08 Dec

Turkish Olive oil sector struck by internal fighting

green olives treesOnce ranking forth after Spain, Italy and Greece, Turkish olive oil production suffered a setback. Now it ranks sixth after Syria and Tunisia. As olive oil consumption is on the rise world wide globally, efforts are underway to increase Turkey’s share in global production. But the necessary transition to modern harvesting is slow and the government subsidies are much lower than what Turkey’s major competitors gets from the EU. The sector also suffers from infighting, as local lampante oil producers fiercly opposes the exporters’ request to import cheap olive oil.

Gender discrimination in the workplace is a widespread phenomenon in Turkey, and the agriculture sector is no exception.

Women, who gathered for the olive harvest in the Aegean town of Ayvalık last week, said they earn half of what their male counterparts earn. This year women are expected to be paid YTL 10 per day compared to the YTL 20 men will receive.

On most plantations in Turkey, the olive harvest requires manual work: Men beat the branches with sticks to shake the olives from the trees, while women pick up the falling olives from the tarps spread below.

But beating branches with sticks somehow qualifies men as “technically skilled,” thereby justifying the gender gap in the payroll. Soon enough women could be left out of the process altogether, as more modern harvesting techniques are being endorsed.

Mechanized harvesting involves various models of vibrators (tractor-mounted, self-propelled, hand-held) to shake the trunk or individual branches of the tree. Manuel harvesting requires a much larger labor input compared to mechanical harvesting.

“In one day, three people can finish one tree. But with two persons using machines, this number varies between 8-10,” said Mehmet Bolu, an official supervisor in the region.

The days of mechanized harvesting are still far away though, as the costly transition to modern techniques is taking place slowly.

Nevertheless, the slow pace of transition is one of the most important reasons why the Turkish olive and olive oil industry lags behind other Mediterranean countries – that provide almost 98 percent of world’s olive oil.

“Oil is a strategic asset. But we are losing our share in world production to countries like Tunisia and Syria,” said Türkel Minibaş of Istanbul University’s Economics Department. Turkey ranked fourth after Spain, Italy and Greece in oil production in the 1950s; these days it ranks sixth.

Butler on the tree
In old times, the harvest season would start with certain rituals: “The workers would first tie the butler to the tree and would only let him free after getting money from the olive grower,” said Sezai Madra, a third-generation member of an olive growing family in Ayvalık.

In modern times, fairs displaying the latest production or panels to discuss the problems of the sector came to replace old rituals.

For the Ayvalık Chamber of Commerce, the harvest season is a good opportunity to get the projections on the olive sector. For the past three years it has organized “Ayvalık harvest festivities.”

This year though, producers in Ayvalık were hardly in the mood to celebrate since last spring’s drought has hit production levels dramatically. The festivities of the last weekend were also overshadowed by additional worries caused by the latest initiative of the oil and olive oil exporters who are seeking lampante virgin olive oil at competitive prices. The exporters in the sector have recently asked for official authorization from the government to import cheap lampante virgin oil, which is fiercely opposed by local olive oil producers. “We do not have the right to export directly our own lampante virgin olive oil, so that the Turkish refinery industry won’t suffer. Now the exporters need to be protected, but then again at our expense. It’s not fair,” said Salih Madra, the president of the local oil producers association, on a panel to discuss the problems of the sector. The debate has pitted producers against exporters and the two sides are lobbying the government separately.

“Both sides have valid arguments,” said Ergin Savcı, general manager of Kırlangıç, one of the biggest companies both producing and exporting olive oil. “Turkey wants to increase its share in the world. But if you want at least to maintain your share, sustainability is necessary. However, our exports are in decline. I fear some exporters will go bankrupt,” Savcı told the Turkish Daily News.

One sector two lobbies
Turkish oil exports decreased 40 percent compared to last year, according to information provided by Mustafa Seven from the Undersecretariat for Foreign Trade. Seven did not want to elaborate on the exporters’ demands. “The request is still under evaluation,” said Seven.

“The government is caught in a crossfire,” said Savcı, “If they give the authorization to import, they will anger the producers. If not this time it will be the exporters who will get upset.” The government needs to increase the subsidies in the production sector, Savcı said. Government subsidies amount to Ykr 11 per liter whereas the European Union’s subsidy amounts to 1.30 euros.

But this fact alone does not explain why Turkey once a leading oil producer has lost its prominence in the sector. One of the problems concerns marketing Turkish olive oil. Turkey has been unsuccessful in marketing it’s oil under a brand name. Global consumers do not know much about olive oil. Although as more and more health authorities are recommending diets that include of olive oil, global consumption is already on the rise, and is expected to rise even further.

The government is preparing to start a promotional campaign in coordination with the exporters. The promotional group established last April will first target emerging markets like Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

But the budget earmarked is $500,000 annually and it is very limited, said Rahmi Gençer, Ayvalik Chamber of Commerce president. Greece’s promotional budget is 15 million euros.

Another problem the sector is facing is the lack of a proper strategy for future planning. The government has encouraged olive tree planting. Turkey’s annual olive oil production of 135,000 tons is expected to rise to 350 tons in a couple of years and there might be a marketing problem if a proper strategy is not endorsed, Gerçer said. The problem also stems from low consumption levels domestically. Turkey consumes 1 kilogram per person annually compared to 20 kilograms in Greece.

Aegean food is known to be light, due to being cooked in olive oil. But the tradition of cooking with olive oil seems to remain limited to the Aegean region; it appears to be a rather difficult task to ask the rest of Turkey to change its eating habits. The sector’s representatives are hoping that the trend toward healthy eating will take root in deep Anatolia as well.

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