The battle over skyrocketing vegetable prices has become a new frontline in Turkish politics, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blaming various culprits for creating “food terror”.
According to data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute last month, prices have risen by more than 70 per cent in just one year. For instance, onions cost one to two Turkish lira (0.15 – 0.30 euro) per kilogramme last year and currently sell for four to six liras (0.60 – 0.90 euro) in the market, and even more in shops and supermarkets. The price of many other staples such as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants and fruits has also soared.
But economists say that the rises are due to systemic failures in Turkey’s agricultural planning rather than the supermarket operators, wholesalers and produce brokers Erdogan has variously held responsible.
Experts also warn that populist state measures to introduce cheaper produce into the market are unsustainable.
Unsurprisingly, the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables became a campaigning issue ahead of the local elections on March 31. At a pre-election meeting held on February 11 in Ankara, Erdogan compared the price rises 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 organisations] think they are stronger than the state, they should know that we will destroy those who terrorise the food market as quickly as we destroyed [PKK terrorists] in south-eastern Turkey,” Erdogan said.
“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) organised 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, where fruits and vegetables were sold at discount prices. Some kiosks were also opened in other major cities, such as Bursa and Trabzon.
Most of these mobile kiosks and tents were closed down right after the election. Yalcin Karatepe, an economics professor at Ankara University, posited that the government had used them primarily to score points with voters, noting that such low prices were not sustainable in the long run.
“I know how the discount stalls operated in Ankara. They bought cucumbers at four TRY per kilo in Mersin [in southern Turkey], and sold them for three TRY 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.
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 (TRY) for a kilo of onions, two or three times less than what they would pay in a supermarket.
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 TRY. Here, it costs three TRY. However, I still have to go to the market every week because I cannot find everything I need here.”
Her fellow shopper Havva Turgut said that she was more than happy to shop at the discount stalls.
“Products are of high quality,” the 55-year-old continued. “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 had claimed 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.
“We buy potatoes from the wholesale market at three and-a-half TRY, and onions at four TRY, 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 sells at two TRY 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 TRY last year currently cost three TRY. We buy tomatoes from wholesalers for six-and-a-half to seven TRY and sell it for eight TRY. These high prices put people off, they don’t have the money to buy this produce,” he 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 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 due to 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.”