Staple vegetables proving too expensive for many in Istanbul

The skyrocketing costs of fresh vegetables that are staples of the Turkish diet continues to create problems across the value chain from the farmers to the end users.

In late January, a few supermarkets announced they would stop selling peppers and eggplant, which has risen to 20 Turkish lira per kg. According to local reports, retail prices for eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers have doubled compared to last year.

A new government program targeting the trade of fruits and vegetables on the wholesale market aims to bring consumer prices down. In a recent speech at the end of January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implied that the middlemen and brokers are responsible for the price hikes.

Shortly after, Customs and Trade Minister Bülent Tüfenkçi announced a government initiative to curb prices through making changes to the wholesale market law. The change s would decrease the number of intermediaries and wholesale markets involved in getting vegetables from the farm to the end consumer.

Before putting vegetables up for sale, greengrocers and market retailers in Turkey first must buy produce from the wholesale market, where brokers set the prices for the products.

Muhittin Baran, vice-president of the Istanbul Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Brokers’ Association, told Ahval News that brokers have been unfairly accused of increasing prices.

"Brokers sell on behalf of the producer. We take our share, which is 8 percent of the product. A broker might have working relationships with between 300 and 1,000 producers. We are the determiners of the prices. The prices in Antalya are out in the open. Eggplant there is 10 lira, and here it's also 10 lira. If you include the costs of logistics and labour, you'll see that the workers at wholesale marketplaces are also working at a loss."

The recent price hike, Baran maintains, is due to decreased production stemming from environmental factors, particularly in Antalya, which is a hub for the country’s agricultural production. In late January, Antalya was hit by a tornado that led to 100 million lira in damage, according to President Erdoğan. 

"Because of the 20-day rain and the tornado in Antalya, crops such as radishes, leeks, carrots, and onions were hit. There was no harvest. Prices have increased with fewer products. I'm saying this as a consumer that these prices are high. Producers, consumers, and those who do trade in this business are in a difficult situation."

Vegetable seller Kenan Doğulu agreed and told Ahval News the output from greenhouses was heavily affected by poor weather conditions by saying, “greenhouses that provided five tons can now only provide one ton.”

Internationally, Turkey is one of the top five producers of greenhouse agricultural produce. Roughly one-third of its greenhouses are in the province of Antalya.

When asked about Erdoğan’s goal to add more checks in the system to find faulty price points, Doğulu said, “But there is nothing irregular going on. Nobody expects a drop in the price of vegetables. Fruit is a luxury but cheap. Whereas the essentials such as beans and eggplants are expensive. Fruit is not expensive, but salaries are low. If salaries were 2,500 lira, no one would say that vegetables are expensive.”

But not everyone agrees. Nuri Bey is a greengrocer at Eco Market in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Esenyurt and says that there are two stock exchanges at the wholesale markets – the regular exchange and the black market.

A vegetable market in Ankara

“Now, there is no oversight. At 12 pm, parsley was 25 lira at the wholesale market. At 6 pm, they made parsley 40 lira. They turned it into a black market. This is the type of situation we are in. Normally, the wholesale markets work on the normal stock exchange system. But there are places where the market is a black market. Oversight at these points could be a good thing."

According to what Nuri told Ahval News, while eggplant is 11 lira per kilo at the wholesale marketplace, he sells them for 12 lira, which is three to four times more expensive than last year’s prices. 

At a Mini Market in Beylikdüzü, all the products are 1-3 lira more expensive than at the wholesale market. Ahmet, an employee at Mini Market, says that peppers are around 13 lira, eggplant is 14 lira, and onions are 5 lira per kg, putting a strain on consumers’ wallets.

“There’s a decrease in purchases, and customers are also buying less. The prices at the markets and bazaars are very similar. Before, we used to have discounts here on bazaar days. Now, we can’t do it, because the prices are the same,” he explains.

Yusuf Çelik, a greengrocer at a market in Üsküdar Çamlica, told Ahval News that customers no longer have purchasing power.

“People don’t buy by the kilo anymore. They buy one piece at a time. The price of one kilo of spring onions is 18 lira. The prices will not fall. People have to go on with their lives. They are putting their houses up as collateral. I buy eggplant for 11 lira a kilo and sell it for 13 lira. They are 14 lira at the supermarkets,” Çelik says.

Çelik added that that with added costs such as using natural gas and burning goal at greenhouses in the harvesting of produce, there’s no chance for it to be cheap.

While consumers are feeling the sting of high prices, the prices aren’t high enough for farmers to make a profit. Ecevit Bey, who produces onions and potatoes, works at a stall at the entrance of the Bayrampaşa wholesale market. A neon sign outside the marketplace reads that onions are 3-6 lira per kg and potatoes are 2.5-4 lira per kg.

When asked about production costs, Ecevit explained to Ahval News that “The expenditure to produce onions and potatoes on the field and bring them to market is nearly on par with the income we get from here.”

Ecevit added that there is not much left over after taking into account the price of fertiliser, rent, electricity, irrigation, transportation, money to pay employees, and the rent to set up a stall at the wholesale market.

"For the supermarkets to make money, they add a couple of cents. For this reason, onions at the market are sold for 5-6 Turkish liras."

Onions were sold last month were 4.5 Turkish lira, but they are now around 3 lira. But because more onions were imported, farmers panicked and sold everything they have on hand, leading to the drop in prices.

Potatoes and onions aren’t the only crops that farmers in Turkey have a difficult time bringing to market. Wheat farmer Mustafa Ergin told Ahval News that he could barely cover the cost of growing wheat. 

“During harvest, a kilo of wheat is 890 lira, but it’s now 1,100 lira. The cost of fertiliser is quite expensive, and on top of this, the tax we pay for selling drops this down to 850 lira. The price of wheat now doesn't pay for itself. The current cost is equal to its price,” Ergin said. 

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