Turkey confiscates ancient seed collections as part of nationalist ‘Ancestral Seed’ project

On 3 September, the British Institute at Ankara (formerly the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara) was notified by the Turkish Ministry of Culture that its ancient seed collection was now considered state property and would be removed the same day.

Staff from the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations and the General Directorate of Museums and Culture took away 108 boxes of archaeobotanical specimens and four cupboards of modern seed reference collections.

There have also been reports that the Turkish government has confiscated seed grains found at the 9th century Byzantiine site of Armorium.

There has been some speculation that the move to confiscate ancient seeds originates from an ideological belief held by Emine Erdoğan, the wife of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On 3 September 2019, a law allowing Turkish authorities to assume control of local seeds was published in the official gazette. Two days later, Emine Erdoğan launched the ‘Ancestral Seed’ (Ata Tohum) project, which tied control of agriculture to a notion of national sovereignty.

Emine Erdoğan has been a passionate advocate of herbal and organic food products. The Ata Tohum project is thought to be inspired by Austrian-trained biochemist Ibrahim Adnan Saraçoğlu, according to al-Monitor.

Saraçoğlu is one of many advisors to President Erdoğan, and attended the launch of the Ata Tohum project, where he complained that Westerners had plundered Anatolia’s botanical wealth.

The seeds will be incorporated into the government’s Ata Tohun seed bank. Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller of University College London told Al-Monitor that “the archaeology seeds are essentially charcoal, dead and inert” and that seeds from the modern reference collection will also not be able to germinate. If the government wanted to use the seeds for research purposes, it only needed a few seeds, and not the whole collection, Fuller added.

The BIAA collection could previously be accessed freely by researchers, and the BIAA’s Chairman Stephen Mitchell said he had been given oral assurances that this would still be the case.

Speaking to The TImes, Asli Aydıntaşbaş, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “For over a decade now Turkish nationalists have been mulling over a ‘seed conspiracy’ — based on the idea that ‘Israeli seeds’ are pushed upon Turkish farmers in order for them to produce tomatoes, onions or eggplants of a lesser quality, with no smell or taste but bright colours. The theory has now expanded to cover a vast western conspiracy to deprive Turkey of seeds — and is now apparently shared by Erdoğan, who has reinvented himself as a super-nationalist.”

This type of conspiratorial thinking has long been a feature of Turkish political discourse. The idea that Western nations are attempting to control or disempower Turkey stems from the peace settlement that Britain and France attempted to impose on the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

The Treaty of Sevres attempted to carve up Anatolia between France, Italy, Greece and Britain, and the fear that the West is still trying to interfere in Turkish politics is consequently known as Sevres Syndrome.