Turkish farmers and policymakers are bracing themselves as the country's agriculture sector prepares to come under fresh scrutiny in the coming weeks with the first phase of the EU screening process.
Due to start in early December, the process will see EU and Turkish officials compare the bloc's laws and regulations with those of Turkey to determine what reforms Ankara will have to enact. A quick flick through the acquis communautaire would daunt any observer, with more than a quarter of all accession criteria concerning agriculture.
There is no denying a mammoth task lies ahead, with the EU pointing to the limited headway made by Turkey in agricultural reform over the last year. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the structures of administration and management, which remain unchanged. Duties and responsibilities continue to be shared between different departments or units within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Not the formula to a clear streamlined and efficient administration, experts say.
Another key concern for Brussels is Ankara's system of state support. A December 2004 agricultural strategy paper may have reduced direct payments to farmers from 76% to 45% of the total agricultural budget, but this reduction has not been applied uniformly throughout the sector. Certain agricultural activities benefit from a greater amount of state funding than others, with livestock farms the major beneficiaries. Increased production-linked premiums and deficiency payments for crops in which Turkey is not self-sufficient may provide farmers with a greater sense of security, but ultimately conflict with the EU convergence plan.
Ankara's failure to reduce input subsidies has also been flagged by Brussels as a concern. However, the EU is unlikely to wag its finger too vigorously over the issue for now. Reducing subsidies on diesel and fertiliser would burn a sizeable hole in the pockets of local farmers given the price of fuel in Turkey, which is the highest in Europe. Local analysts tend to agree that Turkish farmers need to be strengthened to survive the EU convergence process, with at least 10 years before full alignment is in place.
But there is also the question of land, with the small size of Turkish farms limiting agricultural productivity. As many as 65% of all Turkish farms are less than 5 ha, according to a recent study by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Whilst only 6% of all farms are larger than 20 ha, as much as 83% of agricultural plots are less than 10 ha in size.
Low levels of productivity are accentuated by the fact that property is constantly divided between children, thus reducing the economic viability of the land. Moreover, steep inheritance taxes also mean the majority of land exchanging hands within families remains unregistered. Closely related to this is the problem of land ownership, with landlords renting out their fields to local farmers but pocketing the state aid to which their tenants are entitled.
Another concern is the prevalence of semi-subsistence farming. According to Fatma Can, head of the department of agriculture and fisheries of the Secretariat General for EU Affairs in Ankara, many Turkish farmers generally consume what they produce and sell only a small proportion of their total production. The small scale of Turkish farming has obvious implications for efficiency and productivity, with the vast majority of farmers relying on traditional methods of production.
Little surprise then that agriculture makes a relatively modest contribution to the economy, in spite of its overall size. Official statistics reveal that the sector represents as little as 11.6% of Turkey's GDP, even though 34% of Turkey's working population is engaged in agricultural activities.
This statistic has clear political implications, with the government keen to avoid alienating a sizeable chunk of its electoral base by pushing through rapid and painful agricultural reforms too quickly. Ankara understandably prefers to push for a phasing in process when it comes to EU-related agricultural reform.
Nevertheless, in spite of the long trudge ahead, agricultural reform is likely to pick up in the years to come. While the process has so far been slow, Turkey is just at the beginning of the road, Can said. Next year a more accelerated process can be expected as Ankara will begin to implement an agricultural strategy document in line with EU requirements as of 2006.
Over the past year, preliminary plans have also been drafted to reform the sector. As of December 2004, Ankara began channelling direct payments in favour of certain agricultural pursuits, it also laid out measures to increase agricultural sustainability and the competitiveness of the agro-food sector. Turkey has also pledged to push ahead with diversification and the improvement of food safety standards.
Further legislation can be expected soon, with an EU-style payment agency for rural development expected to be up and running by January 2007. Observers also expect the public reform law, providing the legal basis for the restructuring of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, to enter into force following government approval. In line with their ambitions and subject to EU pressure, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the State Planning Organisation have drafted a rural development strategy, and are working on a national rural development plan. Despite this, Brussels has called on Ankara to accelerate its work.
All this leaves an important question unanswered. What is likely to be the benefits of EU accession for Turkish farmers? The answer is that no one really knows. Some farmers look to Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a source of support, even if phased in over a long period. But CAP itself is under review and may have significantly changed in 10 to 15 years, the predicted timeframe for Turkey's accession. There is one thing that local farmers do know: that reforms - no matter how painful - will eventually lead to a more organised and competitive agricultural sector in Turkey. However, Turkey's farmers will have to grit their teeth for some time before then.