Misguided solutions for the country?s economy

Greece has the means to achieve food self-sufficiency and to produce as well as export quality agricultural products at low prices. Nevertheless, in 2009 it spent 6.5 billion euros on imports of agricultural goods. Also, in 2010 it shelled out 6.3 billion euros on food imports. In the first half of 2011 59.8 million euros went toward potato imports, 14 million euros on pulses and 59.65 million on vegetables. Some 11.4 million euros was spent on imports of onions and garlic in 2010.

In 1990, Greece?s balance of trade deficit was 446,660 euros, by 2002 it had soared to 1.7 billion euros, while in 2006 it stood at 2.1 billion. Greek imports in 1990 were valued at 1.6 billion euros, in 2002 the figure was 4.7 billion euros and in 2006 it was 5.9 billion. Agricultural products account for the biggest chunk of this deficit. In 2010, Greece spent 1.085 billion euros on meat and meat-based products (99 percent was produced in the European Union). At the same time, Greek exports amounted to a mere 56.7 million euros.

The problems are well known and successive governments have in the past announced measures to remedy the situation. Nevertheless, photovoltaic parks are taking up more and more farmland – a development that is having negative repercussions on the country?s production base, the landscape and even on the farmers themselves, who have grown accustomed to misguided subsidies.

Greece must meet specific targets regarding the contribution of renewable energy sources to its energy balance. But how? Destroying farmland and continuing to import agricultural goods at today?s exorbitant levels is clearly not an option. Farmland is not only made up of high-productivity land, it also includes areas where herbs are cultivated in soil suitable for little else which can be manufactured into high value-added products. Meanwhile, the smart exploitation of pasture land could contribute to reducing imports of livestock products and boost exports of high-quality certified livestock products (with protected designations of origin).

Today the estimated revenues from renewable energy systems appear fragmented and problematic. In fact a number of questions need to be addressed: Why install photovoltaic panels on farmland (regardless of productivity)? Do surveys take into account the loss in potential agricultural production? Who covers the cost for the additional networks serving the high-maintenance photovoltaic systems? The government?s response to all these issues is simply to raise the price of electricity in order to pay for the renewable energy systems.

The above points to poor handling of the issues surrounding the photovoltaic and renewable energy systems. Solar panels could be installed on the often ugly rooftops of Greek cities, which could then be connected to the existing power grid. As far as the Helios solar energy project is concerned – the aim of which is to export cheap solar energy to Germany – any free land should be used to make up for our inadequate agricultural production. In fact, Greece has to import onions and garlic from Germany. Like with photovoltaics, the mass installation of huge wind generators and the accompanying infrastructure (roads and power stations) have many negative consequences, foremost of which is that the natural environment – which is the biggest advantage of regions that depend on mild forms of tourism – could be damaged beyond repair.

In the name of development, the people and local authorities are willing to hire out their land to investors who are subsidized (also by citizens themselves). The impact of the policies adopted in the past two years is devastating. Greeks have become retailers of their land, of their natural resources, of their ethos and history.

Dimitris Briassoulis is a professor at the Agricultural University of Athens. The article was translated from its original Greek version which appeared in Kathimerini on November 19.