TBY talks to Mehdi Eker, Minister of Agriculture and Village Affairs, on the country's competitive advantages and agricultural policy.

Mehdi Eker
Mehdi Eker had a long career as a civil servant before entering politics at age 46. As well as being the Minister of Agriculture and Village Affairs, Mehdi Eker is a Member of Parliament for Diyarbakır. Over the course of his term he has worked to adjust food control regulations and also successfully tackled the bird flu epidemic in 2005.

Turkey is the largest exporter of agriculture products in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. What are Turkey's competitive advantages in agriculture, particularly the crop sector?

Turkey has substantial production potential for horticulture products, which only few countries have, due to its geographical and ecological conditions. In this respect, Turkey is one of the most important countries as it is the homeland and gene pool of several fruits. The seed sector also has several advantages due to favorable climatic and geographical conditions. In addition, Turkey has a large domestic market and is close to the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia. The government is working hard on incentive and subsidy deals, and there is strong collaboration between the public and private sectors. Turkey is full of well-trained workers, and the overall infrastructure is also beneficial. New studies are underway for the development of new seed varieties, and investments are being made through international seed companies in Turkey. Seed production is carried out in compliance with international standards, and this also helps exports.

What are the primary strategies of Turkey's post-ARIP agriculture policy?

The Agricultural Reform Implementation Project (ARIP), which was applied between 2001 and 2008, is composed of four main principals, including direct income support, alternative product development, the reconstruction of agriculture sales cooperatives and unions, and project support services. Under post-ARIP primary implementations, and in agricultural supports, an efficiency- and quality-driven product based support system is in process to increase welfare levels in the agricultural sector by providing rural development and by developing agricultural products in line with domestic and foreign demand, protecting and developing natural and biological resources, increasing efficiency, reinforcing food reassurance and security, improving producer organizations, and by empowering agricultural markets. In addition, agricultural supports are being made in different amounts with respect to priorities and preferences like region, enterprise, land, product, agricultural system, contracted production, rehabilitation, rural development, and environment and through producer organizations. In determining the product and amount, quality, standards, and health criteria are taken into account. In the forthcoming period efficiency in agricultural policies will be increased by establishing an integrated administration and control system.

What steps have you taken to bring Turkey's agricultural policies into line with those of the EU?

The objective of agricultural policies is to solve the prioritized problems in the sector, increasing the efficiency of implementing policies and facilitating the adjustment in the sector to the impacts of these policies. In this respect, Turkey has recently started long-term planning for the agricultural sector and published the “Agricultural Policy Paper 2006-10 and Strategic Plan 2010-13" to bring Turkey's agricultural policies into line with those of the EU. In the last decade, 13 main regulations have come into force to comply with EU legislation. The studies on secondary legislation and a few main regulations are in progress. An agency has been established to support Turkish farmers in order to develop their mechanical and technical capacity to be more effective in the international markets. Important progress has been made regarding horizontal issues such as establishing legal infrastructure to secure good practice.

What specific measures is your Ministry taking to facilitate and encourage innovation and technology in agriculture?

Turkey's R&D expenditure rose to 0.85% of GDP in 2010. The target is 2%. In parallel to this trend, the nation's agricultural R&D expenditure has also increased. The public sector continues to be largely responsible for knowledge management. Under the administration of the Ministry, the General Directorate for Agricultural Research (GDAR), which has 58 research institutes, is responsible for conducting research into all domains of agriculture and this body supports R&D micro projects applied by the private sector, universities, and NGOs. The strategic aim of seeking collaboration among universities, institutions, organizations, and companies in order to develop knowledge and technology led to reforms in the Agriculture Law, which were adopted in 2006 and subsequently created an enabling environment for the development of agricultural innovation. Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were established to eliminate regional disparities, to accelerate local and regional economic development, and to enable sustainable development. There are now 26 RDAs across the country and they are responsible for developing an R&D and innovation strategy. The main policy document of Turkey, the Ninth Development Plan (2007-13), contains actions for agricultural innovation related issues. It emphasizes the importance of R&D under the strategic objective of “increasing competitiveness" to contribute to the economic and social development of Turkey as well as the regional development policy and cluster development. In order to develop agricultural production and to extend new technologies in the agricultural sector, practical farmer training and demonstration works have been effectively implemented.

How is the Ministry working to support the animal husbandry sector?

The investment support activities carried out by our Ministry in animal husbandry include developing the practice in the Southeast and East Anatolia regions. New establishments of between 50 and 300 dairy cows or between 50 and 300 meat and combined breed cattle will be given grants covering 30% of total construction costs as well as 40% of their animal purchase costs. Within this scope, 44 of 134 projects with 5,962 animals in the Southeast Anatolia region and 64 of 105 projects with 5,797 animals in the East Anatolia region have been completed. The main aim of this application is to improve both dairy cattle breeding and other cattle breeding establishments. These subsidies are given within the scope of the East Anatolia and Southeast Anatolia projects that are specific to those regions and they include social, cultural, environmental, and economic issues with the aim of increasing per capita income and employment, increasing development activities, protecting the environment, improving and sustaining development, establishing industry and service centers, and stopping emigration.

Turkey currently uses about 16.2 million hectares of its 24.3 million hectares of arable land. What opportunities and challenges does Turkey's land potential present?

Turkey in general has a rich geographical content that contains different elements and characteristics. In 2009, with a decision from the Council of Ministers, 30 agricultural basins have been determined by way of accessing 527 million data stock in terms of their climate, soil, topography, land types, and ways of cultivation. The objective of the Agricultural Basin Support and Production Model is to support the cultivation of the most suitable products in the most suitable agricultural basins that are formed in line with their climate, soil, and topography in terms of those products' ecological needs. In this respect, the Agricultural Basin Support and Production Model aims to put a strategy in place to implement the activities for comparatively complying the rules of the WTO and EU about support systems and to increase competitiveness, decrease the rate of public financing, enable the balance of supply and demand, maximize producer profit, increase efficiency, protect soil and water resources, and ensure production planning, which are the basic needs of the agriculture sector. A land-based support system has also been developed for each of the 30 basins in terms of their ecological, topographical, and agricultural characteristics. The process of implementing the model in the coming period is continuing.

There are lands suitable for organic agriculture all over Turkey and organic agriculture has been increasing over recent years. The land used for organic agriculture was about 1.58% of the arable land in 2010. In general, 4.3 million hectares of land are left fallow every year. Recently, studies have been continuing into better utilizing land for plant production, and there are positive signs that the research is paying off, and all arable land will be in a position to be cultivated within the next 10 years.