CULTURE

Organic product guarantees

One of the questions many consumers ask about the organic products seen on supermarket shelves, particularly when comparing prices with those of conventionally grown crops, is whether they are really getting what they pay for. Organically grown products can only be labeled as such if they also bear the stamp of one of the three certification agencies in Greece showing that the product has been carefully monitored from the time the seed was planted right through to the processing and distribution stage, to ensure that no chemicals have been used. But in a skeptical society such as Greece, where cheating the system has come to be expected at all levels, some consumers find it hard to believe that these goods are as pure as they are claimed to be. Biologist Alexandra Kyriazopoulou, manager of the certification department at DIO, the largest of the three recognized certification agencies in Greece (a non-profit organization), told a recent meeting at the Society for the Protection of Nature that this was a concern that DIO had addressed by ensuring that not only were products (and the soil and water that fed the product) repeatedly monitored from their earliest stages right through to retail sale, but that the inspectors at regional level were moved around so that the same individuals were not involved in all stages of the inspection process at the same production unit. There are also strict controls on their outside business interests. Comprehensive checks When samples are collected, they are sent by other staff for testing at two or three accredited laboratories (some even sent by courier to a laboratory in Italy). Based on the results of these tests, an independent 15-member Certification Council in Athens then grants approval for the certification of a product. This council comprises seven scientists (professors at the Agricultural University, members of the National Foundation for Agricultural Research – ETHIAGE – as well as members of non-governmental environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, WWF Hellas and the Ornithological Association), all appointed for two years. Consumer interest The number of organic farmers certified by DIO increased from 165 to over 4,000 between 1993 and 2003, and the area cultivated from 600 hectares to over 16,000 hectares. According to Agriculture Ministry figures, the total surface area of all organically farmed land is over 31,000 hectares, not including organically managed pastures. DIO monitors around 120,000 hectares of organic pastures, up from under 200 hectares in 1999. There are about 160,000 chickens being raised organically and 86,000 goats. Half of the produce is sold at health food stores, 40 percent at supermarkets and 5 percent at street markets. But organic produce accounts for less than 1 percent of all food sold, a long way from the European Union’s goal of 10 percent for all member states as a whole. Despite increasing consumer interest, only lately has the Agriculture University included organic farming in its curriculum. Another course is available at the Technical College in Cephalonia. The newly renamed Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food has promised to give greater attention to organic farming. Until only recently, the former Ministry of Agriculture had just one office and one employee to cover the sector. DIO’s origins DIO emerged from the broader ecological movement in Europe in the 1980s, when a number of Greek agronomists, biologists and farmers formed a group to study organic farming. «We each came from separate sectors but were all inspired by the desire for a different organization of society and a different kind of development,» said Kyriazopoulou, one of the original members of the group. In 1985 they founded the Association of Ecological Farming, holding conferences, visits to farms and other activities to promote the concept of organic farming. «At first I myself didn’t see it as a profession, simply as a way to promote organic farming, but the movement began to grow,» she said. In 1993, two years after European legislation on the sector was passed, some 10 of the group’s members formed DIO (the name is a derivative of Dimitra, the ancient goddess of farming). «There was a need to build a system of inspection and certification, to provide a guarantee that products really were grown without the use of chemicals,» said Kyriazopoulou. Among the original founding members of the organization are its president, Spyros Sgouros, an agronomist and former farmer, agronomist Dimitris Dimitriadis, originally a farmer and then an adviser, Michalis Koulouroudis, who owned a vineyard in Corinth, and Harisis Argyropoulos, a biologist with a large farm in northern Greece. DIO’s vice president is Giorgos Haniotakis, a former researcher at the Democritus Nuclear Research Center who inspired the idea of the traps used to catch the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) which is now used in the rest of Europe and the US. Members of the scientific community who joined in the effort, particularly in forming DIO’s first technical committee, include Evangelos Bourbos of ETHIAGE’s Institute of Olive and Subtropical Plants in Hania, Crete, and Nikolaos Sidiras, a professor at the Agriculture University who has also been a member of the Certification Council for many years. President of the Certification Council is Giorgos Zervas, also a professor at the Agricultural University. Given the evident interest taken by a number of prominent scientists in decision-making centers, it is surprising that organic products are still such a tiny sector of the market. According to Kyriazopoulou, this is because more political will is needed to promote and support organic farmers, as well as provide better training for producers. Exhibitions such as this weekend’s conference (see box) should help promote products among the public.