With food safety issues on the front burner across the globe, the advantages of organic farming for consumers and the environment are significant, but production remains low and prices are usually high. Organic farming is an expensive venture for farmers in terms of training, production, certification, and marketing. Despite these obstacles, the estimated worldwide market share for organic products will reach ten percent over the next few years. The USA, Europe and Japan are the major markets. Greece is just beginning to ride this wave with expanding growth, yet at present it has the lowest percentage of organically cultivated land in the EU. More governmental cooperation and training will be important factors in expansion.
The Mediterranean Agronomic Institute at Chania, Crete provides training and courses for specialists and the public on various topics. Several MAICh programs, such as the pilot project on the production, processing, packaging and marketing of organic olive oil have resulted in a significant increase in the number of organic olive growers.
We interviewed Argyro Bitsaki, Associate Researcher at the MAICh – Department of Horticultural Science & Technology, to find out more. This is what she had to say.
When was the MAICh formed and why?
MAICh was established in Crete in 1985 when Greece became one of the founding members of the intergovernmental centre CIHEAM (International Centre of Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). The remit of the Centre is to develop scientific co-operation by providing post-graduate education, undertaking research projects and applications in the fields of economics and management, and also applied biological, technological and environmental sciences, as related to rural areas.
MAICh has the following departments: Economic and Management, Environmental Management, Food Quality Management, Horticultural Sciences and Technology, Natural Products.
What are MAICh priorities in Organic Farming?
The development of scientific cooperation among Mediterranean countries and the promotion of scientific knowledge of this subject adapted to Mediterranean conditions. MAICh has established a Mediterranean Scientific Network entitled “Indigenous Organic Farming Techniques in the Mediterranean Region,” in which several Mediterranean countries participate, to create a database on cultivation techniques related to Organic Farming. A significant part of the collected data concerns the traditional indigenous cultivation techniques used in different areas of the Mediterranean basin that are compatible with the philosophy and regulations of Organic Farming. The knowledge of these traditional techniques, which were used before the extensive introduction of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, is presently in danger of being lost.
Pilot projects, surveys of the market, short courses and seminars are also some of our activities in the field of O.F. MAICh is a member of a national scientific network for organic agriculture, participating with universities, research institutions, associations of growers, certification bodies and traders, whose common aim is to encourage and enhance collaboration among all people involved in OF in Greece. In addition, MAICh is the coordinator of the Greek IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements).
(cf: http://www.slowfood.it/cgi-bin/SLOWFOOD.dll/SlowFood/scripts/Sloweb/sloweb_dett.jsp?SlowFood=SF&code=ed00051&tipologia=EDITORIALI ff.)
How recent is the development of large-scale organic production in Greece?
Commercial O.F. began in 1982 in response to a demand for organic currants by a Dutch firm. According to estimations, this effort involved about 150 producers cultivating a total area of 200 hectares. EU-Regulation 2092/91 was first applied in 1993 and EU Regulation 2078/92A introducing hectare subsidies, began to be applied in 1996. These were the principle stimuli for conversion to O.F.. Since then the annual growth rates of Organic Agriculture have ranged between 50% and 120%. In 1999, the organically cultivated area reached the 21,280ha (accounting for 0.6% of the total cultivated land). In this area 5,042 certified operators (producers and processors) were involved. In addition, 100 organic animal husbandry operatives were registered by the end of 2000 (the EU Reg. 1804/99 for organic animal husbandry began to be implemented in Greece in the autumn of 2000).
Is there great consumer demand in Greece?
The domestic market in Greece is not very well developed yet. The greatest demand is for vegetables and fruits. However, as the range of products produced in Greece is not so large, many other organic products are imported. In 1995, the national market comprised 8 retail shops, one processing unit and 2 daily open markets. In 1997 (according to unofficial data), there were 16 shops, 20 processing units and 6 open markets. Today, there are specialised shops for organic products in almost every big city and many chains of supermarkets have introduced organic products in their outlets. Organic products can also be found scattered in health food shops and some farmers sell their products directly at farm gate (mostly vegetables and fruits).
Is there great demand for exports?
Around 50% of Greek organic products, especially olives, olive oil, wine, fresh fruits and citrus are exported mainly within the European market and to a lesser extent to the USA and other countries.
What’s the output?
Olive oil and olives, grapes, currants and wine, citrus, vegetables and to a lesser extent avocado, almonds, nuts, various fruits, some cereals, pulses and very recently fodder for animals. More specifically, olive trees cover around 50% of the total organically cultivated land, vines 10% and citrus 7%.
How can consumers be sure that organic products are better and safer?
The Inspection and Certification system in Greece is in agreement with EU legislation and standards. There are three Inspection and Certification bodies, namely DIO, SOGE and Physiologiki of which the former certifies the majority of organic cultivators. All of these bodies are accredited by the Ministry of Agriculture (Biological Products Office).
Consumers have begun to worry about the safety of their food and the perception of quality is changing. Generally in Greece and in Mediterranean countries, the most important reasons given by consumers for buying organic produce are health and safety, in contrast with central northern European countries where environmental issues are of first priority. Generally in Greece public awareness of organic agriculture and its relation to health and the condition of the environment is low, and consumer education in these matters must be considered a priority.
Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania
P.O.Box 85 Alsyllio, Agrokipio
73100 Chania, Crete, Greece
Hellenic Ministry of Agriculture. Organic Farming at http://www.minagric.gr/
Anastasiadis, M., Kiriazopoulou, A., Laskari, F., Sgouros, S. 2000. Organic Farming. DIO 13: 21-27 (in Greek)
van der Smissen, N. 1999. Organic Farming in Greece. In: Willer, H. Organic Europe. SOL, Germany
E. Kabourakis, Vassiliou A. 2001. Organic farming in Greece. Paper presented at the conference: “EU Harmonisation of Organic Agricutlure” Rijka, Croatia, 24-29 January 2001
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of
her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.
Photo: A view of Chania on Crete (http://www.crete.tournet.gr)