Our priorities continue to evolve as the devastating spread of COVID-19 affects every aspect of our lives, bringing many challenges. Governments are redefining strategic sectors and making arrangements for related sectors, while we are also updating our personal preferences and lists of expectations.
The first measures taken by states around the globe were in the fields of health and agriculture. The 24 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including Canada, Britain, Japan, Brazil and China, said that the stocking and restriction in the trade of agricultural products will cause a crisis in many countries that already have difficulties in accessing food and many will go hungry.
It is ironic that the WTO countries were among the first to impose restrictions on agriculture. Barriers to exporting, the push toward the use of local products and support for agriculture were only some of the measures taken by these countries.
It is not known whether it is a coincidence, but this year, it is estimated that the yield in grain varieties and grains will be at its highest level in recent years, especially in the northern hemisphere, which includes Turkey. In other words, export restrictions may not be required since the winter cultivation of many products has been completed with high yields.
Countries with very few agricultural areas, such as the Netherlands and Japan, announced their agriculture and food support at the highest level. We just need to wait and watch what strategies the countries that create branded food by importing agricultural produce will use to purchase them.
A potential problem
Based on the assumption that agricultural production has decreased, albeit partially, a possible risk is that importer countries could create a monopoly by purchasing the agricultural products in question at high prices and buying all the produce.
Why is this a risk? Developing countries that depend on the import of food are likely to suffer. The commodity prices of agricultural goods are likely to continue to increase.
However, oil prices, the most important input of agriculture, are on a decreasing trend. Those who give the money will gain the product, and the product will be in great demand. They will sell the agricultural products at a high price after reprocessing them as branded food.
There are two aspects of the issue for Turkey; the first is to redefine the strategy for the agriculture and food sector, which will become more important in the future, and the second is to ensure that there is no disruption in the supply of food in 2020-2021.
In order to avoid problems in food supply between in 2020-2021, multifaceted arrangements need to be made in the agriculture sector. Agricultural supports, seed distribution, the opening of Treasury lands to agriculture, purchasing support and solving the mobilization problem for seasonal workers are some of the measures that have been taken.
In the long term, the importance of self-sufficiency in agriculture and food is easy to understand. Discourses and plans at least need to be initiated in this direction.
In this sense, self-sufficiency, which we have been bragging about in the past, is essential but not sufficient. Since access to food will be more costly in the future, agriculture and food products should be among our export items as soon as possible. Currently in Turkey, agriculture constitutes about 10% of exports.
If compared with export rates of countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, China, Britain and Canada, we see that Turkey has relatively low profitability. The reason for the low profit margin is the low export of value-added products.
For this reason, although the agricultural products produced by 30% of the active population makes a great contribution to exports, the yield to the producer is low.
I seem to hear you saying, "We are good at exporting." It is useful to explain the situation in numbers. The share of Turkey, which ranks 17th in the world economy, in agriculture and food exports changes every year, however, we are currently in 27th place with about 1%.
On the one hand, if we look at the global agricultural production figures, Turkey ranks ninth. This should mean that our country is self-sufficient in many agricultural products and is neck and neck with other countries in exports and imports of agricultural products. But the numbers reveal that we lack the capacity to export since we consume most of what we produce.
Unfortunately, there is no striking picture in the agricultural field. We rank 30th in the world. Is this a bad situation? No, because Japan and the Netherlands, which are always in the top three in agricultural exports, have almost no agricultural land. The conclusion from this is that having a strong agricultural sector does not mean producing everything.
To be strong in agriculture is to create world brands that will make a difference and provide superiority in competition and to produce products for export. It is, of course, important to plant agricultural products in our own geography.
Especially as it is nowadays, it becomes even more important when the doors are closed. However, in the long term, the potential of Anatolia to be a producer of agricultural and food products should be rapidly evaluated and food brands should be created.
What foods can we produce? Italy imports durum wheat from us and markets its value-added pasta made with this flour for 10 times its price. We, too, can create brands of flour products for the functional food category by using cereals, pulses, forest products such as sweetgum and resins, medicinal aromatic plants and shelled fruits, which Anatolian farmers know well.
We can contribute to the future of the global healthy food market and increase our export figures and profitability by reevaluating future agricultural products such as cereals, legumes, shelled fruits and vegetables.
Agriculture's share in Turkey's economy is about 6%. Unfortunately, the profitability of agricultural exports has remained low. It is clear that the reason for this is unbranded products.
For cereals, nuts, figs and cotton, we must succeed in the specialization model that Brazil has created in coffee, as soon as possible. These products are the types that will play an active role in the future of food and are unique products for the world food market in terms of both nutritional value and health.
We can be the base in the world for quality agricultural brands. We must create economies of scale, one of the most important issues of the future, and combine them with the agriculture, technology and food industries.
Natural farming practices are important for the future of the planet, and the harm caused by conventional agriculture to nature and humanity is of course not negligible.
On the other hand, although mass agriculture does not give us what we want in terms of quality, this is at a stage that has no alternative in terms of quantity. Increasing production and decreasing costs through technology transfers using sound agricultural practices is what needs to be done.
The use of technology in mass farming is the future of agriculture. Food nationalism will positively and negatively affect the prices and the variety of products used in the food. Namely, the monopolization of agricultural products and restrictions on exports will increase the prices in the foreign market and decrease them in the domestic market.
Agricultural export issues, which are the subject of mutual agreements between states, will also significantly affect gastro-diplomacy in the future. Outwardly closed doors will subsequently bring a decrease in the product range.
The diversification of agricultural products in our country will be important to compensate for products imported from different geographies. Alternatives to imported products will be created. Applications encouraging the use of domestic goods, such as the domestic fiscal week, will increase.
While the production of domestic products is planned properly for the healthy nutrition of the public, we can strengthen our agriculture with efficient, healthy, climate-sensitive seeds by presenting our genetic resources to the use of seeders.
When talking about agriculture, animal husbandry is always in the background, as the production of forage crops for animal husbandry in our country is also strategically important. Turkey ranks third in the world in animal imports.
Likewise, ranking eighth in feed imports is one of the issues that urgently need attention – namely, the issues of increasing the number of productive animal assets, conservation and reproduction of gene resources. In this sense, institutions like the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises (TIGEM) and Agricultural Research and Policy General Directorate (TAGEM), which have been successful in recent years, will increase in importance.
In summary, issues such as food nationalism, rising prices, monopolization in products, specialization in products, the use of local products and decreasing product diversity are problems facing the future of agriculture and food.
Our country, which has thousands of years of agricultural traditions starting from Central Asia, can rise again. In the words of Tabduk Emre, the mentor of prominent 13th-century Turkish poet Yunus Emre, "You can obtain a country with a spear, but you can create a home with the wheat.” Turkey can make its agricultural name heard around the world as long as the right strategy is determined and time is not lost.
*Writer, expert on bread making, based in Istanbul
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