Three and a half weeks in Turkey, most of the time outside Istanbul, have provided many revelations about the people, the country and not least about its agricultural production. Turkey, or to be more precise its government, wants to join the EU, although after the last couple of years of economic struggles and Eurozone problems, it isn’t clear why.
Turkey has enjoyed higher growth in the past decade than any EU member with only one year of contraction. Agriculture represents 25 percent of employment across an unmatched product base, although the sector is not very efficient with many small farmers and relatively unsophisticated farming methods. Subsidies are still in place, but are in the process of being reduced as part of the process of meeting the EU’s accession criteria.
In 2007, Turkey was the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, apricots, figs, cherries, quinces and pomegranates and second largest producer of watermelons, cucumber and chickpeas. Other major crops include cotton, tobacco, tea, barley, wheat, rye, oranges, lemons, green peppers, onions, lentils, pistachios and eggplants.
I can also report from personal experience that Turkey has a thriving wine industry with many varieties of grapes, some familiar, but others unknown to the international wine market, producing some very acceptable wines. The level of tax on wine, cost structure and the unfamiliar grape varieties make development of an export market very difficult.
Livestock production is inefficient and stagnating, although Turkey has a a higher sheep population than New Zealand at over 40 million. Many of the sheep are used as gifts for the traditional annual Muslim festivals, while the doner kebab stalls on every street are another major source of consumption. Every restaurant offers a wide range of diced, minced or sliced lamb and beef items on the menu, as well as chicken, eggplant and salads. Tomatoes are an essential part of the diet.
The country is self-sufficient in food production, successfully providing food for its population of in excess of 80 million people. The product list resembles an Aladdin’s cave of never ending delights which a visitor can witness while driving through the countryside.
The present anti-government demonstrations across the country have brought Turkey into much sharper international focus. They highlight the contradictions implicit in a country which spans Europe and Asia as well as being secular, but mainly Muslim. The government has now won three elections, but is seen as increasingly conservative and out of touch with the younger generation of educated Turks.
The Prime Minister’s insistence on developing Gezi Park, one of the few green parts of Istanbul, has infuriated many people, including students, intellectuals and an increasing number of other groups. There are also strong suspicions of corruption in the deal to build a hotel, shopping centre and barracks.
Recent law changes to ban alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am and lifting the ban on wearing scarves in schools are out of touch with the liberal young and educated voters in the western parts of the country. But the government still retains significant support in the more traditional, conservative and less educated population in the east.
This conflict represents Turkey’s difficulty in convincing the EU that it is, or ever will be, ready for membership. Unless the government returns wholeheartedly to the principles which underpinned the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Attaturk in 1923, there will be continuing unrest. Attaturk was a visionary who saw the only way to drag Turkey out of the conservative Ottoman times was to create an entirely secular state in which people could practice their beliefs without interference. He also introduced the Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic script in 1928, arguably the biggest single contribution to the modernisation of Turkey.
The EU will not be willing to embrace a Muslim nation which shows signs of wanting to move back to the past, emulating countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as continuing to have a dubious human rights record.
The danger is that Turkey will lose what makes it such a special country with enormous potential. Unlike other Muslim counties the people live in an environment of complete tolerance for different religious beliefs, while they do not appear to have the endemic problems of many Western countries, such as an alcohol fuelled culture of violence or fast food obsession.
Debt has grown faster under Erdogan’s government than at any stage of its modern history but if Turkey can come through the present period of political unrest, it could become a major force in the world’s economy, whether it joins the EU or not.