Following the U.S. model, growers in Greece face a maelstrom of problems: too few organic farms

Ask about the status of agriculture in Greece in our modern times and you may get a few different answers.

Hundreds of Greek varieties of the life-giving wheat, rye and barley are lost. Rodakina (peaches), like the breasts of Aphrodite, are gone. The bees of Crete will never make their fragrant honey again. And the Thessalian war-horses that led Alexander in his global conquest and spread of Greek culture throughout the world are becoming extinct.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, author of Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

When I tell people that I had a challenging time finding organic produce in Greece this past summer, the reaction is mostly the same. In Greece – the land of Zeus and honeyHow can that be?

A meager 3.8 percent of farmland in Greece is dedicated to organic farming, according to the European Commissioner Phil Hogan. To put things in context, theOrganic Monitor estimates that in 2013 the global market for organic products reached $72 billion.

The United States is the leading market with $25.6 billion, followed by Germany ($8 billion ), and France ($4.6 billion). In 2013 official market data for China ($2.5 billion) was published for the first time, making the country the fourth biggest organic market in the world. The highest per capita spending was in Switzerland ($221) and Denmark ($172). Greece didn’t make the cut.

“Greece might have had some organic farms … but the number must have been so small that it is not listed in the literature,” says Evaggelos Vallianatos, former EPA employee and author of This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World and the forthcoming The Passions of the Greeks.

The romantic notion and collective imprint that everything in Greece is pristine is understandable given that farming is part of the country’s cultural fabric and legacy. Organophosphates and neonicotinoids weren’t part of the ancient world. Furthermore, when it comes to agriculture in Greece the nuclear family has always been the main source of labor.

“Nearly every major Greek author, philosopher and statesman, despite his education and often elite status, had a farm,” writes Davis Hanson in Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece. Indeed, all my Greek friends when I was growing up in Montreal had bountiful gardens.

The Goddess of harvest and fertility herself was a Greek named Demeter who presided over the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. It was believed that Demeter made the crops grow each year; thus, the first loaf of bread made from the annual harvest was offered to her. Demeter put a spell on the world, causing plants to wither and die, and the land to become desolate. By the looks of it, she has cast yet another curse on the land.

Today, only about 13 percent of the population has some form of agriculturally related employment. With that said, agriculture in Greece is roughly 3.9 percent of the national economy, which amounts to about € 10.7 billion annually, according toEurostat’s 2015 figures.

Greece continues to be one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil and raisins. Wheat is another main crop along with corn and other grains, cotton, figs, oranges, peaches, potatoes, sugar beets, tobacco, and tomatoes. These commercial monoculture crops, however, are mostly grown conventionally with the use of chemicals.

Despite the exquisite mountains, the Aegean Sea, and interactions with foxes and sea turtles, the village of Kardamili, located in the Peloponnese, comes with tales of evident poisoning: goats are found dead due to Monsanto’s Roundup that is acquired on the black market. Olive groves are covered in massively sprayed pesticides. Nearby villages with contaminated well water report high cancer rates. Even though there are only 400 people in the village, where I reside part of the year, big agriculture is not too far away. In fact, large numbers of farms are found in the Peloponnese; 94,150 to be exact.

According to Greece’s ministry of rural development and food, there are a total of 2,367 authorized biocides and pesticides (recently rebranded “Plant Protection Products”) in use. When I checked this number four days later, it had increased to2,380. The Big Six (soon to be Big Four) have their toxic tentacles all over Greece.

Meanwhile illegal pesticides are also being used. For instance, earlier this year police in Halkidiki, northern Greece, confiscated the largest ever amount of pesticides illegally imported from the European Union and other countries. While the reason this is happening merits its own story, suffice it to say, chemicals are here.

“The strategy of the West of dumping its hazardous agricultural technologies and seeds on Greece and every other country that did not industrialize its countryside is threatening millennia of agrarian wisdom and practice,” Valliantos writes in his Huffington Post piece titled Seeds and the Future of Life.

But others would like you to think otherwise.

Common Agricultural Policy And Agriculture In Greece 

European Commissioner Hogan recognizes Greece has a significant agricultural tradition and says the European Commission wants this tradition to continue to flourish in the 21st century. Or so he says.

“European cooperation is the best bet for our future prosperity and security,” said Hogan in early October 2016, during his address about the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It was his first visit to Greece.

According to Hogan, the agricultural sector has done comparatively well in spite of Greece’s difficult economic situation in recent years.

