Saturday, 15 July 2006

Biointensive Agriculture in Crete, Greece: A Companion for the Poor and the Rich.

Kostas Bouyouris, Mediterranean Association for Soil Health, Farm Planning and Management, P.O. Box 7718, Adele, 74100 Rethym, Greece, Ken Cassman, Univ of Nebraska, 377 Plant Science, Dept of Agronomy and Horticulture, Lincoln, NE 68583-0724, and Sotiris Babagiouris, Extension Services, Medditeranean Association of Soil Health, P.O. Box 7718, Adele, Greece.

For over 40 centuries most people on the island of Crete lived in the countryside producing food. Connections to mainland Greece were poor as was the infrastructure for transportation on the island. Exchange of agricultural products for trade goods or money with the outside world was limited, however, people had wide access to soil, water, and natural resources to produce their own food and a favorable climate for producing a wide variety of health enhancing foods. Most of the people were poor in money but rich in natural resources for food production. During the last 40 years tourism developed and Crete became a popular destination for tourists. Cities grew bigger as increasing numbers of farmers quit agriculture, which was economically unstable, and focused on tourism related businesses. These conditions transformed monetarily poor, self sufficient food producers into rich consumers with poor direct access to the land and food producing resources. Reduction of labor and time spent in agriculture and the loss of traditional knowledge for soil and crop management led farmers to increase energy, fertilizer, and chemical inputs for farming. This resulted in high expenditures, soil degeneration, natural resources depletion and pollution. Over the last five years cash flow from the tourism business to local societies has decreased as bigger, more modern tourism destinations developed around the Mediterranean basin. Local inhabitants, which were formerly rich consumers, are now becoming poor consumers. Due to increased agricultural input intensification and costs, farmers staying on the land to produce food became one of the lowest income groups on Crete. Development of food production methods that require low external inputs and revitalize soil was essential to addressing these social and ecological concerns. Thus the MEDITERRANEAN ASSOCIATION FOR SOIL HEALTH (MASH) was formed, offering scientific support for development of Biointensive agriculture as a solution to these concerns. The first idea was to encourage a parallel sustainable development of tourism and agriculture which is facilitated by the many agricultural products consumed by tourists. Organic agriculture is a good “tool” for this because it produces high quality agricultural products in close proximity to hotels and other tourist locations. When properly applied, organic practices can also help protect natural resources and environmental quality. Biointensive agriculture on Crete was the first large scale project on parallel development that was implemented in Greece in 1995. This resulted from the combined efforts of MASH, which was the consultant for organic production and GRECOTEL -the largest hotel chain in Greece (32 hotels and about 17,000 beds) which was the final consumer of the organic products and provided funding for the project. Emphasis was given to vegetables as the primary produce and use of biointensive, organic agriculture fulfilled the project goal of combining healthy and high quality agricultural production with ecological ways of thinking. This supported the primary goal of local, low cost production and local consumption of organic vegetables on the island of Crete. The symbiosis between farmers and hotels has grown greatly over the past decade. In 1995, only three farmers were cultivating organic vegetables in the area of Rethymnon, Crete and a three ha Biointensive demonstration farm was established by Grecotel near one of their hotels. This pilot organic farming project was designed and set up by scientists with the more recently formed MASH (2004). Between 1995-2000, the project tested the performance of about 150 varieties of vegetables under Biointensive methods according to EC Regulation 2092/91 (organic agriculture regulation). Low cost composting methods were introduced to poor farmers for producing natural fertilizers that promote healthy soils. Composting is a major part of organic vegetable production, and the farmers producing for Grecotel use composted organic waste, including waste from hotel kitchens. Organic vegetables were distributed to the four Grecotels in Rethymnon, covering 60% of their total fresh vegetable consumption. In 2000, the Biointensive method was well established and farmers produced the vegetables needed. Thus the demonstration farm was abandoned, since the initial purpose of Grecotel was to spread the income among the Biointensive farmers. This project clearly demonstrated that Biointensive organic agriculture is economically feasible and can promote healthy soils producing healthy plants that promote the health of the humans consuming them. Once again, the ancient Cretian principle that HUMAN HEALTH originates from NATURAL (SOIL) HEALTH is reborn in the modern technological world.

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