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How Turkey Ended Up Depending On Imported Food

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Turkey is among the countries with land that lies inside the Fertile Crescent, where some of the oldest signs of human agriculture have been found. For thousands of years, ancient seeds and farming knowledge have been handed down from generation to generation. But these days, critics say shortsighted policies have left the country importing food instead of growing it. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A summer breeze moves across a farm field a short drive from the city of Izmit amid the sound of hoes striking dirt and rock. This isn't technically part of the Fertile Crescent, but the woman who owns and runs this farm says she's proud to grow some of the same crops raised by some of the world's earliest known farmers. Nardane Kuscu is now 66, but she remembers growing up on a farm run by her grandmother, who taught her how to collect and preserve the seeds. She says her family never switched to modern farming practices with seeds engineered for higher yields and chemical fertilizers sprayed from crop-dusting airplanes.

NARDANE KUSCU: (Through interpreter) We love farming and being independent in food producing because I believe everyone has the right to be independent when it comes to food. But there have been some false steps. Agriculture became less important. Migration to the cities started. Finally, we came to a state of not being able to feed ourselves anymore when we used to be self-sufficient.

KENYON: These days, Kuscu grows pomegranates, 95 varieties of tomato, dozens of types of beans, plus a wide variety of melons, vegetables and grains - no planes, no chemicals. The government rejects the claim that Turkey is dependent on food imports. Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli was quoted in 2018 as saying, to those who cry, you imported straw; you imported wheat, I say this. If we can import, it's because Turkey has the money to do so. But for journalist Cem Seymen, that remark sums up a government policy that he says has led to Turkey becoming increasingly dependent on imported food. At the same time, he says, the government encouraged farmers to move to the city and find work in factories.

CEM SEYMEN: So that became a slogan for the government. We have money. We can import everything from outside world. Don't worry about it. Come to the cities, find a job, and create a good life for yourselves.

KENYON: But both he and Kuscu believe the situation will change over time, and the coronavirus pandemic could even accelerate that process. Kuscu says it's becoming clear to everyone that the global economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic has been good for the environment, as modern agribusiness practices have slowed down along with everything else. She says nature is healing itself, and she hopes Turkey won't miss an opportunity to boost support for natural farming.

KUSCU: (Through interpreter) I believe in a short period of time, in line with nature's own cleaning process, we could be on a new path. I choose to be hopeful because I know who and where people are putting their energy into this.

KENYON: She's doing her part to help that process along. She runs a small hotel on the farm, and guests from around Turkey and abroad come to see the operation and help collect the seeds that keep Turkey's ancient agricultural heritage alive.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kandira, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.