No.4 Letter From Poland
First Organic Agriculture Congress, Istanbul
I am going to take you away from Poland this morning; to consider the proceedings of the First Organic Agriculture Congress of Turkey, held in Istanbul last month. An event which we were invited to participate in.
Around 300 delegates gathered at a venue on the edge of the Bosphorus sea, surrounded by the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul.
It somehow seemed auspicious that farmers, environmentalists, traders, parliamentarians, civil servants and concerned citizens should come together to discuss the agricultural future of the Country which, it is claimed, gave birth to European agriculture some 10,000 years ago – and where coined money was first put into circulation.
In his opening remarks, and referring to the future, the Minister of Agriculture stated that “Everything goes back to its’ roots.” A remark of some poignancy, given that there are some 3,500 types of plant that only grow in Turkey – a Country which is recognised as one of the key “biodiversity hot-spots” of the World.
Unfortunately, however, due to poorly planned and instituted policies for farmland irrigation, 50% of these plant species could be lost in the next 10 years, unless strong remedial actions are undertaken very soon.
Turkey is a Country, like Poland, that has somehow managed to preserve it’s great store of biodiversity – and much of it in a living form – on it’s small traditional farms and managed wildernesses. This is evident from the exceptional variety of indigenous, colourful and intensely flavourful foods on display at outdoor market places.
The expression used at the conference to describe the majority of these farms was: ‘organic by default’ – the same phrase I had used to describe the Polish peasant farms back in 2001. It means that they already follow rotational, largely chemical free farming methods, with all plant and animal wastes returned to the land.
You get the picture, thousands of small environmentally friendly traditional farms, providing high quality local food for local people, right across the Country.
Turkey, it seems, has – in this way – been able to maintain her self sufficiency in all staple foods plus a very wide range of fruits up to the present day.
However, this ‘semi-paradise’ is now creaking under the dual expectation of EU membership and the strong corporate ‘free market’ pressures of a world hungry to get it’s feet onto Turkish soil.
And as in so many other parts of the world, agricultural pursuits are being abandoned in favor of life in the city … Istanbul itself boasts a contantly growing population of somewhere between 15 and 20 million citizens.
Our fellow participants at the Congress spoke of their concerns for the future. How can one stem the tide of urban immigrants?
Would it be possible to maintain the variety of native artisan foods if Turkey had to comply with the hygiene strictures of the Common Agricultural Policy?
And what about organic production?
Currently 80% of Turkey’s certified organic food is exported – with 1% of the farming land registered as organic and much expectation of a significant increase in the near future.
Such a high export percentage is no doubt caused by the prolific amount of relatively good quality, chemical free and reasonably priced foods already available to Turkish citizens.
To obtain the ‘certified organic’ designation and label, farmers have to signe-up to officialy recognised authorities and licensed inspection bodies; a process involving a financial outlay and a fair amount of bureaucracy.
The incentive to do so, is largely dependent upon believing you will receive a higher price for the end product. But this is by no means assured.
Conference delegates seemed sensitive to this dilemma: was it worth going officially organic simply to supply the fluctuating fortunes of the export market? asked a participant.
A responding delegate drew applause when she said “We need to find and adapt our own solutions, not unquestioningly adopt other Countries’ models.”
Somehow, in the land that started formal agriculture going, this debate seemed particularly poignant. Agriculture is, after all, a Culture. A culture of the land.
The unremitting quest to turn the fruits of the soil into a profit has undermined the significance of farming as ‘a way of life’ – and caused much suffering along the way.
Many Turkish farms share with their Polish counterparts, the distinction of being ‘organic by default.’ Food grown in this way and sold at local and regional levels shouldn’t need a ‘certified organic’ label to prove it’s provinence; nor should it need need to make a big profit.
Such food is bought on trust. A Trust built on community awareness, observation and good taste buds.
Maybe this is an ‘organic’ message for us too….