State takes step toward supporting organic farms

Prospects for organic farming both in Greece and abroad and the problems that have been plaguing the sector for a number of years, such as the certification and trade of these products, legislation and environmental issues, were on the agenda of the 1st International Conference on Organic Farming in Thebes between June 26 and 29. The conference was organized by the local municipality and the European Strategic Planning Organization, along with an exhibition of organic products that attracted large crowds despite the hot weather. Years of indifference on the part of the State have kept the percentage of organic farming in Greece to the very low level of 0.9 percent of total area cultivated, second lowest in Europe, while other Mediterranean countries such as Italy have increased their total acreage to 6-8 percent and are developing a strong domestic market for the products produced. At last month’s conference, Deputy Agriculture Minister Evangelos Argyris promised the State would set up a National Council on Organic Farming. «This is what (we) have always wanted,» Haralambos Tsokanis, president of the Attica-Viotia Union of Professional Organic Farmers, and a member of the conference organizing committee. «Now we are waiting for the circular to be issued to see who will be on that council,» he said. Talk of forming a council has been going on for years; there are reports of a body as large as 65 members, casting doubts on its potential for efficiency. The issue that interested participants most, of course, was the credibility of the system of certifying organic products. There was a lively round-table debate on the issue, including Vassilis Iliadis, president of the State Organic Products Certification Organization (OPEGEP), representatives of the DIO and Physiologiki certification agents (there was no representative from Greece’s third agent, Bioellas), the Federation of Organic Farmers’ Union, the Panhellenic Association of Health Food Stores, and the Association of Organic Farmers of Athens Street Markets. There is still some confusion regarding the precise limits of the certification agents’ powers and their relationship with OPEGEP. DIO’s president, Spyros Sgouros, characterized OPEGEP as the «center of the political undermining of organic farming.» Earlier, OPEGEP Managing Director Vassilopoulos had questioned the agents’ right to set up standardization models for classifying products as organic. Vassilopoulos said that only Regulation 2092/91 is the only standard to be applied, but it does not include specific rules for a number of issues. According to Sgouros, this «hinders the trade of Greek products abroad as well as the development of organic farming in Greece, since other countries have made national amendments to cover the gaps in EU legislation and to enable the sector to develop.» He said that in other EU member states, certification agencies as well as other organizations set their own standards, even if the laws themselves are sufficiently strict. Bureaucracy The DIO president also referred to the rampant bureaucracy in the funding system for organic farmers, adding that organic livestock breeders were facing political obstacles. «The Greek State has not yet embraced organic farming as part of its policy, but thinks of it as an interesting idea for romantics,» said Sgouros. Nevertheless, Iliadis accepted a proposal by Tsokanis that the participants in the debate set up an informal association to resolve crises in the sector. Also important was the signing of a protocol of cooperation between the conference organizing committee and the Technical College of Argostoli, on the island of Cephalonia, whose graduates would undergo practical training on model organic farms in Viotia. The conference is to be held annually in Thebes, and aims to provide better coordinate for all organizations in the sector, and to get information to farmers and consumers on organic products and the protection of the environment.

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