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Hot potatoes: How the ‘potato movement’ in Greece brings producers and consumers together and arranges fair prices for both

This week I wanted to write about ecosystem services but I will leave that for a later date. Instead I will write about some ‘hot potatoes’ in Greece.

Many people in Serbia live below or just on the poverty line. Some people rely on food banks or social support coming from government or from charities. Food prices continue to increase and some people are now buying at the market what they can afford for that day. Another country hard hit by economic crisis is Greece. Much has been written about the why: Corruption, falsification of financial figures by the Greek government, tax evasion, etc. In the meanwhile the average Greek is suffering. A quarter of the Greek work force is unemployed. Of people between 15-24 years the figure is 54%. Of the potential work force in Greece only around 39% works and they need to pay ever increasing taxes to support the austerity measures of the government. And there is shortage of everything.

Many Greek –especially the young- leave the country and look for opportunities abroad. Many others leave the big cities as those become increasingly inhospitable and unbearable to live in. Pensioners, confronted with lower pensions, return to their native villages followed by young people who are looking for opportunities. They take to agriculture in order to produce their own food and to support their meagre incomes. However, margins in agriculture are low. Farmers receive low prices for their produce. The ‘middle man’ and the retailers take most of the profit. Besides that, there is also pressure on producers because they do not get paid on time or not for the full amount. The final straw was when Egyptian potatoes were imported while the warehouses were full of Greek ones. As a reaction, potato farmers in the North of the country distributed 10 tons of potato for free to the inhabitants of the city of Thessaloniki on February 5th of this year.

This action made many consumers happy but from a business perspective this is not sustainable of course. Looking for a solution, a citizens group in the Northern town of Katerini called Voluntary Action Group Pieria (EODnP) invited farmers to sell their potatoes at wholesale prices directly to consumers. A public sale was organised on February 19th in Katerini where potatoes were sold at 25 cents a kilo, approximately one third of the market price. Consumers are happy because they pay less, while producers are happy because they get higher prices for their produce, with immediate payment which enables them to reinvest and prepare for the next season. The retail sector confronted with lower revenues was forced to lower their prices. After this successful event, the model spread to Thessaloniki and other parts of the country.

The Pieria action group now regularly organizes such food fairs involving a range of produce such as potatoes, rice, apricots, flour and honey. People can register and order a specific amount of produce. The action group organised a sale of olive oil, oh-so essential in Greece. Producers were invited to provide samples and through a blind testing event consumers chose the one that best suited their tastes and their wallets. The winner was then invited to supply the desired 120 tons (!). The oil was sold to the buyers (a total of 2099 families) at a lower price than in the retail sector (€15,5 vs €27). The consumers received good quality olive oil for a low price and producers received direct payment which was higher than what they would have received from the middle man. Consumers happy, producers happy.

This kind of direct sale to consumers is not strange to Serbia either but the potential for it is not yet well developed. Consumers and producers in Serbia can financially benefit from expanding direct sales but what is equally important is that consumers and producers are directly connected through these food fairs and are able to discuss the quality and supply of the produce. And not only that, consumers have an opportunity to ‘reconnect’ to the food that they eat. While there remain challenges in the area of transportation, distribution and packaging, the benefits outweigh them. Short value chains work, in many respects!

The Pieria action group has many other activities which concern the citizens of the region. They address all kinds of social, political, economical and environmental issues. What can be taken from this example in Greece is that people are more powerful than they think they are. What it takes is for people to come together and to work together on issues that affect all of them and to work on solutions that will benefit all of them. Civil action works and this is a hot potato worth of passing on!

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