A Greek family’s quest for seeds, sustainability and independence
This article was published by Al Jazeera International
DILOFO, Thessaly - On the Greek government’s list of certified organic farmers, Antonis Antonopoulos has the serial number one.
What really makes Antonis and his brother, Yiorgos, a singular phenomenon, though, 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.
The Antonopouloi have branded and shipped their organic flours made from indigenous grains to specialty shops and bakeries for years. Two years ago, their branded Zea flour, derived from a double-kerneled wheat bred in their town of Dilofo, became the key ingredient in an eponymous sliced bread that is distributed nationwide. Although sales figures are a closely guarded secret, it is clear that Zea’s commercial success has brought an ancient grain back from the brink of extinction.
“Demand is growing,” says Yiorgos Antonopoulos, who won’t divulge 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.
The Antonopouloi, 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.”
To his peers, however, Antonopoulos failed to move with the times. “[People] don’t understand [my example]. In the beginning they would point at me as the village idiot. It was about 20 years before the results began to show. Until then I was crazy. I would walk into the coffee shop and everyone would look at me.”
Today the Antonopoulos Farm is the largest structure on the outskirts of Dilofo, a village tucked in folds of coffee-coloured earth that form the southeast corner of the Thessaly plain, Greece’s breadbasket. A gentle range of hills rises above it, known to the Homeric Greeks as Phthia, the hamlet where Achilles was raised.
Looking down from these hills one can imagine the young hero galloping across the undulating plain where Antonopoulos now cultivates half a dozen landrace species of wheat, barley and oats, and a number of landrace pulses, peas and millet. The mythological pedigree adds to their mystique.
When mechanised farming began to be introduced to Greece in the 1960s, it came with laboratory-bred hybrid seeds made by agribusinesses, which bore higher yields. These gradually pushed out landraces, and when Greece entered the European Economic Community in 1981, the Common Agricultural Policy turbo-charged the process with subsidies.
The fate of Greece is the fate of the world writ small. Agribusiness has extinguished biodoversity everywhere. While people have historically cultivated more than 6,000 plant species worldwide, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), just nine now account for two thirds of global crop production.
In the 1980s, the FAO started setting up gene banks to preserve the variety industrialised farming was stamping out.
Nikos Stavropoulos and a small band of biologists set up Greece’s gene bank on a shoestring budget of 300,000 euros – a tenth of the originally promised sum. They criss-crossed the country asking farmers to give them bags of seed from landraces.
Greece’s gene bank houses seeds from thousands of landraces, but their fertility expectancy in cold storage is between 10 and 50 years. Unless someone cultivates those seeds at least once in a generation, they, too, will die.
“Seeing that the state wasn’t interested in genetic variety, I started to hand seeds out to organic growers, more or less in secret, and had them propagate and preserve them,” Stavropoulos says.
Banked seeds have a further vulnerability. “Old landraces that have not been cultivated but stored in gene banks only, might be no longer be adapted to changing climatic conditions and new pests and disease,” says Monica Messmer, who is responsible for plant breeding at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland.
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 hecatres 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 Antonopoulos Farm is now the registered preserver of three local grains on the new national register, which is exactly four species long (the other is the Thespiai onion).
This obliges the farm to cultivate and share the grains with the gene bank and with other farmers. Eventually, it might qualify the farm for a subsidy designed to even the playing field with CAP subsidies paid out to hybrids; but this landrace subsidy programme has not yet been activated in Greece.
Food security is not the only issue at stake. Industrial farming of hybrids and organic farming of landraces have vastly different implications for the environment.
Organic landrace farming is self-sufficient. “Wheat varieties cultivated long before the [Second World] War have such root systems that they produce many stems and leave no room for weeds, so there is no need for weedkiller,” says agriculturalist Ilias Kantaros, who advises the Antonopouloi.
“If, after planting wheat, you sow pulses, they fix nitrogen in their roots, so the next crop you plant there will receive the nitrogen left by the previous crop. This was the traditional method of farming dating to when there were no [artificial] fertilisers.”
Additional fertiliser was provided by cattle allowed to graze on the stubble left in the fields after harvesting.
Organic farms produce incidental environmental benefits. According to the FAO, about 450 wild species of plants and animals are often deliberately cultivated for their so-called ecosystem services - to help fight pests and disease, pollinate, purify water, decompose and recycle nutrients, form soil, produce oxygen and provide habitats. But they encourage and enable a “vastly higher number of unmanaged species” that is also “essential to these services.” In other words, they are rich ecosystems.
