Besiktaş Cooperative Initiative sells organic and ecologically produced food in several places in Istanbul. Its customers are consumers who are aware of the dangers of produce treated extensively with pesticides or grown from imported genetically modified seeds. (Credits: Beşiktaş Kooperatif Girişimi)

At the small shop run by Kadikoy Cooperative, tempting displays of locally-produced honey, fresh fruits and vegetables and home-made jams line the shelves alongside organic pulses, nuts and spices.

Kadıköy Cooperative has its own store in Istanbul.  Bürge  Abiral (Right), a volunteer in the cooperative, claims  that everything they stock is high quality, ethically produced and environment-friendly.   (Credits: Uygar Gültekin)

The produce sold in this Istanbul shop, which opened in 2016, are more expensive than those in regular markets. But Bürge Abiral, who recently joined the cooperative as a volunteer, explained that everything they stock is high quality, ethically produced and environment-friendly. That comes at quite a cost.

“The problem is not that the produce we sell in our shop is too expensive, but that the produce sold in markets and supermarkets is too cheap,” she said. “Regular producers use lots of chemicals and exploit their work force – that’s how they are able to sell their products for such a low price.”

The most popular products sold by the cooperatives are cheese and butter. (Credits: Uygar Gültekin)

Growing numbers of Turkish consumers are joining forces with local food producers to create these kinds of cooperatives to source, buy and sell high-quality and ecological food.

Quite apart from the skyrocketing prices of fruits and vegetables in Turkey – which have risen by more than 70 per cent in the last year and become a key political issue – health- conscious consumers fear that industrial models of food production are damaging the environment and creating significant health risks.

There are now more than 20 food cooperatives in Istanbul alone, and about 50 in the whole country.

“We live far away from the places where food is being produced, but we wanted to learn something about this process and to have a say in the quality of produce that is being offered to us,” explained Cemile Kahraman, who has been involved in the Kadikoy Cooperative since its inception in 2013. “Everyone complains about the pesticides we consume together with fruits and vegetables, but at least we are doing something about it through this cooperative.”

The not-for-profit currently has 23 members, who prefer to describe themselves as partners, and more than 50 volunteers. Policymaking is consensual, with eight different units each tasked with jobs such as dealing with food producers, transport or communications.

Kadikoy Cooperative works closely with a number of small organic food producers throughout Turkey who avoid using chemicals in food production, use only non-hybrid seeds, clean water and employ workers who are properly paid and insured. Preference is given to small producers also gathered in cooperatives, particularly women’s groups.

Cooperatives purchase their products from local producers, especially from other cooperatives. A women cooperative established in Sanlıurfa (south-eastern Turkey) sells tomato sauce made from the locally-grown, sun-dried tomatoes.  (Credits: Beşiktaş Cooperative Initiative)

They don’t negotiate prices with producers –a widespread practice in Turkey – but pay them what they ask for, in order to help producers to be sustainable. To avoid extra costs, they transport products to Istanbul themselves and pay only the shipping fee.

As Kadikoy Cooperative partners point out, this is not just about eating healthy food but also insuring that the whole process of food production is as fair as possible.

Lawyer Cansu Başkaya Efe, from the soon-to-be-registered Besiktas Cooperative in Istanbul, argued that people who do not produce food themselves need to consume it consciously.

“We must ensure that our children eat well and provide them with food that is not genetically modified or poisoned with chemicals,” she said. “And this can be possible only if we, as consumers, support those who produce healthy food.”

Efe is encouraged by the cooperative’s success.

“After we announced our existence via social media, people started ordering our products without even seeing them first,” she said.

Her colleague from Besiktas Cooperative, Selçuk Oktay, stressed that consumers in Turkey were increasingly aware of the dangers of produce treated extensively with pesticides or grown from imported genetically modified seeds.

“People want to avoid chemicals and to consume only healthy products, but it’s not easy to produce such food,” he explained. “Turkey’s agricultural policy doesn’t support the producers who want to protect the environment or grow organic food, so many of them stop producing altogether. That is why we, as conscious consumers, must help the producers to stay in business.”

The biggest supporter of consumer cooperatives is the Confederation of Farmer Unions, which provides information, support, and training. Its head Abdullah Aysu agreed that food production models based on heavy chemical use were the main reason why growing number of consumers were looking for healthier alternatives.

“The residues left by the chemicals used in the industrial production of food pose a health risk to the people who consume it. Such production contaminates water and soil, while additives used in the food processing cause health problems,” Aysu explained.

He sees this kind of cooperation between producers and consumers as the only guarantee of a sustainable future, and called on the state to do more to support it.

“The antidote to global capitalism is localisation, and localisation will be possible only with the synergy between producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives.”

“The state should implement programmes that would enable better cooperation between consumers and producers,” he said, adding, “Although these cooperatives cannot solve the deepening food crisis in Turkey, at least they are a step in the right direction.”