Turkey’s agricultural economy is among the top ten in the world, with half of the country consisting of agricultural land and nearly a quarter of the population employed in agriculture. Turkey is a major producer of wheat, sugar beets, milk, poultry, cotton, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables and is the top producer in the world for apricots and hazelnuts. Despite all these, the average farm size in the country is decreasing due to the inheritance law, as the land should be equally divided between the children. Nearly two-thirds of Turkish farms are less than 5 hectares in size.
Turkey’s young and growing population provides opportunities for market growth and new product introductions. Turkey imports oilseeds, including soybean and meal and grain products, as animal feed inputs for its meat and rapidly growing poultry sectors. Turkey also imports inputs for its food processing and bakery sector and additional cotton for its advanced textile industry. Furthermore, agriculture contributes between 8% to 10% of the country’s economic activity. Turkey is rich in fertile land, water, and skilled farmers compared with the other countries in the region. Still, its agricultural industry is in sharp decline, blamed by critics on failing government policies, spiraling costs, and meager state support.
Despite being a major food producer, Turkey is a net wheat importer, mainly from Russia and Ukraine. Turkey is the EU’s fourth-largest vegetable supplier and the seventh-largest fruit supplier. Turkey would like to extend the EU Customs Union Agreement to agricultural products to extend the market for local farmers with relatively higher prices.
Before the 1980s, the agricultural sector of Turkey was state-centered. The government provided vital support to farmers, and state-owned enterprises such as the Turkish Grain Office (TMO) played a key role. In the following period, the government started liberalizing the sector by introducing Structural Adjustment Policies in the 1980s. This decision was mainly driven by pressure from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Crisis periods in 1994 and 2001 accelerated the process of liberalization. Besides the international financial institutions, the European Union and the World Trade Organization demanded Turkey to liberalize its agricultural sector, as it was one of the conditions for financial assistance during the crises. As a result, Turkey adopted several laws to accelerate the privatization process. These include the 2001 Tobacco Law, the 2001 Sugar Law, the 2006 Agrarian Law, and the 2006 Seeds Law.
Privatization and liberalization led to significant consequences for Turkey’s agriculture. Firstly, large farms and corporations formed jointly with multinationals started substituting local producers and smallholders. Secondly, the opening of Turkey’s market led to an intensification of competition from international producers of agricultural and food products. This decision also negatively affected the country’s smallholders, who had to compete with well-established international agricultural businesses. Thirdly, and probably the most critical, significant reduction of state support made millions of farmers leave agriculture and migrate to urban areas. The transition from state-centered developmental and protectionist policies to a free market accelerated Turkey’s de-paganization process. As a result, new realities of the free market brought the small farms higher uncertainty about their production and marketing decisions. At the same time, the indebtedness of smallholders increased substantially, and many had to sell their land. However, despite support price policies, subsidies for agricultural inputs, and a protectionist trade regime were abolished, the government did not completely withdraw from the sector. And they continued to support the local farmers with indirect subsidies, which seems inadequate. The production cost increased substantially, resulting in more farmers leaving their land and immigrating to metropolitan centers for jobs.
Climate change has hit no nation in the Mediterranean region harder than Turkey. The climate change-driven pressure on the food-water-energy nexus responsible for reducing water availability in Turkey is endangering Turkey’s lucrative food export revenues and its role in international food supply chains, in addition to Turkey’s food security. Turkey’s role as a food supplier to Europe and the MENA region fundamentally rests on Turkey’s production of cereal grains, particularly wheat, corn, and barley. These grains require significantly larger quantities of water compared to vegetables. They also have to compete with premier cash crops like cotton, which requires about 11,000 Liters per kg compared to about 1,800 Liters to produce 1 kg of wheat. Beyond being a raw material export, cotton is essential in Turkey’s textile and apparel exports, accounting for at least 10% of the country’s GDP. Turkey’s top food export earner, hazelnuts, requires 9,807 Liters of water per kg. But as heat and drought increase, Turkey is doubling down on water-intensive agriculture and development, spurring a water supply crisis that is expected to worsen. Agriculture’s staggering water consumption is also due to the ages-old irrigation techniques of Turkey’s farmers: open channels and raised canals that deliver water to crops overland. According to Turkish officials, these systems suffer water losses of 35 to 60 percent through evaporation, seepage, and leakage.
Turkey’s cultivation of cash crops has depleted groundwater aquifers and dried out river systems and lakes as high temperatures, drought, and water stress continue to increase in Turkey. Worsening the problem, many desperate farmers drill illegal wells that tap groundwater already at deficient levels. In a 2020 survey of farmers across Turkey conducted by the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), 97% reported diminishing harvests and yields due to climate change-related impacts on their farms. The problem illustrated by the TÜSİAD survey is compounded by frequent record low water levels in the dams that supply Turkey’s major cities, exacerbating the competing demand pressures between water for human consumption and hygiene and the considerable water needs of Turkey’s agricultural sector, which accounts for about 74% of Turkey’s water consumption.
The decline in the farming sector should be reversed by availing favourable loans to farmers to install efficient and environmentally friendly irrigation systems to reduce costs and increase crop levels. Farmers should be trained to choose the most suitable crop for their region and adopt their traditional way of farming to modern techniques, which require less water per unit of product. Furthermore, average farm sizes should be increased by joining and/or merging small farms for more effective and efficient operations.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Turkey Country Manager Dr. Semih Ergur