‘Turkey has to retain at least 7.5 million hectares of wheat cultivation area for its future’

Ayhan Atalay, Ata Tohumculuk: “Wheat cultivation areas in Turkey is 7,6 million hectares in average. But we expect that this will drop under 7 million hectares according to indicators like fertilizer usage and direct information from farmers. Production of summer substitutes of wheat is going to substantially increase. The wheat is a traditional and strategic product of this region. We have concerns about wheat production in terms of both the yield and the quality. We have to increase wheat cultivation areas above 7,5 million hectares.”

Interview: Mustafa Yağmurlu
Ata Tohumculuk, one of the first and leading companies of Turkish seed sector, has been serving Turkish farmers for more than 25 years. Ata Tohumculuk was incorporated in Polatli, Ankara as a family company in 1993 and has become a crucial player in seed sector with its strong and dynamic structure. Ayhan Atalay, the Chairman of Board of the company, underlines that the seed sector is the base of farming and it has a strategic importance in terms of food security and their aim is to offer more productive strains for Turkish farmers. His company has been using the same technology with most Western firms do and they have a substantial research and development investment in international scale, Atalay told the Miller Magazine. Ata Tohumculuk launched the largest grain seed plant of Turkey in Polatli in 2011 and it is a leading firm all over Turkey with breeding plantations and number of varieties. Seed varieties developed by the company is being used in many regions of Turkey.

Ayhan Atalay, Chairman of Board of Ata Tohumculuk, gave an interview to the Miller Magazine during Grain Suppliers Association (HUBUDER) Conference.

Mr. Atalay, would you please give us brief information about you and your company?
Ata Tohumculuk produces seeds. I have been working for the seed sector for many years. I had served as a deputy president of the Seed Industrialists and Producers Sub-Association (TSÜAB) for 5 terms. We follow grain markets closely. Ata Tohumculuk produces grain seeds and it is also a research and development company. We have a breeding department. We are among leading private companies in Turkey. We breed wheat and barley, we cooperate with The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. We have a greenhouse for fast-track breeding. We also have a marker laboratory. We can launch several varieties per year. We are well aware of conditions of the country. The seed sector has been changing and new varieties are needed for each climatic environment and soil structure. Now, the sector concentrates of this issue. We are a leading company in the seed sector since 1993.

Is it true that farmers could not afford to buy seeds and therefore they back tracked from production?
Yes, I agree with this. Farmers can find seeds in the market but they can hardly afford to buy. This is also the fact for the fertilizers. When we compare with 2018 figures, production of wheat seeds have substantially dropped. Fertilizer consumption has also decreased. I think, those will affect the yield and quality negatively during the harvest season.

Seed production has definitely a cost. And all farmers can not afford to bear that cost. Therefore products that need cheaper inputs have become more popular among farmers. As a result, barley production increased since it needs much less investment for fertilizers and the like. Anatolian farmers have began to apply summer planting. Chickpea planting has increased although it was not profitable last year. This is a direct result of increased input costs. Farmers use a little amount of fertilizers for chickpeas, if they do. The problem is with the financial situation of farmers. If they had enough money and prices became affordable, fertilizer usage would increase. This was the case in 2016. VAT of 18% was not enforced that year and it was the record breaking year for fertilizer usage in Turkey with 6 million tons. When we compare 2016 with 2018, we figure out a decrease of 1,5 million tons. The most used fertilizer in the Central Anatolian Region of Turkey is DAP and its consumption decreased by 53 percent. When we compare all fertilizers, the loss is nearly 30 percent. In 2019, we expect a further 10 percent decrease in fertilizer usage.

Do you expect a quality issue for the wheat as a result?
Yes, I have concerns about protein content and quality for the wheat. Because rainfall is very high in some regions. For example in Çukurova region, 1000 mm rainfall is the case. The average rainfall for this region is 550 mm. Also, the average rainfall for the region within the Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) is 250-300 mm. However it is close to 700 mm this year. As a result of increased rainfall, wheat planting was not possible in some regions and there were problems where planting was done. There are concerns with even barley production in that region.

The only geographical region with suitable weather conditions in Turkey is the Marmara region. Rainfall was not enough there but after that strong precipitation prevented negative effects. Cultivation areas have not decreased in this region. However, Çukurova and GAP region have problems with increased precipitation. On the other hand, Central Anatolian Region has problems because of decreased rainfall.

Wheat cultivation areas in Turkey is 7,6 million hectares in average. But we expect that this will drop under 7 million hectares according to indicators like fertilizer usage and direct information from farmers. Production of summer substitutes of wheat is going to substantially increase.

Do you have concerns because of those data?
Of course. I do have concerns. The wheat is a traditional and strategic product of this region. We have concerns about wheat production in terms of both the yield and the quality.

