COMMUNITY

Greece's natural food co-ops show the way

By Yiannis Elafros

Before their country was hit by the crisis, Greeks were used to seeing producers and consumers stand on opposite ends. The nature of their relationship appeared to change with the emergence earlier this year of the highly successful so-called ?potato movement,? a scheme that allowed consumers to buy food straight from producers.

Prompted by economic hardship, people in Greece are seeking ways to cut out the middleman and to connect farmers to shoppers. Solidarity has often been strengthened by a more eco-friendly outlook. However, some of these cooperatives are not exactly new.

Among the country?s pioneers is Gaia cooperative in Hania, Crete. The cooperative brings together producers and consumers with the aim of promoting organic and green products.

Gaia currently numbers about 250 members, half of whom are farmers. Every day some 300 customers shop at Gaia?s cooperative market.

?Our venture began in 1996, driven by our desire for clean and quality nutrition, a desire to strengthen organic farming and put emphasis on local crops in a bid to also avoid the ecological cost of transporting products from abroad,? says Gaia chief Dimitris Vamvounakis.

?In the beginning we were driven by ideology. We continue [our effort] trying to cultivate a more ecological conscience as it were by, for example, organizing events at schools,? says Vamvounakis, adding that the cooperative shop only sells organic products from certified producers.

The benefits from the cooperative are multiple, but the biggest is that the abolition of middlemen means lower prices.

?It?s not always easy. Now that people have had to cut down on the more expensive organic products, we try to talk farmers into lowering their prices,? Vamvounakis says.

The Gaia shop currently sells organic oranges at 30 cents per kilogram while water melons cost 50 cents/kg.

A second gain is that by supporting the farming community and by linking farmers to consumers, such cooperatives have encouraged them to switch to organic farming. It is very important that half of the people involved in the cooperative are farmers. A third gain is that money stays in the region.

Oikozoi (ecolife) in Corfu runs according to similar lines. This island cooperative, which connects producers and consumers, has over 100 members and it operates a fruit market as well as a butcher shop that sells organic meat and cheese. Oikozoi aims to provide quality organic food at low prices.

?Our shops are places where people can talk about the environment and find practical advice,? says Yiannis Saoulos, an organic farmer and member of Oikozoi.

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