In Greece, a rebel organic farm goes against the grain

20 July 20195 min reading

The Antonopoulos brothers are leading a farming revolution in Greece, which has Europe’s highest plant biodiversity.

Source: John Psaropoulos /Al Jazeera

On the Greek government’s list of certified organic farmers, Antonis Antonopoulos has the serial number one. What makes Antonis and his brother Yiorgos a phenomenon, is not that their model farm pioneered organic methods in Greece; it’s that they were among the first to realise that organically grown, local varieties of wheat and barley other farmers had cast aside could be a commercial hit. They have branded and shipped their organic flours made from indigenous grains to speciality shops and bakeries for years. Two years ago, their Zea flour, derived from a double-kernelled wheat bred in their town of Dilofo, became the key ingredient in an eponymous sliced loaf that is distributed nationwide. Zea’s commercial success has brought an ancient grain back from the brink of extinction. “Demand is growing,” says Yiorgos, who won’t disclose his annual turnover or how many hectares he cultivates. “Suffice it to say that I’m better off than anyone else in the area.” This success is important because Greece is a natural gene bank. Its archipelago, varied terrain and microclimates favoured so many divergent evolutionary paths that today it has the highest plant biodiversity in Europe, with approximately 6,000 wild plant species or subspecies, and thousands of cultivated plants. Should this vast genetic vocabulary be lost, scientists and farmers could lose a vital resource in the fight to keep feeding the planet in a rapidly-changing climate.

Source: John Psaropoulos /Al Jazeera

The brothers, who are in their autumn years, have experimented with four dozen different varieties of native species (or landraces) of grain, during their lifetimes, manually selecting the best of each year’s crop to seed a better-yielding crop the following year, just as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. “Every seed adapts to the microclimate of its region … In the end, I found that the most productive grains here were the local varieties we inherited from our parents,” says Yiorgos Antonopoulos. Thanks to adaptation, local varieties do not need chemical fertiliser, pesticide or herbicide to thrive, so landrace cultivation is by definition organic - and economical. “I have the lowest costs and one-third of the work of other farmers,” says Antonopoulos. “The only thing I do is irrigate.” Official figures suggest that organic farming has increased sevenfold in the last two decades to cover 70 million hectares worldwide. That would only amount to 1.4 percent of agricultural land, but these measurements based on national data from organic certifiers may be a vast underestimation. Ninety percent of the world’s farms are family owned, and some estimates suggest that at least a third of them follow ecological principles without registering as organic. Nonetheless, the intensive, industrialised farming model has gradually been taking over the world’s arable land. According to one recent study, 95 percent of farms are smaller than five hectares but they operate only 20 percent of the world’s farmland, and that percentage is shrinking.

Things are moving in the right direction, but slowly. In 2009, Greece adopted into law an EU directive obliging it to record landraces and their cultivators. The consumer movement towards sustainably grown food and diets that have a lower impact on the environment is swelling. The global organic food market is worth more than $97bn, up from $18bn at the start of the millennium. The payoff for producers is significant, which is why their official number has grown from 200,000 to 2.9 million over the same period. The Antonopoulos Farm is a case in point. Most Greek grain farmers sell their conventionally grown wheat to the mill for $0.17 a kilo, and it retails for about $0.78 a kilo. The Antonopoulos brothers have invested in their own winnowing, milling and branding, and sell theirs direct to the consumer for $5 a kilo. Organically grown landrace grains at best yield 1.2 - 1.7 tonnes of grain per hectare, versus five tonnes per hectare for chemically assisted hybrid grains. The Antonopouloses are offsetting lower yields against lower production costs and higher retail prices.

What maximises their commercial success, though, is the branding of their own product. “The surplus goes to the person who sets up the value chain and takes the risk,” says Karantininis. “The value of the coffee in any cup of espresso is just four percent. The farmer who made the coffee beans earns approximately a thousandth of the price of that cup of coffee. If the producer doesn’t own a large part of the value chain, the whole effort is pointless.” During the crisis many young Greek farmers have clued in, setting up small-scale, high-quality products which they brand for export. But this is still a boutique industry. The vast majority of food is produced cheaply and sold cheaply, because most consumers still value quantity over quality, and this means that producers’ profit margins are being squeezed. “Crops are gradually becoming nonviable,” says Karantininis.One answer is to increase the economy of scale, resulting in the current trend of ever-larger farms. The second is precision farming, which lowers costs and environmental fallout, and increases yield. The third – organic landrace farming – still appeals to only a minority of visionary, self-reliant, rebellious farmers who want independence from agribusiness. “Local varieties make a farmer independent and self-sufficient,” says Yiorgos Antonopoulos. “Agriculture today has exactly the opposite tendency. [Companies] want to control what you sow because that is where their profit comes from. The seed varieties that are subsidised are sold each year… All these years later, farmers are completely controlled. It used to be that with 10 hectares you were king. Now you can have 50 or 100 hectares and they aren’t enough.” AL JAZEERA

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