There are many research and development projects for seeds that are resilient to drought or heavy rainfalls in the world. Do you also have this kind of projects?
Yes we do. We develop varieties for arid lands or farms that have irrigation means. The wheat is a very complex plant that have many varieties. The seed sector is among few areas that have been constantly improving within the agriculture industry.

Our sector is also studying the effects of the climate change. We cannot say that we are fully ready but we are aware of this issue. So our breeders and seed companies are conducting researches. This is a long process. Turkish seed sector is very young. Its legislation was done in 2006 and the sector started operations in 2008.

Producing seeds of self pollinating plants like grains is more difficult than others. Its profit margin is not so high. As a result, grow rate is lower. Normally, developing a new variety for wheat could take 15 years. But there are new technologies like bio-technology, molecular marker technology and so on. Ata Tohumculuk and some other national companies have been utilizing those technologies and I can give you the good news that new varieties are coming soon.

To what extent grain seeds are domestically produced?
Most of them are produced domestically but imported varieties are also being used after being registered. So they are also considered as domestic products. This is also the case when our seeds are exported and planted in foreign countries.

WHEAT IMPORTS ARE AS A RESULT OF LOW PRICE POLICY
Turkish flour industrialists grind imported wheat for producing the flour for foreign markets. Is it possible to supply domestically produced flour that meets their quality needs?
I have to clarify one point. Flour industrialists only motive for wheat imports is not the quality. Wheat with higher quality is being grown in Turkey. It is mainly about price policy. Domestic prices are higher and flour industrialists cannot compete at international markets if they use domestically produced wheat. So they have to import cheaper wheat the compete. It is not a result of quality of our seeds or wheat varieties.

How do you evaluate subsidies for Turkish farmers?
They are not good enough. Farmers have definitely difficulties. They cannot make profit. Most of the farmers grow wheat in Turkey. Let’s assume that they sell their products for 1000 Turkish liras. But this price came to 1500 to 1600 Turkish liras after they sell them all. Indeed, increased prices make farmers to cultivate wheat to some extent. Wheat cultivation areas might be more shrunk. Because, farmers made a loss at the time they sold the product. Farmers should be protected against the market players. The government should develop some instruments to protect them.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that their wheat production target for 2023 is 22 million tons. How do you evaluate this statement?
It is not impossible to reach this target. Turkey achieved this production amount some years ago. We have to increase wheat cultivation areas above 7,5 million hectares to realize it.

Can declaration of purchase prices and subsidies encourage wheat production?
Purchase price declarations seem imaginary from farmers’ viewpoint. When prices were declared; barley was being sold for 1400 Turkish liras and wheat for 1600 to 1700 Turkish liras. But now these prices are lower than their market value. In addition to that, fertilizer costs have been increased by 100 percent. There are disastrous cost increases for pesticides. You already know about diesel fuel. So, you have to develop support programs and some helpful instruments.

We have to prevent further partitioning of farms. We have to find more profitable usage methods of farms. We have to prevent misuse of agriculture lands. Our soil is not so fertile. Our region is arid and weather conditions are unstable. Turkey cannot give up wheat or barley production. We have to retain current cultivation areas.

When you compare Turkish seed companies with Western counterparts, what is the situation?
We can say that Turkish seed sector is very novice when we compare with Western seed industry. Seed companies in the West have an average experience of 100 years. We have more than 800 companies in this sub sector and they have only 10 years of experience in average. Of course we have more experienced companies that were already working on breeding. We can say that they have an experience of 20 years. Our companies are still in early development phase in terms of financial sourcing, human resources and genetic sources. But we have a younger workforce which may be a great potential.

What are your expectations about the seed sector?
Seed production has a significant importance. Oil companies or weapons industry were leading sectors in the past but things have changed. Software and seed industries are leading sectors today. There are strong developments in the globe about seeds. It is indeed, the fastest growing sector. This industry utilizes the cutting edge technology. Global seed trade has exceed 50 billion dollars. Turkish seed producers have also got involved in this trend and they have covered a lot of ground in the last 15 or 20 years. When we compare ourselves with Western seed producers, we are still in early development phase in terms of financial sourcing, human resources and genetic sources. But we have a younger workforce which may be a great potential. Turkey has also geostrategic advantage. We can transfer Western technologies and synthesize them with our own knowledge to develop new seed varieties to offer to the East as well as the Western markets. Our government is well aware of this opportunity and encourage research and development with subsidies and resources. Of course, it is not enough yet. But we have already started. Ata Tohum plays in important role in R&D efforts and breeding projects.

Are university researches helpful enough for the seed sector?
Not at all. They are in a desperate situation. Now, we have 1067 registered varieties, both domestic and imported. The share of universities is just 8 per mille. This share is very low. University and private sector cooperation is also so weak. We have to change the curriculum. Newly graduated engineers should be ready to meet the needs of the sector.

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