Talking Turkey: Ghosts of Farming Future

Turkey's religious and ethnic minorities breathed a sigh of relief at the European Union's decision last December to begin talks on Turkish accession. The beginning of the accession process -- not likely to be completed until 2015 -- is one more milepost on the long road toward full EU membership, with all the human-rights guarantees that that entails. With the Turkish government reluctant even to recognize its minorities as such, many see EU entry, and the reforms enacted to hasten it, as the quickest route to those rights and protections.

Yet while harmonization of Turkish and EU legislation protects minorities, it menaces another much larger group to which many also belong -- that of small farmers and rural communities. That paradox holds lessons for progressive democracies, wherever they purport to operate.

In many ways Turkey still approximates a Jeffersonian vision of agrarianism that, in the US, hardly outlived its namesake. Turkey has a quarter the population of the US but half again as many farmers. 40% of Turkey's citizens live in rural areas and 34% of its workers are engaged in agriculture. Like the country as a whole, these farmers feed themselves, and from a handful of acres at that -- almost all of Turkey's farmland is in parcels of 50 acres or less. Family-sized meat and dairy processors, along with corner dry-goods stores and greengrocers selling food from farms just outside town, are common sights in every city. Fast-food chains are new to Turkey and still shaky on their feet, while Wal-Mart has yet to appear.

In a real sense, Turkey's food system is thus both ideal and model for sustainable farming and community food advocates in Europe and North America. Yet many in Turkey -- including small farmers -- are quick to apologize for what they call the backwardness of its agriculture. That's a line they've been sold by their political leadership, who are keen to profit from agricultural policies modeled on those of the EU and US. But while the rhetoric cloaking those policies oozes paeans to the virtues of farm communities, their effects have been devastatingly to the contrary.

Every step Turkey takes toward accommodating its legal and economic systems to those of the EU increases the perceived likelihood of its eventual membership, making it more attractive to foreign agribusiness firms and investment. Such companies' mere presence, in turn, shoves the food system towards the industrial gigantism favored by EU and US policies. In the past five years, supermarkets have captured half the Turkish market from mom-and-pop stores. The sheer scale of their supply needs forces wholesalers and processors to grow in turn, simply to maintain bargaining power. Thus, the pressure to "get big or get out" reaches the farmer even before it's officially legislated.

For an idea of what awaits them, Turkey's farmers need look no farther than the Europe into which their leaders are sweeping them. Since "producers are mostly located in rural areas," reads a recent EU-commissioned report on the topic, "their deteriorating economic situation ... can be interpreted as an income transfer from rural to urban sector." To balance that transfer, the neoliberal program would improve agriculture's "efficiency" by shifting Turkey's large farm workforce into more "productive" employment in the cities.

What goes unsaid is that this also increases those workers' economic insecurity. Unemployment, at 10% nationwide, is already higher in cities than the countryside. Rural dwellers earn about half as much as their urban cousins, but their incomes held steady in Turkey's recent economic crisis, while those in the cities plunged. Moreover, in most regions, educated rural youth have better odds of landing a job by staying in their own communities than by migrating to cities.

As the EU accession process propels Turkey's farm and rural populations further into poverty, it will also erode the country's self-sufficiency in food production, transforming Turkey into a net agricultural importer. As in the US, whose aggressive agricultural export policy continues from the 1970s even while farm incomes have stayed flat, such an outcome benefits few -- specifically, those few holding the political and economic reins.

However, that transformation's oft-touted shades of inevitability deepen only to the extent that those reins are seized by the same sets of hands. By that standard, Turkey is as "developed" as the EU or the US -- but not everyone is taking the bait. Victor Ananias, founder of Bugday, a Turkish nonprofit group for sustainable living, articulates one alternative. "People have to grow first for themselves, consciously. Then for their communities, and only then for export."

Meanwhile, for the moment, agribusiness and all its attendant ruin for rural livelihoods have penetrated Turkey far less than the US or EU. All words from Washington, Brussels and Ankara to the contrary, that leaves wide open the question of whose agriculture and food policies should be guiding whom.

Wylie Harris is a rancher in north central Texas and Food & Society Policy Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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