WORRYING reports that Greek fruit and vegetables surpass EU safety limits for chemical insecticides and fertilisers residues are partly responsible for the growing interest in organic production. Admittedly most Greek consumers still have to get used to choosing the healthier, but perhaps imperfect, tomato with a shorter shelf life over the aesthetically flawless, mass-produced specimens. However people are becoming more aware of healthy food options and are subsequently increasingly demanding organic grown produce. Many of the big supermarket chains have installed an organic corner, usually together with wholefood and health products, and various stores have popped up in many areas of Athens. Chemical-free farmers often sell their products among 'conventional' farmers at the local laiki or directly from the farm; there is also a daily organic market in different locations through Athens, as well as the weekly market in Thessaloniki.
Ironically, not only does Greece need to import organic products to meet growing demand (having the lowest organic hectarage in the EU), but most of the organic goods produced by Greek farmers have, to date, been exported. Yet another irony derives from the disappearance of the old cultivation models. They were, in essence, organic. Just a few pockets of traditional practises can still be found in Greece - older people still know about green manure and old crop varieties such as pulses and rain-fed crops.
However, organic production is increasing and the potential is high: Greece has a favourable geography and climate for this kind of growing; its relative isolation from regions dominated by conventional, chemical-intensive agriculture is a big plus.
Modern organic agriculture in Greece has its roots in the ecological movement that gathered momentum in the early 80s. The first organic farmers were mostly amateurs who experimented with different methods inspired by visionaries such as Steiner or Fukuoka. Commercial organic agriculture began in 1982 when a Dutch company demanded organic currants; an organic agricultural consultant working in co-operation with the Dutch certification organisation, Skal, laid the basis for the conversion of some farms in the Aegio region between Patras and Corinth. Then in 1986, a German firm supported the production of organic olives and olive oil for export. A growing band of individual farmers converted their farms in the years following, supervised by foreign certification and inspection bodies (Skal, Soil Association and Naturland). Their main products were olive oil, citrus fruits, wine, cereals, kiwis and cotton; the first three of these continue to dominate the export market.
Though there is no official data for the period between 1982 and 1992, it is thought there were about 150 producers cultivating a total area of 200 hectares. The introduction of various EU regulations in the early 90s brought about a major change, especially with the advent of hectare subsidies for organic growers. Many farmers then officially converted their farms, especially in southern and central Greece, where the main organic product is the olive. There was rapid expansion of organic acreage through the 90s, with annual growth rates of between 50 percent and 120 percent (slowing to 20-30 percent in 1999-2000). Organic farming now makes up more than 22,000 ha, or about 1 percent of Greece's cultivated land, not bad compared to the EU leader, Germany, which has 2.5 percent of its total in organic production; also not insignificant, considering initial sceptical reaction from farmers and government alike.
Quality control is a serious issue and there are now several inspection and certification bodies: DIO, founded in 1993 (after the poetic name for Demeter, the goddess of fertility); Bio Ellas (formerly SOGE - Syllogos Oikologikis Georgias Elladas or Association of Organic Agriculture in Greece) founded in 1985; and Fysiologiki (The Natural One), founded in 1994. At the end of the 1999, DIO supervised 54 percent of the organic area in Greece, Bio Ellas, 39 percent and Fysiologiki, 7 percent. By 2001, the three bodies had certified 7,850 farmers as organic. These organisations also publish magazines and books, inform about related subjects (eg GM foods) and hold meetings for farmers and consumers. Alongside this, the Agricultural Ministry has opened a Bureau of Organic Products, responsible for administering EU directives.
Organic experts believe that current market conditions may be ripe for further wide-scale conversion, despite meagre subsidies and other obstacles. "Year by year organic farming is growing," says Socrates Zabetoglou of DIO. "But grains are still in short supply. There is no rice, for example; just some lentils and beans." According to Costas Diamantopoulos of Bio Hellas, organic soya is also difficult to source, " because it is hard to find non-genetically modified seeds."
Though the EU's Agenda 2000-2006 programme is helping with processing, standardisation and improving product prices, it also presents various difficulties. For example, each farmer is compelled to seek the advice of an agronomist-consultant; this immediately excludes many small-scale organic farmers who simply can't afford to pay for such a service. There is also a high demand for documentation and data from the farmer, as well as constant changes in legislation and a poor level of information. Other difficulties cited include a negative attitude towards organic agriculture and different interpretation of regulations by local departments of the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Foods. The result is that organic farmers, processors and tradesman often go it alone, taking the burden of conversion costs, educating customers, and building up marketing channels/trading partners. This is an enormous effort considering the low level of training, small farm size and absence of government support.
Lack of education and information mean there is poor understanding of the real demands of organic agriculture. Many farmers consider it easier to convert 'extensive' cultivation to organic farming, rather than intensive (irrigated, with high levels of chemicals), believing extensive agriculture to be organic already. Only 5.7 percent of Greek farmers have taken an agricultural course of one year or more. However, according to Agathi Balbouzi, at the ministry's organic department, this situation is set to improve with the Dimitra scheme, which plans to provide organic training all over the country.
The scale of Greek organic production is undoubtedly small compared with other European countries. Factors which stimulated other European countries to get moving with organic production, such as national laws, subsidies for farmers, organised marketing, national labels and certification, consumer/farmer information and state research, are only just starting here. However the progress in recent years is impressive.
Ten years ago few people were taking organic farming seriously but they are now. Even some politicians prescribe organic agriculture as a solution for mountainous areas. There is still some resistance and reports that government officials in charge of schemes try to persuade farmers against organic, considering it a difficult and unrewarding option. But as more people turn to natural food, more organic varieties will hopefully come on stream and in the process, flatten out the cost and availability of healthy food for all, as well as keeping Greece's rural community in work.