It’s now a ‘Greek’ salad in name only

Greek bean soup may be a traditional dish, but often it is made of beans imported from Canada. The trademark Greek village salad may also be topped with Bulgarian-made feta cheese, while the string beans at our local outdoor markets may very well hail from Jordan. Is this the result of globalization on a plate, or an inability to adapt Greek production to modern dietary needs? «Pulses were underrated in Greek agriculture because they are difficult to cultivate and for a long time demand just kept falling,» says Professor Nikos Sidiras of the Agricultural University of Athens. Thus, while pulses have constituted the cornerstone of the Greek diet for generations, today the country produces an estimated 29,000 tons annually and consumes about 70,000 tons. Of the production total, about 20,000 tons are string beans, of which consumption is at 33,000 tons. The main exporters of the beans used to make so many staples of Greek cuisine are the USA, Canada, Albania and Argentina. Greece also produces a very small amount of lentils – 1,500 tons – while 10 times this amount is being imported from Canada, Turkey and the USA. Chickpeas also come mainly from neighboring Turkey, as local production is at a mere 2,500 tons a year. Greece, therefore, imports 60-65 percent of the pulses it uses, without meaning that we are consuming products that are not safe. What it does mean, however, is that the country has stopped producing products whose consumption, as well as costs, are steadily rising. This year, string-bean growers in the northern Greek region of Prespes estimate they will be receiving -2 a kilo. «This price ensures a much better income than, say, wheat farmers, who are receiving -0.40 a kilo,» explains Sidiras. Research also plays a very important part in crop yields, says the professor, explaining that lentil crops in Greece yield some 100-120 kilos per 0.1 hectares, while in Turkey the same amount of land will yield twice as much and in Canada three times more. Just 15 years ago, Greece used to export the wheat that is used in making sweets and bread. Cutbacks in subsidies, however, brought a drastic drop in production and today Greece imports 60 percent of its soft wheat. Even though the climatic conditions in Greece are considered ideal for growing fruit and vegetables, tomatoes from the Netherlands, Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Bulgaria have inundated the local market, while often one will find fruit and vegetables from every corner of the globe being sold at the local farmers’ markets. On the other hand, fruit and vegetable production was the only sector in agriculture to show any growth in 2006, with a 1-5 percent rise. Wheat production fell by 20 percent and corn by 13 percent, while the production of tobacco, a non-food product, was reduced by a staggering 80 percent. Trader’s rule Sidiras notes: «Wherever they can, traders will turn to the areas where the prices are lowest. This is a rule and will never change.» However, a turn to local, quality products may be the compass to guide producers in a new direction – as long as all the safety nets are in place. One official in the Greek Dairy Association says: «Foreigners come to Greece and eat a generic goat’s cheese at a restaurant instead of feta. So, when we try to export feta to their countries, they tell us it’s not the same cheese.»