Wheeling the Scythe


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The release of the European Commission progress report this month on the status of reform in Turkey pointed up agriculture as an area in which the country will have to dig particularly deep as it drives towards full membership. Like Brussels, Ankara recognises that the alignment of domestic standards with those of the European Union will take considerable time and effort. For farmers in particular, this harmonisation may prove no easy task.

A number of rural themes top the EU's list of concerns. First, there are the administrative question marks. The division of competencies between different departments within Turkey's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has "led to unclear responsibilities or conflicts of competencies and does not contribute to efficient administration", according to the commission's report. This does, however, recognise current efforts to restructure the ministry, along with initiatives to devolve centralised functions to local administrative units. Europe's concern lies rather with the level and speed of adjustment.

As with the fuzzy division of authority, the snail-like pace of rural development has triggered further comment from the commission. Finger-wagging about the failure to develop a national development plan has inevitably drawn attention away from individual development projects - in particular those committed to irrigation, land improvement, village road construction and the like. Similarly, concerns about the pace of alignment with European standards for veterinary regulations and food safety remain troubling.

But underlining European pressure for agricultural reform in Turkey is a far broader concern - namely, protectionism. If Turkey is to progress along the road to Europe, import restrictions on EU agricultural imports such as beef need to be dropped. Hand in hand with this goes the need to cut subsidisation, credit and price supports - amounting to $5bn in 2004, according to EU estimations.

Given such supports, agricultural prices in Turkey are also comparatively steep. "Wheat prices are 30% higher than in the EU," Franz Fischler, the outgoing EU commissioner for agriculture, recently claimed. However, opening the floodgates to cheaper products from Europe is a prospect that would make any Turkish farmer shudder.

Such potential swamping would also have major implications for employment. Though relatively uncompetitive and low in productivity - and despite a gradual demographic shift towards urban centres over the years - Turkey still as much as 33% of its entire labour force engaged in agriculture, according to government statistics from 2003.

Unemployment, which was hovering around 9.3% in the second quarter of 2004, is also a national concern. Having to deal with more out of work farmers is a prospect that the government will be sure to want to avert.

In addition, given the fiscal constraints it faces these days, the government is unlikely to be keen on granting European agricultural products greater access to the Turkish market. Already, Turkey's trade deficit is projected to reach $30bn by the end of 2004. Placing agricultural trade - one of the sole areas where Turkey enjoys a surplus - into the red is hardly going to help alleviate economic pressures, let alone right Turkey's balance sheets.

Indeed, agricultural exports continue to serve as one of the pillars of the Turkish economy. According to 2003 EU figures, Turkey exported 4.2bn euros worth of agricultural and food products that year, while importing an estimated 2.9bn euros worth. As a proportion of overall trade, exports in agricultural products constituted 14% of the national total, whilst accounting for 6% of total imports. Out of these exports, Europe consumes the lion's share, with 2.04bn euros in exports for 2003.

Turkey has been making some progress in agricultural reform recently, however. For one thing, the government is pressing ahead with the Agricultural Reform Implementation Programme - an initiative hatched with the support of the World Bank - aimed at phasing out government props to agriculture.

While "The reform process is still far from complete," according to the 2004 EU progress report, "it has had some positive impact, for example on the level of the trade distorting types of support."

European praise - no matter how qualified - has been forthcoming on related agricultural matters. Progress has been registered with regards to quality policy and organic farming. Brussels has also taken note of efforts in animal health: in particular the implementation of surveillance programmes for diseases and animal sickness.

A transformation in the structure of Turkish agriculture, moreover, cannot be expected over night.

"Reform will take a long time and negotiations will be hard and long-lasting," Turkish Agriculture Minister Sami Guclu told the OBG in October.

The reasons for this are clear enough, given the small size of the majority of Turkish farms. Some 65% of all Turkish holdings are between 0 and 5 ha, whilst 94% of total national holdings are smaller than 20 ha. Hard to compete against Europe's large farms, streamlined mechanised systems of production and the major prop of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Nonetheless, there are many areas in which Turkey remains a world leader - particularly in the production of tobacco, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, figs, apples, grapes, lentils, chickpeas and other fruit. Yet there are disadvantages even for these associated with an agricultural system that has been sheltered from international competition.

Though Turkey's agricultural reform process will be long and cumbersome, the country offers significant potential. Analysts point to the fact that Turkish accession to the EU would add 39m ha to Europe's agricultural area. This translates into as much as 23% of the total agricultural area of the current 25 EU member states.

Meanwhile though, critics argue that the absorption of Turkey's agricultural sector would carry an incredible cost - an assertion founded on Franz Fischler's recent estimate of 13.8bn euros in additional agricultural subsidies being necessary. But as Turkey slowly adjusts, and its 78m ha or cultivated land come under the European umbrella, the EU can expect to see its might as a global economic power further increase. The struggle, though long and arduous, should deliver eventual returns for both Ankara and Brussels - and for European and Turkish farmers.

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