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Soviet Flowers and American Anxieties – Vasfi Hakman and Turkey’s Seed Oil Industry in the Cold-War Era
In 2023, the blanket of yellow sunflowers which extends across the Aegean and Marmara Regions of Turkey constitutes an expected and unsurprising topographical feature along the interstates between Istanbul, Tekirdağ, Çanakkale, and Izmir. The seed-oil industry that these flowers support, however, has an important cold-war history that remains understudied and misunderstood. Agricultural cooperatives in Eastern Thrace such as “Trakya Birlik” and the major export companies present there during the 1960s and 1970s served a growing industry within the context of international competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for developing markets in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In Turkey, agricultural engineers were at the forefront of this economic competition. By analyzing the career of one such agricultural engineer in Turkey, Vasfi Hakman, this paper demonstrates two overlooked aspects of the region’s history in order to make broader claims about the nature of Cold-War politics in Turkey. First, the promotion of soybean-oil production and consumption were a central component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic development program in Turkey (or rather, its subsidiary the Foreign Agricultural Service). Second, the importation of pest-resistant and oil-rich sunflower varieties from the Soviet Union provided Turkish farmers with an alternative to soy and olive dependency in Thrace and Anatolia. Together these factors contributed to American anxieties about the future of economic development in Turkey and its market relations with the Soviet Union. Vasfi Hakman provides important insights into the Turkish experience of this period given that he was both the “country representative” for the Soybean Council of America Inc. in Turkey and an accomplished businessman and agricultural entrepreneur in his own right. As such, he willingly adhered to American policies intended to promote soybean-oil dependency throughout the 1860s. However, he and his American partners were well aware of the potential for sunflower oil to provide a much-needed alternative to the limited supply of edible fats in Turkey and in the United States. For this reason, they attempted to develop a booming industry for sunflower-seed oil in Turkey using Russian sunflower varieties while avoiding a complete dependence on the Soviet Union for expertise or supply. As such, this paper shows that partners of American business in Ankara during the heyday of Turkish ‘democracy’ – although flexible in terms of strategy – were ultimately most interested in a set of agricultural policies that would more fully integrate the farmer into global market relations.
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