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Fighting Turkey’s ‘Onion’ Terror

By blaming market players for the ‘food terror’ of high prices – instead of agricultural policy – the government plays an unsustainable game. by Merve Ozcelik 9 May 2019

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, for the last few months, we have been making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

 

The battle over skyrocketing vegetable prices has become a new frontline in Turkish politics, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continuing to blame supermarket operators, wholesalers, and produce brokers for creating “food terror.” Economists, on the other hand, say the increases are the result of systemic failures in agricultural planning.

 

According to data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute last month,[1] [2] [3]  food prices have risen by more than 70 percent in just one year. For instance, onions cost one to two Turkish lira ($0.17-$0.34) per kilogram last year and currently sell for four to six lira in the market, and even more in shops and supermarkets. The prices of many other staples, such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and fruits, have also soared.

 

The cost of fresh fruit and vegetables became a campaigning issue ahead of the local elections on 31 March. At a pre-election meeting held on 11 February in Ankara, Erdogan even compared the price hikes to terrorism.

 

“We won’t tolerate those who have created this food terror. We will spoil their game altogether,” he said. Addressing government officials in Istanbul a week later, he vowed that the government would launch a merciless fightback.

 

“If some [individuals and organizations] think they are stronger than the state, they should know that we will destroy those who terrorize the food market as quickly as we destroyed [PKK terrorists] in southeastern Turkey,” said the president.

 

Food market in Istanbul

 

“Those who exploit my citizens will find us against them ... We will join hands and, inshallah, we will end this exploitation.”

 

Ahead of the elections, municipal officials from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) organized mobile kiosks selling vegetables, fruits, and beans at lower-than-market prices.

 

Tents were set up at 50 locations in Istanbul and 15 in Ankara. Some kiosks were also opened in other major cities, such as Bursa and Trabzon.

 

Yet experts warn that these state measures, which some have labelled populist, are unsustainable. Indeed, most of these mobile kiosks and tents were closed down right after the election.

 

Yalcin Karatepe, an economics professor at Ankara University, suggested that the government had used them primarily to score points with voters, noting that such low prices were not feasible in the long run.

 

“I know how the discount stalls operated in Ankara. They bought cucumbers at four lira per kilo in Mersin [in southern Turkey], and sold them for three lira in Ankara. No merchant can survive if they sell products at prices lower than their real cost,” Karatepe said. “The ruling AKP party provided voters with products at affordable prices in order to positively impact their perception of the government.”

 

Karatepe explained that the tactic could not have continued indefinitely.

 

“The government sold products at lower prices not because they managed to cut costs, but because they used the state budget to cover the losses. That is not sustainable,” he concluded.

 

Market Distortion

 

However, some of the kiosks continue to operate, because of the huge demand from low-income consumers.

 

Long queues form in front of the discount stalls every day. The quantity each customer can buy is limited, and the selection only encompasses onions, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, apples, and some pulses. Those seeking greater variety have to buy them elsewhere.

 

People who have the time and patience to wait in these long queues are rewarded with prices as low as two Turkish lira for a kilo of onions, two or three times less than what they would pay in a supermarket.

 

Discount stalls

 

Selma Arslan has been shopping at the state-run kiosks for two months now and says she is happy with the produce, although she has to supplement her weekly shop with a trip to the supermarket.

 

“I am satisfied with the discount stalls because prices are affordable. When you buy a kilo of tomatoes at the market, you have to pay six to seven lira. Here, it costs three lira. However, I still have to go to the market every week because I cannot find everything I need here.”

 

Her fellow shopper, 55-year-old Havva Turgut, is more than happy to shop at the discount stalls.

 

“Products are of high quality,” she said. “They don’t decay quickly like the fruits and vegetables I buy at the grocery store. I want the state to keep these discount stalls going in the future.”

 

The government has said that the kiosks would allow farmers to sell produce directly to consumers, eliminating brokers from the process and thus reducing final costs. 

 

For market stallholders, however, the cut-price stalls have been a disaster.

 

Cetin Tanhan has sold potatoes, onions, and other vegetables in one of Istanbul’s markets for 25 years. The 41-year-old is the sole breadwinner for his wife and three children.

 

Cetin Tanhan

 

“We buy potatoes from the wholesale market at three-and-a-half lira, and onions at four lira, and we must sell them at slightly higher prices to cover our costs and make some profit. We cannot compete with the government price for onions that sell at two lira per kilo. And the customers are angry at us, too, because they think we are trying to rip them off, which is not true,” Tanhan said.

 

Naif Kargi, a 47-year-old father of four, has worked as a stallholder for 30 years. He is also worried about the rise of wholesale prices, as well as the discount rates offered by the government. Both affect his sales. 

 

“The prices of products we buy and sell have risen dramatically compared to last year. Carrot and radish that we sold for one lira last year currently cost three lira. We buy tomatoes from wholesalers for six-and-a-half-to-seven lira and sell them for eight lira. These high prices put people off; they don’t have the money to buy this produce,” Kargi said.

 

Vahap Tuncer, an agricultural engineer from Antalya, said that rising vegetable prices were not the result of the greed of wholesalers and brokers, as Erdogan has claimed, but of inadequate state planning.

 

In his view, one of the most serious policy mistakes was the lack of much-needed government support to local farmers, who often end up selling their land for property development rather than working it themselves.

 

Many fruits and vegetables were imported, and so local farmers – failing to compete with those prices – stop producing altogether.

 

“The situation we have now is the result of the many errors in agricultural policy that accumulated over the last 15 years,” Tuncer continued. “Our agriculture is too dependent on imports, and when the Turkish lira lost its value last summer, that was reflected in a dramatic increase of prices of pesticides, fertilizers, and seeds.

 

“On top of that, we have a bad quality crop this year as a result of last year’s poor weather conditions. That all affects the final prices of produce in the market.”

 

Economics professor Karatepe agreed that the state was trying to shift blame.

 

“The government doesn’t want to take responsibility for any economic problems in Turkey, including high prices at food markets, and blames external factors instead,” he said. “But the fact is that this country does not have a good agricultural policy.”

Merve Ozcelik studied at the Department of Radio, Cinema, and TV at Istanbul University. She worked as a reporter at Birgun Newspaper and as a photographer at the Filmmor Women’s Film Festival. Since 2017, Merve has been working as a reporter at Medyascope. Photos by Merve Ozcelik. 
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