Others agree that relatively speaking, agriculture in Greece hasn’t been the hardest hit sector. The volume of industrial production decreased by 11.3 percent(Greek Statistical Authority) between 2010-2015, while the volume of agricultural production presents a decline by 2.5 percent (Eurostat), adds Pavlos Karanikolas, Assistant Professor, Agricultural University of Athens (AUA).

“As widely seen across the EU-28, the agricultural labor force … decreased in Greece, from 1.4 million in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2010 (-15 percent). However, the regular agricultural labor force represented a quarter of the active population in 2010, which was one of the highest proportions among the EU Member States,” reads Eurostat’s Agricultural census in Greece report.

And this thanks to CAP, which has evolved in all its gloss and slick since it was initiated in 1962.

“CAP is Europe’s answer to the need for a decent standard of living for 22 million farmers and agricultural workers and a stable, varied and safe food supply for its 500 million citizens,” writes the European Union. During 2007-2013, CAP’s Rural Development Program invested $4.1 billion in Greece’s agriculture and rural areas.

“In the long and changing course of the Common Agricultural Policy, investment aid to private farms is considered a basic means for achieving the structural modernization of European agriculture,” explain AUA’s Pavlos Karanikolas and Nikos Martinos in The Modernization Process In Greek Agriculture: The Case Of Investment AidThe EU plans to double their investments. Between 2014 and 2020, Greek farmers stand to receive another $15.8 billion in direct subsidies. In fact, right around the corner from where I lived, I stumbled upon two thirty-something year olds in a small office, reeking of cigarettes, whose job it was to help farmers apply for those very subsidies before the deadline. Since the policy is designed to fit the needs of industrial agriculture, CAP typically offers the greatest portion to large landowners, who constitute just 17 percent of the total number of Greek farmers.

Were organic farmers applying for funds? The answer was a big fat “όχι.”

When I stated to the office workers that conventionally grown crops cause cancer, thanks to toxic chemicals, one of them actually agreed, but simply shrugged it off. Farmers today follow money, not nature.

In truth, much of the agricultural turmoil in Greece is a microcosm of what has occurred in the U.S.: toxic pesticide use, large industrial farms squeezing out the small farmer, and economic hardships that make farming unprofitable.

Adds Hogan, “If [the subsidies] are spent in accordance with well-defined priorities, it can play a crucial part in re-launching the agricultural economy.”

But whose priorities? Big Ag’s? The European Union’s? Corrupt government officials? Farmers’? Or the people of Greece?

According to the European Union, 23,900 Greek farms will benefit from start-up aid, restructuring and modernization, the development of short supply chains (8,300 agricultural holdings), and investments in processing and marketing (600 agri-food businesses).

This sounds quite promising. But if all this chrímata is indeed pouring in, why are thousands of Greek farmers rolling through Athens on their tractors, honking horns and flashing lights outside the Greek Agricultural Ministry and parliament? Why are they protesting tax increases and pension reforms?

“Make no mistake, the agricultural sector is in crisis, as are all sectors in Greece and industrial agriculture all over the world,” says Andreas Varotsos, agronomist economist, organic farmer, and President of Organic Farmers Association of Ilia. He adds that farmers sell wholesale, but pay with credit and buy their inputs at retail prices and pay cash. Sounds messy.

During the bailout two summers ago, lenders demanded that Greece scrap tax breaks for farmers and impose pension reforms that would lead to higher monthly contributions from the self-employed and salaried employees. Incidentally, protests against the pension changes have united a disparate group of professionals, including lawyers, artists, accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists, seamen, and casino workers, in addition to farmers.

“They fooled us,” says Manolis Paterakis, a farmer from Crete and head of a blockade. He’s referring to the left-led government. “They were telling us that they support us, that they are fighting for the survival of the farmers … that young people need to return to their villages and work their land.”

He also says, “The same people (now) come and confirm the exact opposite. Whoever farms today, the only thing they will achieve is to have debts to the tax office.”

Farmer Konstantinos Panayotopoulos, who grows raisins on 10 hectares in Korinth, also complained to Al Jazeera. “Last year I got 1,100 euros [$1,200] in subsidies. I need to invest 7,000 euros ($7,400) in next year’s crop. Who cares if we’re in Europe? I don’t care for subsidies. Do they want us to produce? Then leave us alone.”

The truth is that farm viability – broadly defined as the ability of a farm operation to earn enough income to meet its financial obligations, and continue to operate and expand – is questionable given continuous reforms, the declining importance of farming, and ongoing economic strife in Greece.

