'For sale' sign on farm productivity questioned

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While the renting of agricultural lands will be a first for Turkey, a similar policy is already being implemented in Latin American and African countries. Hürriyet photo

The Hürriyet | Sunday, January 17, 2010

BETÜL ÇAL / I?IL E?R?KAVUK

ANTALYA - Hürriyet Daily News

As many world experts warn of a looming global food crisis, a government plan to sell vast tracts of Turkish farmland along with harvest rights to foreigners is set to be decided soon. The Investment Support and Promotion Agency has announced it is in the final stages of a deal similar to those made between Saudi Arabia, South Korea and other nations with impoverished countries in Africa

The Investment Support and Promotion Agency’s negotiations with three major foreign investors to rent agricultural land outside Istanbul for 25 to 30 years went largely unnoticed last week, but are turning heads in Turkish agribusiness circles.

“Having enough food reserves is a critical issue right now for every country,” Abdullah Aysu, a spokesman for the Initiative for the Confederation of Farmers’ Unions, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “At this point, Turkey cannot even produce enough food for itself. Why should it even think about renting its own land?”

At the moment, details about the negotiations are sparse, but the agency’s head, Alparslan Korkmaz, announced in December that a deal with three potential investors was all but done. The plan has drawn some support in farm circles, but many warn that such an arrangement would effectively export not products, but productivity itself, and are seeking to rally the public against it.

“There is a growing food crisis in the world, but Turkey is completely ignoring this problem,” said Gökhan Günayd?n, chairman of the Chamber of Agriculture. Noting that the country’s population will soon hit 90 million. “Instead of providing more means for farmers, the authorities are trying to discharge the existing lands, which is putting Turkey at major risk.”

Examples from other countries

While the renting of agricultural lands will be a first for Turkey, a similar policy is already being implemented in Latin American and African countries. Madagascar, which has leased out more than half its farmland to rich nations seeking food security for their own populations, is one example that has drawn widespread condemnation.

“In Argentina, they have implemented a similar policy by renting plantations to big corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto,” said Günayd?n. “Argentina is three times bigger than Turkey and its population is half ours. Yet, right now, the country is faced with a major threat of food crisis.”

“[Such practices are] already being implemented in many countries in Africa, and recently it has been started in the Turkic republics,” said Aysu. “Yet having the same policy in Turkey will only bring more poverty.”

A decade ago, Aysu said the government sought to sell a series of state farms, all “model farms” dating to the 1930s and known by their Turkish acronym, T?GEM. “Some were effectively privatized, but most of the plans fell aside amid heavy protests,” he said. “I hope the same thing happens again.”

‘Mersin lands not suitable for full-scale investments’

While farmers and agricultural experts criticize Korkmaz’s proposal in terms of food security, others involved in agribusiness believe the idea may have merit, saying that Turkey does need foreign investment in the sector.

Although Turkey’s investment agency has not specified properties to be leased for such purposes, the uncultivated agricultural lands in the Mediterranean region are likely to be among those chosen, experts say.

The Tarsus region would be a good candidate for such a scheme, said Kadir Dölek, the secretary-general of the Mersin Chamber of Trade and Industry. Mersin itself, on the Mediterranean coast, is not appropriate for new large-scale investment. But nearby Tarsus has a number of large tracts held by wealthy landowners that might be appropriate for such a project, Dölek said.

“I do not think, however, these farmers will be willing to rent their lands to investors, either domestic or foreign, for long durations because they farm these lands themselves and make a living on them,” he said. Despite skepticism toward foreign investment in general, Dölek believes that a plan that brings added value, such as food processing or packaging, to the region might well find a warm reception.

Some firms from Israel, Bahrain and Libya have recently been to the region to discuss potential commercial collaborations. These talks, Dölek noted, have been encouraged by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an but have yet to reach a successful conclusion.

?aban Ba?, the chairman of the Adana Chamber of Trade and Industry, is even warmer to the idea of foreign investment in agriculture, which he said would contribute to the economy in terms of production and employment in the region.

Today, total foreign investment in the Adana region exceeds $83 million, making the city the fifth most popular investment place for foreigners. Yet local business leaders say the agricultural sector has only attracted around 15 percent of that capital, with the majority going to wholesale and retail trading. A boost in those numbers might increase receptivity to Korkmaz’s project, they said.

Sustainability of lands

Other experts worry less about the short-term economics than the long-term effect of any leasing arrangements on agricultural sustainability, saying incentives to garner quick results would be damaging without taking future fertility and productivity into account.

“This is already a problem, especially in the south, and especially in the Çukurova region,” said Nejat Ören, the chairman of the Agricultural Economics Department at Mersin’s Çukurova University. “For example, you cannot cultivate corn every year; you have to give the land a rest. But the investors will probably try to do everything to maximize the capability of obtaining crops. After that, the land will be dead.”

Another significant problem has to do with financing, Ören said: “Right now, the banks in Turkey are providing farmers with large amounts of loans even though they know that they will not be paid back. When the farmers can’t pay these amounts, they take out mortgages on their lands.”

Aysu, from the farmers’ confederation, agreed. “The farmers are losing their own lands,” he said. “Right now there are 3 million hectares of uncultivated land in Turkey. We first need to provide sustainable agriculture for our own farmers.”

Korkmaz’s agency declined requests by the Daily News for further comment. Its public relations firm said it is forbidden from commenting on the project at the moment, but a spokesman said details will soon be made public at the ministerial level.

Daily News Antalya bureau chief Betül Çal contributed to this report from Antalya; reporter I??l E?rikavuk contributed from Istanbul.
Original source: The Hürriyet
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