Why does Greece import so much food?
By Tina Georgiopoulou
If you ask Greeks on the street whether they prefer local tomatoes to imports, it is almost certain that 90 percent would opt for homegrown varieties, while some 50 percent have told polls that they generally consider Greek products superior to imports, especially in terms of quality.
However, this country imports hundreds of tons of fresh goods every year, including fruit and vegetables that are easy to grow here such as oranges, lemons, apples and potatoes, as well as basic meats and tons of fish from all corners of the world. Last year, we even had imports of olive oil from Germany.
More specifically, in 2011 Greece imported 5,650 tons of oranges (or 3 million euros’ worth), 29,485 tons of lemons (19 million euros), 22,704 tons of apples (18 million euros) and 174,352 tons of potatoes (77 million euros). Regarding meat imports, the country paid 382 million euros for beef, 354 million euros for pork, and 39 million euros for lamb and goat. The tab for fish, meanwhile, ran up to 348 million euros.
As far as meat and fish are concerned, moreover, many wholesalers labeled them as Greek in order to boost their consumer appeal, while they are often sold at two or even three times the price at which they are purchased.
The easy solution to reducing this massive annual tab would arguably be to cut out the middlemen who sell products from abroad that are cheaper, but this is much easier said than done.
The main reason behind the high import bill is consumer behavior: We want to have all products all year round, irrespective of whether they’re in season or not. For example, as the season for Greek apples starts to come to an end now, sellers will begin importing to sustain demand, while when oranges are short in the summer, we still expect a glass of freshly squeezed every morning and need to supply tourists with oranges from Argentina.
Greek producers meanwhile -- the spoiled children or victims of a system that does not account for the needs of the market -- have become accustomed to ignoring quality and opting for quantity that will bring in subsidies. Typical examples of this behavior are the majority of farmers in Laconia in the Peloponnese, who allow their oranges to fall off their trees and rot rather than sell them at a low market price, as they have become accustomed over the years to receiving subsidies for their juice oranges, irrespective of quality. Now that the subsidies have dried up, Laconia oranges pale in comparison to the competition and can no longer secure a foothold in the market.
Cooperatives, meanwhile, which are supposed to be all about promoting the products of their members, operate in the best of times as one more middleman expecting a cut. They pick up the produce of their members and look for buyers without setting a price beforehand. If a buyer is not found, then they simply take out a loan to tide them over. Even producers who sell directly to distributors play along, for example by accepting a higher price written on the purchase invoice than what was actually paid because farmers are not taxed according to sales, but at a flat rate. This of course provides the distributor with a perfect alibi for jacking up the price when selling it on, as well as getting a bigger rebate on the value-added tax.
Moving on to meat: Very few local butcher shops in Greece label their meat as being imported. So where did the 102,036 tons of beef imported to Greece from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Belgium and Poland go? The pork is always “Greek,” so where did the 194,281 tons of imports of that meat end up?
The examples of why the system is so wrong are endless.
Cutting out the middleman
Selling directly to consumers is no easy business, despite the huge success of the recent “potato movement,” which involves farmers offloading hundreds of tons of potatoes and other produce in various parts of Greece at cost.
One example where direct sales have been extremely successful is in the organic produce market, where organic farmers selling directly to consumers at local farmers markets (“laiki”) are able to do so at a much lower cost than at specialized organic shops or supermarkets.
A handful of Greek producers are also finding ways to sell their goods directly to consumers via the Internet.
Costas Kremmydas, a farmer on Crete, has been sending fresh fruit and vegetables to Athens for the past two years through his website (http://biokremmydas.wikidot.com/). Online you can also buy olive oil from Messinia (www.meladi.gr) and a variety of produce from Laconia (www.aristeos.gr), while at www.arosis.gr you can purchase pulses from Kastoria and Prespes.
The Kalymnos Fishermen’s Association can be contacted by calling 22430.23888, for fresh fish that will be delivered cleaned and descaled to your door by next-day courier service.
Read also: Sunny Greece spent 11.7 mln euros on fresh tomato imports in 2011