Antonopoulos’ farm is an example of biodiversity. He has planted an assortment of fig, apple and pear trees, and dug ponds for wildlife to drink from. The air buzzes with bees and dragonflies. Frogs hop around his land, and wildcats come down to drink at dusk. “Nature keeps itself in balance,” he says.
Hybrid varieties are a different story. They are genetically-engineered to combine the virtues of several species and produce higher yields, but are unadapted to any environment and need a supporting chemical cocktail of nutrients, pesticides and herbicides to thrive, as well tractor petrol to spread these.
This chemical cocktail has harmful effects. Apart from reducing biodiversity, herbicides are also prone to losing their efficacy. When it was first used on a large scale 23 years ago, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready was devastatingly effective. Today, 43 plants have developed immunity to it.
There are also troubling implications for human health. Cancer sufferers who blame Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, for their predicament, have won a string of cases in US courts in recent years, the latest carrying punitive damages of $2bn.
Most notoriously, pesticides are blamed for playing a role in Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees never return from their foraging expeditions, leaving the colony to die from malnutrition and disease. That has forced farmers who cultuvate fruit trees to fertilise them manually, at great cost.
“We cause diseases, pollute waterways, put carbon into the air and eradicate species because we’re simply not paying the cost of doing these things,” says Kostas Karantininis, a professor of business administration at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “These are public goods, so they can’t be invoiced.”
While environmental costs remain off-balance sheet, agribusiness is highly profitable. The pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertiliser industry’s worth is forecast to rise to $250 billion by 2024.
Hybrid seed, which unlike landrace seed is patented and owned, has to be bought each year, creating another industry. “Laboratory seeds can be used for one crop. After that, they will either be infertile or show the properties of some of the DNA that they came from, but not all,” says Kantaros. This is because the seeds are artificial marriages of DNA that haven’t learned to survive as a single organism in the natural environment, and their evolution is unpredictable.
The farming industry won’t change without co-ordinated, global regulation, Karantininis says. “Markets cannot charge for public goods without government intervention, and because these are trans-border problems, no single government can act alone. This is a planetary problem and needs planetary solutions.”
The evolution of conventional farming
Industrial farming takes place on most of the world’s farmland. So any attempt to fix agriculture has to address mass production.
That is beginning to happen through precision farming. Kostas Kravas cultivates rice on 130 hectares in Halastra on the Axios river delta – a large farm by Greek standards. Three years ago, he invested in a new line of equipment: a self-driving tractor that pulls digitally controlled fertiliser and pesticide dispensers.
These dispensers use “variable rate technology”, which means that they spray more liberally in parts of the farm that need more nutrient and pesticide, and less or not at all in other parts. Kravas gives the machines their instructions on a USB stick every Thursday. The data are generated by a consulting firm with access to satellite images of his farm.
“The difference between precision and conventional farming is 15-20 percent higher yields and 20 percent lower costs,” says Kravas. “This is the evolution of conventional farming and brings farming closer to natural cycles because it provides nutrients only where they are needed and no more.” In another two years Kravas will have paid off his investment, but his 35-40 percent higher profit margin will remain.
Like Antonopoulos, Kravas was ridiculed when he installed his shiny new machines. But that changed. “The following year, some cousins of mine went for precision farming on 500 hectares,” he says. “Now Halastra has become a colony of precision farmers.”
While Kravas keeps some of his land organic, he defends his brand of intensive precision farming as environmentally friendlier than non-precision farms. “I’ve restored most of the 18 nutrients I had been draining from the soil the previous 30 years,” he says, and has seen waterfowl return to his farm thanks to new, biodegradeable pesticides.
However, not all farmers are as progressive as Kravas, nor as well able to afford a major reinvestment. Greek farmers are leaving the profession in record numbers, weighed down by taxation and global competition. A recent study found that out of 315,000 people who entered the profession during 2007-2017, when Greece lost a quarter of its economic output, almost a third have quit.
It’s about the consumer
“To have sustainable production, we need sustainable consumption,” says Karantininis. “We need to pay the true cost of things, and when we do, we will reduce consumption.”
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 millenium. 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 Antonopouloi 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 hecatre, versus five tonnes per hectare for chemically-assisted hybrid grains. The Antonopouloi are offsetting lower yields against lower production costs and higher retails 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 production 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.”