Turkish Farmers Are Squeezed by Government Neglect

Begum Toprak

AFP photo: Adem Altan

It’s not easy to be a farmer in Turkey. They have long been victims of ill-informed and outdated agricultural policy, and of woefully inadequate subsidies. Now, farmers also are at the mercy of climate change and the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to even attempt to combat it. Negotiating between these handicaps is the burden of Turkish farming.

A survey of 3,100 farmers carried out last year by the Turkish agri-tech company, Doktar Agriculture, found that 70 percent of farmers were unhappy with the country’s agriculture policies. Meanwhile, 79 percent said they struggled daily with the effects of climate change.

Rising temperatures and less snowfall point to the increasing likelihood of serious drought. When the average temperature in June last year rose to 23.4 degrees centigrade, a 140-year record, a meteorology professor at Istanbul Technical University, Mikdat Kadioglu, warned that Turkey could be hit by serious water shortages as soon as 2023. The country uses 73 percent of its water resources for farming – one percentage point more than the global average for irrigation. “It’s a luxury the country will not be able to afford,” Kadioglu said.

Uncontrolled use of groundwater and unsustainable irrigation techniques have made Turkey “water poor,” with 60 percent of its land threatened by aridity and erosion. In the last 50 years, two million hectares of wetlands, including 36 lakes, have dried up. Soil calcification and salinity have increased because of bad irrigation practices.

The government-funded Southern Anatolia Project is a prime example of state mismanagement. Encompassing a hydroelectric power plant, forestry areas, irrigation systems and 22 dams, the project was started in 1996 in the Harran plain. Farmers were promised better harvests and higher income. Instead, by 2012, the region had lost 12 percent of its farmland to salinization.

After extreme weather devastated more than 1.9 million hectares of farmland in 2018, the head of Turkey’s agricultural unions, Semsi Bayraktar, demanded that the government take action against climate change, improve its response to natural disasters and offer better compensation to those affected. Those demands have not been met.

According to the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, more than $19 billion dollars in state loans to the agriculture sector remained unpaid as of last September, meaning each farmer, on average, owes $8,500 to the government. The precarious financial condition of farmers was starkly on display when, also last year, the agricultural insurance company, Tarsim, paid out five million Turkish liras ($827,000) to 35,626 farmers in the Samsun region for lost harvests as a result of natural disasters such as hail, frost and floods. But those were the farmers who could afford to buy insurance; a further 30,000 could not. By the end of the year, 2,000 farmers in the area had simply given up.

According to a law passed in 2006, an amount equivalent to one percent of the country’s gross national product is to be handed out each year to the agricultural sector as subsidies. But bar one year, farmers have not received a single penny. A consequence of this is that three million hectares of farmland are now uncultivated.

In 1980, agriculture employed half of Turkey’s population. Ten years later, the number had dropped to 46 percent. Today, it is 17 percent. Data compiled by the Farmer Registration System shows that in the last 10 years, more than 600,000 farmers have quit. Most have taken factory jobs paying minimum wage. “The bottom line is, farmers are not being recompensed for their hard work and they feel abandoned,” said Berkay Ozyer, manager of Greenpeace’s Mediterranean Food and Farming Project.

This decrease in farmers’ numbers often is explained as a sign of the country’s industrialization, which, it is argued, has sent rural populations migrating to cities for factory jobs that pay steady incomes under much less harsh conditions than to be found on the land. However, Emin Koramaz, chairman of the country’s joint engineers and architects’ union, points out that, in fact, it is the construction industry that has soaked up labor. The problem with that for workers is that construction jobs aren’t long-term. And as for the economy, real estate is not a sustainably productive investment – once a developer sells an apartment, it mostly ceases to contribute to GDP.

Farming remains an important part of Turkey’s economy. It constituted 11 percent of exports last year, earning $107 billion over the past five years. Indeed, Turkey remains the world’s seventh largest supplier of agricultural produce. Its farmers are the world’s largest producers of hazelnuts, figs, apricots and cherries, and the fourth largest harvesters of olives, walnuts and pistachios. But agriculture’s share of GDP has decreased to 6 percent in 2019 from 23 percent in 1980. While the sector remains relatively large for now, it is being squeezed by government inattention.

At the nexus of continents and seas, the agricultural heartland of Turkey is poised at the precipice of climate change, which has affected – and will further affect – the finances of farmers and the ability of farm workers to dedicate themselves to the land. Compounding this has been a general neglect of farmers by the government. Farmers need all the support that the law dictates they receive. In fact, probably more. For as climate change continues its advance, we must rely on farmers to keep producing enough food to meet our needs.

Begum Toprak is a nom de plume of a Turkish journalist living in Istanbul. In the two years to the end of 2019, 74 journalists were arrested in Turkey, according to the independent international group, the Committee to Protect Journalists.