Searching for the extra quality and added value in Greek agricultural products

BRUSSELS – Recent tradition has it that Greek delegations coming to Brussels make strenuous efforts to take something back with them. This time, a team of Greeks came to the heart of Europe with the aim of leaving something behind: a positive impression, new ideas and a taste of Greece.

Some 60 Greek chefs descended on the European Parliament on Wednesday to prepare traditional treats as part of an event aiming to elevate awareness about quality Greek agricultural products and prompt a debate about how this sector can contribute toward much-needed growth in Greece.

“We all know Greece is having a really tough time; that’s why there’s a need to move quickly toward production and growth,” said Greek-German MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, the driving force behind the event following talks last year with the president of the Hellenic Chefs’ Association, Miltos Karoubas.

“Greek agricultural products are unique in terms of their diversity and quality,” said the European parliamentarian, who pointed out that the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) has already engaged in a scheme to promote Greek food and drink by teaming up with the City of Brussels. The program sees Greek chefs guest-starring at top restaurants in the Belgian capital and preparing dishes from their homeland. Belgium is already a valuable market for Greek agricultural products as it is one of the top importers of wines from Greece.

A scheme for the myriad Greek restaurants in Germany to discover products from Greece they could use in their cooking, so they could source ingredients from there, is also Chatzimarkakis’s brainchild. He is currently in discussions with a team in Thessaloniki to create what he terms a “Greek-agro eBay,” that would, for example, connect Greek restaurateurs in Cologne with Greek producers in Kozani to source their ingredients.

The potential for these and other similar programs to give the Greek economy a lift is clear. The food and drink sector is Greece’s largest employer and Greek agricultural products rank third highest in the European Union in terms of national sales value.

However, 72 percent of the products farmed on Greek land are consumed domestically. It is here that the potential for improvement is substantial. An increase in production and a rise in the proportion of agricultural goods exported by Greece could provide the kind of fillip the economy has been looking for over the past few years.

For Greece, this means rethinking agricultural production. It requires planning, organization and a coordinated marketing strategy in order to create synergies and find new markets. The last three decades, though, have seen the sector driven to a considerable extent by the allocation of EU subsidies, which meant direction was lost. Also, cheap imports replaced local products.

“One of the reasons we are experiencing the current crisis is because we allowed our current account deficit to grow so much,” said Greek MEP Spyros Danellis. “Despite producing excellent products, we imported lemons and potatoes from abroad.”

However, these EU packages are being whittled down. Between 2007 and 2013, Greece was to receive a total of 21 billion euros through the Common Agricultural Policy but will get much less over the years to come. Nevertheless, the EU is still providing subsidies for programs that will be very useful for Greece in its effort to expand its agricultural exports, such as funding for young farmers.

The incentive is there for Greek producers to rethink their strategy. Danellis gave the example of Cretan winemakers coming together to promote their products and creating wine routes on the island as a sign that producers could unite their forces to create new and better business opportunities.

Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris attended the event in his capacity as the head of a local authority interested in encouraging local firms but also as a winemaker with a desire to see his own business grow. He backed up Danellis’s example and stressed the need for Greece to overcome the mistakes of the past, when it pitched itself as the land of “syrtaki and souvlaki.”

“Many years ago, I was at an event in Crete and told local winemakers that they live in the finest place in the world but make the world’s worst wines,” he said. “Now you will see that the situation has changed completely.”

Danellis said that Greek companies have released 65,000 new products since the start of the crisis, 68 percent of which are in the food and drink sector, with wine and honey doing particularly well. Last year, agricultural products contributed about 3 percent of GDP in terms of added value to the economy. He suggested that the way forward for Greek producers is to stop selling their goods in bulk, such as olive oil, which is often exported to Italy and Spain, where companies gain added value by packaging it and selling it on at a greater profit. The other vital point, according to the MEP, is for producers to work together.

“Producers cannot also be salesmen and marketeers,” said Danellis. “Other countries understood some time ago that there have to be strong collective organizations to promote their products. In contrast, we wrecked our cooperatives through party politics.”

One of the aims of Wednesday’s event was to act as a prelude to setting up a formal scheme for some 15,000 Greek restaurants outside Greece to import authentic products. It also foresees chefs at these eateries being trained in the use of these goods by the Hellenic Chefs’ Association.

The program will be another step toward boosting primary production in Greece and ensuring that producers target the added value that can be gained from providing quality goods. Greece has a unique message to project to the world in this respect, argued Boutaris: “Let us show you how to live.”

While good food and wine are undoubtedly paramount for living well, in Greece’s predicament, finding new markets, exploiting comparative advantages and changing conceptions are also vital to a good life.

[Kathimerini English Edition]