The problem is bigger than anthrax

Just after the end of the Eid al-Adha religious holiday in August, Turkey was gripped by a series of reports of an anthrax outbreak. The first came from a farm near Ankara, followed by reports from six other cities around the country, including Istanbul. Despite reassurances from government officials, people are still uneasy.
Although the official number of cases has not yet been released, many people have been diagnosed with the disease and are undergoing treatment. This past week in the Ankara district of Mamak, the Public Health Institute learned that more than 50 people suspected of being infected had been sent for testing. The Ankara Governor’s Office denied the claims. 
The most recent news came on Friday from Bitlis, in the southeast. At a press conference called by several local health organisations, it was announced that a 10-year-old child had died of an anthrax-related gastrointestinal infection. Local health officials are alarmed.
Are anthrax-infected meat imports and food safety the only problems we’re looking at here? Or is anthrax just the tip of the iceberg?
Experts point out that Turkey’s agriculture policies are misguided, saying the real issues are the way that import processes are handled as well as high attrition rates and lack of experience among preventative health care providers. These problems, along with risky food safety policies and practices, have put Turkey on a dangerous path towards a serious public health crisis.
The president of the Chamber of Agricultural Engineers Özden Güngör said these issues stemmed from Turkey’s shift over the last 16 years to a heavier reliance on imports. Rather than creating sound agricultural policies, the government focused only on imports, which have totalled $185 billion since 2002. “Every problem we’re seeing today with food safety comes directly from imports. Importers have steady access to government capital, and all import transactions are given to pro-government companies,” he said. “Instead of building up domestic production, the government has been enriching their supporters.”
Except for a few animal and plant products, Turkey meets its needs through imports. As a result, producers are discouraged and crushed by bank debt, and many end up leaving the business. “The government doesn’t support farmers and ranchers,” Güngör said. “On top of this, the prices for seeds, pesticide, fertiliser, irrigation, labour, and energy have shot up to abnormally high levels. Diesel too. This puts farmers in an impossible situation, so they sell their land and their stock and move on.”
Güngör pointed to Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry statistics that said from 2002 to 2017, the number of farmers had decreased by almost 500,000, and there had been a 10 percent decrease in total farmland acreage.
According to official numbers from Turkstat and the Ministry of Agriculture, there are currently 38.4 million hectares of farmland, 14.6 million of which are designated as grazing land. But Güngör said these numbers were inaccurate. “Once farming and grazing land is registered, the state turns a blind eye to how it’s actually used. A lot of this land has been converted into state housing, mines, power stations, and roads.” He pointed out that the official amount of grazing land has not changed since 2002, but the Chamber of Agricultural Engineers’ records show that 10.5 million hectares have been lost. 
When grazing land disappears, farmers have to import feed to supplement the animals’ diets. “Of the 2.8 billion tonnes of soy needed for animal feed, we only produced 180,000 tons. One hundred percent of the soy we import is GMO. The same is true of corn. By closing our land to farming and grazing and opening our doors to imports, it’s inevitable our animals will get sick.”
Turkey also imports an increasing amount of meat from 20 different countries, particularly Brazil and Uruguay, and in 2017, 280,000 sheep and 896,000 cattle entered the country. When live animal importing began in 2010, infectious diseases were rarely seen. Güngör said the string of anthrax cases was just the beginning; veterinary checks on imported animals are insufficient, and he said these illnesses would only increase.
This problem was triggered by the Ministry Agriculture, which is now staffed by people with no background in the field. There are fewer veterinary checks, preventative medicine is inadequate, and vaccinations are inconsistent.
The president of the Turkish Medical Veterinary Association Talat Gözet said the number of veterinarians was decreasing all over the country. “A lot of these problems are the ministry’s fault. Before, animal vaccinations were closely tracked, and any irregularities were reported. Now, there is no one doing this. The whole system has broken down and as a result, we have more sick animals,” he said.
Poor policy, small budgets, and inadequate infrastructure are at the root of the problem, said Gözet, and veterinary doctors who fight the spread of illness needed more support. “There should not be an outbreak of anthrax like this. It means the requested vaccinations aren’t happening. It’s not like the old days when technicians travelled from house to house vaccinating livestock,” he said.
Gözet said anthrax had always been in Turkey with many cases each year. But, he said, there were around 200 other animal diseases that can pass to humans, and some diseases that have never been seen in Turkey are arriving with live animal imports. Until six months ago, the ministry employed veterinarians to check animals in the exporting countries, but this control was removed. Gözet said it was the importers who wanted this change as they did not want to pay the veterinarians’ travel expenses.
Ankara Chamber of Physicians President Vedat Bulut said the domestic meat market had been abandoned in favour of imports, and said the problems of meat producers were consciously ignored. “The companies that import animals into Turkey don’t pay any taxes, which is hugely profitable for them. Domestic production is taxed, but foreign production isn’t. The idea was to keep the meat cheap for consumers, but in fact, the big corporations are getting richer while tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers are going under,” he said.
“One reason for the anthrax outbreak is that if domestic production is sacrificed to imports, we have to pull preventative medicine technicians and other public health officers from the field. There are veterinarians, animal technicians, and food and agricultural engineers all waiting for work, but the Ministry of Agriculture isn’t hiring anyone. This means that production has no checks on it at all,” he said.
Despite its obligation to report anthrax outbreaks, the Public Health Institute still has not shared any information. Bulut estimated that there were more than 60 cases, though there is no confirmation of this from the government. He stressed the importance of daily updates during a public health crisis. “Instead of transparency on these issues, officials are tight-lipped. This is wrong,” said Bulut. “Threats to public health are urgent and must be dealt with immediately.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.