Turkey: Breeding hope for meat industry

Turkey’s government has relaxed import restrictions to ease a crisis in the livestock industry which has led to skyrocketing meat prices. But as its best efforts falter, cattle-farmers are considering a high-tech embryo transfer system that could one day create a half-Angus, half-Turkish superbreed.

A combination of problems with feed supply, pasture decline and disease, along with extreme price fluctuations and an alleged lack of government support, have seen retail prices of beef climb to above TL25 (€12.76) per kg over the past two years, more than double the EU average. Pricier cuts of lamb can sell for over TL50 (€25.8) per kg.

The skyrocketing livestock prices took a toll on this year’s celebrations for Eid Al Ahad, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, held in November. The average price for sacrificial sheep in the 30-35 kg range was between TL450 (€229.65) and TL575 (€293.4) in 2009, while this year saw prices per head soar as high as TL700 (€357.18) for animals weighing only 16 to 20 kg.

Given the costs, many Turks worried that they would be unable to sacrifice an animal at all. Some consumers spoke of downgrading their purchases, opting to sacrifice sheep instead of cattle, or chickens instead of sheep. In Istanbul it became a common joke that “this year, we will sacrifice tomatoes”.

In the lead up to Eid the government slashed the livestock import tax from 135% to 40% until the end of the year – meat imports had been all but banned since the mad cow disease scare of the 1990s. However, the tax cut only caused a surge of demand in neighbouring Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria that saw their meat prices rocket.

In October, the Ministry of Agriculture sourced 40,000 head of live cattle from South America, again with scant effect on market prices.

Compounding the crisis, the local daily Today’s Zaman revealed in October that some farmers were using illegal hormone injections to beef up their cattle. The injections, often obtained through veterinarians or the black market, can add as much as 20 kg to the weight of sheep and goats and 60 kg to cattle. This came on top of reports a month earlier that an 11-ton shipment of listeria and salmonella-contaminated meat earmarked for dog food had made its way on to the Turkish meat market.

Along with the health fears being raised by the meat price crisis, officials have pointed to detrimental effects on the economy. Turkish state minister and deputy premier, Ali Babacan, said in March that volatility in the meat market was driving a significant percentage of inflation.

"Our overall inflation rate is 10.2% and 1.7 points of this figure is derived from meat prices. If meat prices had increased parallel to overall inflation, inflation figures would have been around 8.5%, instead of 10.2%," Babacan told local press.

Around 100 meat suppliers went bankrupt in Istanbul last year, impacting on local butchers and makers of sucuk, a spicy beef sausage. In May the crisis claimed Oral Et integrated facilities, a meat-processing firm which had employed 350 in the eastern province of Erzurum.

Historically, the agriculture sector has been Turkey's largest employer and a major contributor to GDP, although its share of the economy has fallen consistently over several decades. The decline has been particularly acute in animal husbandry, with the over 44m ha of grass and pasture available for raising cattle dropping to 12m ha by the 1990s.

Given the failure of imports to impact on market prices, some cattle farmers are now pinning their hopes on introducing new breeds. In June, the local chamber of commerce in the north-western province of Bursa drafted a plan to allow farmers import the Angus breed, which is thought to be well-suited to Turkey’s climatic and natural conditions. But some see this solution as not enough.

Sinan Öğün, an official from Austock Exports Turkey, told the Hurriyet Daily News in November that new embryo transfer technology, under which domestic cattle would be able to birth domestic Angus cattle, would be the fastest, cheapest and most effective means to bring prices down.

“The genetic pool in Turkey should be developed,” said Öğün. “If there will be a new race such as Angus, this will not be an easy issue. Increasing the 1000 cattle brought to Turkey to 200,000 or 300,000 under natural breeding conditions may take a long time and meat prices may remain high.”

While the prospect of the new technology creating a half-Turkish, half-Angus hybrid may give heart to long-suffering consumers, butchers and producers, it will do little to address deeper problems of the sector thought to be related to the alleged influence of cartels and speculators on the supply chain.

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