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The Demise of Greece’s Agricultural Commons

Industrial monoculture has made Greece dependent upon the European Union for most of its agricultural products.

(Photo: Lezsec Kruk; Edited: LW / TO)

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 honey? How can that be?

A meager 3.8 percent of farmland in Greece is dedicated to organic farming, according to the European Commissioner Phil Hogan.

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 Greek agriculture, 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.

Today, only about 13 percent of the Greek population has some form of agriculturally related employment. That said, the agricultural sector is roughly 3.9 percent of the national economy, which amounts to about €10.7 billion annually.

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. Farmers from the village tell me they have found goats that they believe died due to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready that was acquired on the black market. Meanwhile, olive groves are covered in massively sprayed pesticides. 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 to 2,380. 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,” writes Evaggelos Vallianatos.

But others would like you to think otherwise.

Common Agricultural Policy and a New Greece?

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. “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 hasn’t been the hardest-hit sector. The volume of industrial production decreased by 11.3 percent (Greek Statistical Authority) between 2010-15, while the volume of agricultural production presents a decline of 2.5 percent (Eurostat), according to Pavlos Karanikolas, professor at Agricultural University of Athens. Karanikolas has expertise in agronomy, agricultural economics and agricultural plant science.

“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 2007-13, CAP’s Rural Development Program invested 3.9 billion euros 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,” write Agricultural University of Athens’s Pavlos Karanikolas and Nikos Martinos in “The Modernization Process In Greek Agriculture: The Case Of Investment Aid.” The EU plans to double its investments. Between 2014 and 2020, Greek farmers stand to receive another 15 billion euros in direct subsidies. 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.

When I asked a nearby office whether organic farmers were also applying for subsidiary funds, the answer was a resounding “όχι” (“No”).

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.”

He adds that farmers sell wholesale, but are paid with credit and buy their inputs at retail prices with cash. Sounds messy.

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 (money) 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 Antreas Varotsos, agronomist economist and 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,” said 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…. 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 produces raisins on 10 hectares in Korinth, told Al Jazeera: “Last year I got 1,100 euros [$1,200] in subsidies. I need to invest 70,000 Euros 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.

“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 John Psaropoulos.

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

Today’s farmers accept subsidies out of necessity, not out of 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 empty cereals.

The system is so broken that Greece actually imports hundreds of tons of fresh fruit annually.

“It’s absurd that Greece should be a net importer of fruit and vegetables,” writes Richard Pine, a columnist on Greek affairs for The Irish Times. “The country imports over 15,000 tons of tomatoes each year, at a cost of 11 million euros, when it should be a net exporter of agricultural produce. A Greek tomato actually tastes like a tomato, not a synthetic GM look-alike 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.

Organics: Can’t Stop the Growth

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.

The main grocery store, Katerina’s, in the neighboring town of Stoupa, also holds a 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.

“Due to reduced income and rising taxes, most people try to find cheaper alternatives to organic: either nonorganic or fruits and vegetables from sources they can trust for quality, i.e. friends that grow food, trips to the countryside, etc.,” explains Periklis Gogas, associate professor of Economic Analysis and International Economics at Democritus University of Thrace.

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.

Give Greece a Chance

Despite the declining importance of agriculture in Europe, many espouse that farming remains an important industry that can help Greece’s financial despair. One of the reasons is that 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 oil grown 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. The EU has woven 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 5 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.

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 least 200,000 well-educated young Greeks under age 35 have left the country. 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 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. “A small but vibrant community of people engaged with food [is] 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; the Natural Farming Centre led by Panagiotis Manikis, a permaculture paradise inspired by the teachings of Japanese philosophers; 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.

Georgiadis, who is also coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network, adds that “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 movement is like a plant that finds a crack to grow 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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