Farmer’s income tax has doubled to 13 percent. “The government now says that they should pay 27 percent of their income, which amounts to thousands of dollars even for the poorest farmer,” writes Al Jazeera.

As Karanikolas points out, citing Eurostat’s report Economic Accounts of Agriculture, the total net income for a farm has halved since mid-1990s, up until 2014.

“Macroeconomic stability and integration into local and regional markets are, inter alia, prerequisites for the viability of family farms; these conditions are at risk within the severe ongoing crisis. Since 2010, GDP in Greece has decreased by 27 percent, while disposable income has fallen by 40 percent,” he adds. Meanwhile unemployment tallies at 25 percent, the highest in the EU.

Periklis Gogas, Associate Professor of Economic Analysis and International Economics at Democritus University of Thrace, adds that with respect to the productivity of the agricultural sector, Greece ranks very close to the bottom.

“The truth is, farmers are struggling to live decently,” adds Varotsos.

Today’s farmers accept subsidies out of necessity, not love for the land. They are coerced into growing less than healthy commodities, such as sugar beets that are produced with neonicotinoids harmful to bees, or nutritionally-vapid cereals.

Slowly the Overton Window is in full effect and ancient Greece becomes well, ancient, and farming with poisons becomes acceptable and even expected. Meanwhile, farmers have become accustomed to ignoring quality and opting for quantities that will bring in subsidies.

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The Vegetable Doctor Says So

During one morning in August, I walked to a nearby market for some avocados. I was accustomed to eating them regularly in Greece. Not only are they excellent for your health, but they are also on the Clean Fifteen list for fruits and vegetables. This is a nifty list, if ever you can’t access organic food and have to choose between the least poisoned fruits and vegetables. While avocados can be grown in Greece, and while some are grown in Crete, most are imported all the way from Northern Africa.

Richard Pine, a columnist on Greek affairs for The Irish Times, writes: “It’s absurd that Greece should be a net importer of fruit and vegetables. The country imports over 15,000 tons of tomatoes each year, at a cost of $11.6 million, when it should be a net exporter of agricultural produce. A Greek tomato actually tastes like a tomato, not a synthetic GM lookalike with more air miles than Pope Francis.”

Consider that the money received from EU through CAP is equal to the money Greeks spend for agricultural imports from the EU. The fact that Greece continues to import the majority of its food, even though it has one of the largest per capita agricultural populations in Europe, is simply ridiculous. More agricultural perversion: Pharmaka.

As I stood at the outdoor display, wishing for more organic vegetables, a Greek local commented out loud about the “beautiful-looking” fruits and vegetables.

“Not really,” I responded ruefully. “When you realize they’re grown with plenty of chemicals, you can’t be fooled by the perfect exterior.” Conventional broccoli, for example, can come into contact with up to 13 fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides – enough to soak the cruciferous vegetable in water and vinegar for an hour.

The man proceeded to tell me that food cannot be grown without chemicals. The “Vegetable Doctor” had told him so.

I held back a guffaw and a “what-the-fuck nonsense are you talking about, Willis”? Instead I zenfully observed the Matrix’s love of irony – and Valliantos’s analysis.

I still wonder if the “Vegetable Doctor” works for Monsanto.

Organics: Can’t Stop The Growth

In an article titled The Unsettling of Greece, Valliantos writes, “Is it not a crime to demolish millennia-old agricultural civilizations that fed and satisfied people?” From the perspective of a consumer, you can find organic fruits and veggies, but you’ll need persistence, wheels, and money. There is a tiny organic market in my village, albeit with very little fresh produce. There’s also Yanni, a fixture of Kardimili, who makes his own salves and soap and herbal remedies. One lucky evening, he served me a local organic meal from his farm that consisted of grilled goat, Dutch potatoes, homemade wine, and homemade cheese. It was quite rich, but I could not resist the authentic foodie experience of eating from the land. It was a meal worthy of Demeter.

The main grocery store Katerina’s, in the neighboring town of Stoupa, also holds a teeny tiny organic section. And organic produce can also be found in the farmers’ markets of Kalamata, the second most populated city of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.

In Athens, near Plaka and the infamous Syntagma Square, is an organic shop named Gr-eatings. Let’s just say, I book my Airbnb with the store’s location in mind. The items are quite expensive, and so given the economic meltdown, organic goods are considered somewhat elitist.

