NEWS

Organic farming’s growing pains

Organic farming has been touted as an alternative agricultural activity that is full of promise. But this is a view that is not shared by many Greek farmers. The phenomenon that has been observed in Greece is that farmers apply in droves for organic farming programs that offer subsidies on hectares, and abandon organic cultivation en masse when the subsidy runs out. According to the Agricultural Development and Food Ministry, 6,993 farmers received certification in 2001. In 2002, immediately after the end of the five-year period of compulsory participation in the program in order to obtain the subsidy, 3,654 organic farmers, or 52 percent, abandoned organic farming. Of those who registered later, the number of certified organic cultivators at the end of 2002 came to only 6,299, a a figure that official EU statistics say represents just 0.74 percent of Greek farmers. The situation appears even worse after a qualitative examination of the data. Olive products make up the majority of organically grown crops, and only a tiny proportion consists of products for which there is market demand (meat and dairy products, fruit and vegetables). In 2001 (the last year for which ministry statistics are available), of a total of 3,110 hectares, 50 percent of organically produced crops were olives, and only 1.5 percent was garden produce. Pulses made up 0.9 percent of organic crops. Indicatively, in Argolida, an area whose proximity to Athens – the biggest market for organic products in the country – makes it highly suitable for growing vegetable produce, 700 hectares of organically cultivated land was set aside for olive trees. Only 0.5 hectares was set aside for garden produce. It’s worth noting that until 1998, the situation was different. From 1993, when organic farming first took off in Greece, with only 165 farmers, to 1998 (when there were 4,200 organic cultivators), growth was rapid. What was it that led farmers to abandon organic farming? In the first year, farmers chose organic farming because it was something new and promising and because they hoped it would develop and surpass its teething troubles. Unfortunately, these were never solved. The pioneers were driven to abandon organic farming, and bred distrust and rejection in those that followed them. Only a few, with the subsidy as the lure, remained organic farmers. The factor most responsible for this situation was that the former Agricultural Ministry did nothing for organic farming apart from providing subsidies. But subsidies based on hectares prevent, rather than favor, medium- to long-term growth. The short-term euphoria they bring quickly dissipates when the subsidy runs out and market factors kick in, and farmers come face to face with hard reality, otherwise termed unsustainability. On the basis of the experience of organic farming in this country, it is vital that a practicable and effective plan of action be adopted. Its primary aim should be to reverse the climate of disappointment and distrust and the sense of abandonment that prevails in rural areas and among organic cultivators. For this reason, measures need to be implemented directly in the fields and not in scientific committees in Athens. The central idea of the proposal is the creation of a national network of organic demo farms. The idea, with many different variations, has been applied in many countries. In Europe, the programs of the British Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (http://demofarms.org.uk) and its Irish counterpart (http://agriculture.gov.ie) stand out. Organic farming truly is an opportunity for Greece, not because organic products are more expensive but because it ensures production with sustainable management of natural resources and safe crops for consumers. Moreover, it is a production process that is based on quality. Its ideological underpinnings are capable of attracting young people of a high intelligence level and can be combined with agrotourism. Finally, it is a great opportunity, as both farmers and society have need of a vision that will redefine their relationship to food, farming and nature in general. For all this to become reality, there must be an end to empty words. Specific initiatives need to be taken, with timetables and responsibilities that are clearly set out and brought home to those who take advantage of the hopes and dreams of Greek farmers. Only in this way can something truly innovative and productive emerge. (1) Spyros Kachrimanis is the president of the Panhellenic Union of Fruit and Vegetable Growers, has been a certified organic farmer since 1992 and is a founding member of the Union of Organic Farmers of Greece.