3 liras (per kilogram) although their production cost has reached 1 lira,” Ayhan Barut, a parliament member for Adana from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Al-Monitor.
According to Gulumhan Gulten, a journalist specializing in the economy, the government’s flawed policies lie at the core of the snowballing problems in the agricultural sector. Ankara’s policies have rendered the sector dependent on imports and failed to protect local farmers and small producers, Gulten told Al-Monitor. The government, she noted, has withheld payments to farmers as part of agricultural support programs, which are required to amount to at least 1% of gross domestic product by law, with unpaid sums totaling more than 220 billion liras ($15 billion). Moreover, the farmers’ calls for tax reductions on diesel, for instance, have fallen on deaf ears, while Ankara has been willing to offer tax incentives in other areas.
“The debts of farmers total some 170 billion liras ($11.6 billion) today. And with all input prices soaring amid the crash of the Turkish lira, [many] farmers have come to a point where they’d rather not produce or not cultivate their fields at all,” Gulten said.
The exact number of Turkey’s farmers is hard to know due to widespread unregistered labor in the sector, but a study by TEPAV, an Ankara-based think tank, shows that farmers with social security insurance numbered about half a million in October 2021, a decrease of nearly 12% over a year and of some 50% since 2013.
Orhan Saribal, a CHP deputy who sits on the parliament’s agriculture commission, said that many farmers have left their fields and moved to big cities in recent years, only to face unemployment and poverty. “By constantly buying from abroad, the government forced its farmers to compete with global markets instead of protecting them. This is the main reason for [the decline of] agriculture in the country,” he told Al-Monitor.
Now, even the pro-government press is sounding the alarm over the risk of a food crisis, and the Agriculture Ministry is reportedly working on measures.
According to Saribal, Turkey’s food crisis has been brewing for a long time. The supply leg appears less worrying at present, he argued, with the bigger problem being on the demand side due to the plunging purchasing power of consumers. “The main aspect of this food crisis is the consumers’ declining access to food due to their low-income levels as opposed to very high production costs,” he said. On the supply side, he cited decreases in the production of some basic food items such as milk, eggs, red meat and wheat.
According to TURK-IS, a leading confederation of trade unions, the hunger threshold — or the cost of a healthy and balanced diet — rose to 4,553 liras for a family of four in February, surpassing the monthly minimum wage of 4,250 liras ($290).
This state of affairs is what Saribal sees as a food crisis. “Out of the 20 million working population in Turkey, 43% earn the minimum wage,” he recalled, adding that those families were faced also with soaring rents and utility bills. “If people today collect vegetables dumped by sellers at marketplaces or buy 200 grams of meat instead of a kilo … I call this a food crisis,” he said.
Energy and food prices have risen globally since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Gulten stressed that the alarm bells are ringing louder for Turkey, where the prices of food, barring dairy products, have jumped at higher rates compared to other countries, according to data by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “It’s as if the war is happening in our country,” she remarked. “Supporting producers and increasing production is the only way out of this food crisis that is highly specific to Turkey.”
Kilinc singled out sunflower, sugar beet, cotton, corn, onion, potato and greenhouse products as strategic food items, warning that Turkey might struggle to compensate for any decrease in their domestic cultivation this year through imports due to the global food emergency. The government should urgently extend support to producers and introduce measures to revive the sector and prevent farmers from quitting, he said, or Turkey could find itself in a much more severe situation down the road.