“Due to reduced income and rising taxes, most people try to find cheaper alternatives to organic: either non-organic or fruits and vegetables from sources they can trust for quality, i.e. friends that grow food, trips to the countryside, et cetera,” explains Gogas.

Dr. Fani Hatjina of the Apiculture Institute of the Hellenic Agricultural Organization believes awareness of chemical residues is increasing. Hatjina conducts research on neonicotinoids and their impact on bees. Greece has also fallen victim to “colony collapse disorder.”

Many Greeks who deal with conventional produce in their grocery stores and restaurants generally don’t eat what they sell, based on my informal poll. They realize their food is being compromised and tainted. They have what I refer to as “a secret garden.” And for people who understand the deleterious effects of chemicals on planet and people, organics is preventative medicine: a matter of life and death.

Watch organic farmer Panagiotis Manikis of Natural Farming Centre share his philosophy and vision.

Give Greece A Chance

Despite the declining importance of agriculture in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, many espouse that farming remains an important industry that can help Greece’s financial despair. One of the reasons is because Greece is home to the richest biodiversity in Europe. For instance, the legalization of hemp – after 60 years of prohibition – can serve as a huge boon, given the demand for hemp-rich CBD oilgrown organically in rich soil.

A study by Endeavor Greece identified food as one of the more dynamic sectors in the current economy. In a time when there is so much growing awareness for growing organic, Greece was made for this.

But since CAP’s role is designed to fit the needs of industrial agriculture, environmentally friendly targets, known as “greening,” have been watered down.

About 80 percent of farm aid goes to about a quarter of EU farmers: those with the largest holdings.

EU has weaved this tale of promise, but word on the streets and farms sounds bleak.

According to the BBC, CAP’s “aim has been to break the link between subsidies and production, to diversify the rural economy and to respond to consumer demands for safe food, and high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.”

Supposedly, under CAP’s new greening rules, 30 percent of the Direct Payment envelope, paid per hectare, is linked to environmentally-friendly farming practices: crop diversification, maintaining permanent grasslands, and conserving five percent of areas of ecological interest or supporting measures considered to have at least the equivalent environmental benefit.

But in reality, these top down policies fail to support systemic change for a real transition to a sustainable future, writes food author, olive grower, and social entrepreneur Pavlos Georgiadis in Can the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy help build a new economy in Greece?

Meanwhile Karanikolas remarks that “after each major reform of the CAP, the agriculture in greece exhibits substantial losses in terms of production and income.” This, he says, is a result of reduced support and protection for farms.

Like the Greek philosopher Plutarch stated in 1st century BC, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits.”

CAP mentions that agriculture revitalization will occur with the help of young educated farmers. But how is this going to happen in light of the exodus? At least200,000 well-educated young Greeks under age 35 have left the country and confirmed the “Brain Drain.” The average Greek farmer is 47 years old, with only 5.2 percent under the age of 35.

Fortunately, modern agriculture hasn’t completely severed Greece’s umbilical cord from the agrarian civilization of her ancestors. The number of holdings that practice organic farming in Greece has also increased dramatically between 2000 and 2007 from 1,460 to 27,700.

There are those, however, who have stayed home committed to making substantial changes. “In the political madness of the Greek crisis management, a small but vibrant community of people engaged with food [are] seeing things through a different eye. Thirsty for change, and entering an economy where alternatives have become a necessity, Greece’s young farmers and food entrepreneurs have the potential to drive the country’s recovery,” writes Georgiadis.

The growing network of organic gardeners, farmers, and communities includes the 20-year-old seed conservation group of Peliti, the urban gardeners of PERKA; theNatural Farming Centre led by Panagiotis Manikis, a permaculture paradise inspired by the teachings of Japanese philosopher; and the Meraki People, founded by Christiana Gardikioti, an initiative to revitalize one “pilot” village in Mt Parnonas with the help of sustainability, organic farming, and nature.

With this said, Georgiadis, who is also Coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network, adds:

In the absence of cash liquidity, bank loans and investment opportunities, this generation is still stuck in a continuous wait for investments, determined by the international creditors’ evaluations on how Greece’s deep austerity programs perform. More pervasively, the policy gaps that still frame Greece’s agricultural economy do not foster the transition towards a youth-led, climate resilient and independent rural entrepreneurship.

Nonetheless, the dedicated are like plants through cement, thriving to find the light in spite of every manner of hardship. And in the meantime, there exists a massive obligation to educate the public about the potential of organic food distribution and Greece’s agricultural resilience.

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