Technology is Essential for Smart Agriculture (March 1, 2017)

A team of scientists from Boğaziçi University is working on a project aimed to produce climate simulations for Turkey for the years 2030 and 2050, and study the transformation of agricultural cultivation areas.  We talked with Professor Gökhan Özertan of Boğaziçi University, Department of Economics, whose research involves the use of technology in agriculture and the impact of technology on productivity.

In a recently published report, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points out that in the year 2050 the world’s demand for food will be 60 times as great as it is today.  FAO Report claims that unless global warming remains below the critical level of 2 degrees, 122 million people could face hunger in 2030.

The report also refers to increasing food prices around the world and argues that if soil productivity as well as the diversity of heat-resistant seeds can be increased, agricultural productivity will increase, indirectly leading to a drop in food prices.

We talked with Prof. Özertan about some important issues pinpointed in the FAO report as well as technological applications in agriculture and the problems of the agricultural sector in Turkey.

Prof. Özertan is a member of the team working on the effects of climate change on agriculture in Turkey.  Other members are Associate Professor Gözde Ünal of Boğaziçi University, Department of International Trade; Associate Professor Barış Karapınar, part time lecturer at Boğaziçi University, Department of Economics; Prof. Levent Kurnaz of the Department of Physics; and Dr. Hasan Dudu (Spain, EU-JRC).  The group will produce climate simulations for Turkey for the years 2030 and 2050 and investigate the transformation of agricultural cultivation areas on the basis of this data.

Özertan is also conducting a field study aimed at investigating whether farmers have    adopted any changes in agricultural production in the context of climate change.  The study covers farmers in Adana, Ankara, and Kırklareli. Associate Professors Gözde Ünal and Barış Karapınar also take part in the field study.  

The Age of “Connected Agriculture” is here

Pointing to the importance of integration of technology with agriculture, referred to as “Connected Agriculture”, Özertan stated that in comparison with the good practices in the European Union and the United States, transition to information technology applications in agriculture in Turkey is at the beginning stage.  

Özertan explained that agricultural productivity would increase through applications of connected agriculture which will raise farmers’ awareness and increase the fertility of the land.  In this context, the issue of when or under which climatic conditions to fertilize a piece of land and how much fertilizer to use will be determined by technology; such applications have rendered positive results in the US, Europe and the Far East.  Özertan gave almond growers in California as an example:

“Almond trees are difficult to grow.  Four liters of water is required to grow one single almond.  Given that water resources are decreasing all over the world and that water needs to be more economically used, California almond growers invested in technology and started using micro irrigation systems and sensors.  The efficiency of water use was improved and the diversity in agricultural production in the US was preserved.”

Turkey is the leading producer in the world but our structural problems in agriculture persist

Climate is critical for agriculture, and therefore sudden meteorological events caused by climate change have a significant impact on agriculture.  Several analyses indicate that the likelihood of Central and Southeastern Anatolian regions to be affected by climate change is quite high.

“Turkey is located in a very fertile region in terms of climate and product diversity,” said Özertan.  “Turkey ranks first in the world in the production of hazelnuts, cherries, figs, and apricots.  We are the second largest producer of watermelons, cucumbers, and chickpeas, and the third largest producer of tomatoes, eggplant, pistachio and green peppers.  However, despite the fact that we have such fertile lands, the agricultural sector in Turkey still suffers from serious structural problems.”  The most important problems, according to Özertan, are low productivity and dependence on old methods.

“All around the world employment is shifting to jobs and sectors that bring higher economic profit.  In other words, a structural transformation in agriculture is taking place.  Agricultural transformation has been achieved in the EU countries but Turkey has not been able to do it yet.  For example, in England, a country of 65 million people, 1.5% of the population is employed in agriculture.  This rate is 20% in Turkey, which means 6 million people.  While one fifth of the work force is employed in agriculture, their contribution to the Gross National Product is as low as 10%.  This is an important indication of low productivity.”

Wrong practices in agriculture stem from ignorance

Gökhan Özertan and his colleagues have conducted several field studies on the agricultural sector in Turkey since 2001; in this context, Özertan himself conducted interviews with producers in Şanlıurfa, Konya, Aydın, Edirne, and Kırklareli.  He summarized his observations for us:

“In Turkey, employment in the agricultural sector is very high; therefore, per capita income in agriculture is very low.  We do not use machinery in agriculture. This is partially due to the small size of the land owned by each agricultural holding.  The average size of farming land per agricultural holding in Turkey is around 6 hectares; in the EU, average size of land per enterprise is three times larger than in Turkey, and in the US it is 25 times larger:  16 hectares in the EU and 125 hectares in the US.  Consequently, agriculture in those countries is more mechanized and requires less human labor.  In addition, nowhere else in the world is the cost of agricultural input as high as it is in Turkey.  As the agricultural sector is struggling with these challenges, there are problems in shifting to mechanized agriculture.  Therefore, agriculture is still dependent on human labor because it is cheap labor.”

In order to get the maximum yield from their land, farmers resort to harmful practices like over-fertilization or over-irrigation.  Özertan explained, “Farmers want to get the maximum profit from the soil, which they see as their source of livelihood.  Yet in terms of sustainable agriculture, it is clear that these practices should not continue.  Given all these conditions, it is more important today than ever to ask ourselves these questions: “How can farmers’ awareness be raised?”, or “How must technology be used to achieve sustainable agriculture?”

Interview:  Ö. Duygu Durgun; Photography:  Talat Karataş, Office of Corporate Communications