Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Organic and Fairtrade (Βιολογικό και Δίκαιο Eμπόριο)

Labeling of food products causes more misunderstanding these days than what it is supposed to prevent. This is because most people are not educated in the meanings of certain labels attached to food items.

One of the most confusing food labels is the word 'organic', for very similar reasons as in the confusion surrounding 'extra-virgin' in the case of the olive oil industry.

I've stopped worrying about whether the food I buy is organic, because of the over-use of the word 'organic' in food labelling. The 'organic' label carries a lot of hidden definitions, one of which includes the use of certain chemicals which are in fact allowed in the so-called permissible range of chemicals in 'commerical' organic farming. In fact, a food item cannot be labelled 'organic' if it isn't certified by an authorised body, which suggests an over-regularised society geared towards profit. Hence the word 'organic' is not supposed to be understood in its most basic dictionary-definition meaning ('something grown without chemicals'). But few ordinary people would know that, and the commercial organic agribusiness world certainly wouldn't want them to know that anyway. 

The day before we left Crete for our European holiday, we took a little trip to our fields and picked some oranges, lemons and avocados. These trees have not seen any chemical spraying for nearly 15 years, which was approximately the last time my husband performed this action on them. In the past, Cretan produce was more marketable, but since farming has fallen into decline, he did not see any commercial benefits in spending time and money 'protecting' his crops this way: in fact, we haven't sold any oranges (our lemon and avocado trees are sufficient for personal use only) for the last five years.We don't need to label our crops as organic - they are de facto organic, and much more organic than what is being sold on the market as organic! My London friends were thankful for our Cretan food presents, and they asked us out of interest if our gifts were organic. Talking food cross-culturally is confusing when labels are used, especially when the concept of what one regards as 'organic food' is not understood mutually.

The same applies for our winter garden. Everything just grows on its own, aided by the climatic conditions, without any help from us once planted. Just like magic, I often think. Not so with our summer garden: it needs a bit of help. For a start, we plant too much in a confined space. Secondly, the heat and humidity cause much more harm to crops than the cold. We use mild commercial chemicals as well as natural forms of protection, like spraying pepper plants that need extra calcium with milk, or placing used coffee grounds below tomato plants to keep away various pests. Are our tomatos 'organic'? I don't know, and it hardly seems important. In Crete, we have a saying: να ξέρεις τι τρως - know what you are eating

We also carried with us some olive oil in our suitcases. The packaged olive oil that I bought for our friends was not labelled 'organic'. The olive oil we placed from our own supplies came from olive groves that grow in remote Cretan countryside, more than 500 metres above sea level: not even cars pass the area on a daily basis. All we were concerned with when we bought our bulk supplies (our own trees were not in their alternate year of production) was the quality (the analysis came out at less than 0.8% acidity, therefore it's extra-virgin).

Another kind of 'organic' labelling that troubles me immensely is when I see the label on highly processed food, especially when it's found in conjunction with brand-label food. Brand labels should be appreciated for what they are; once you start asking the organic question with them, you are simply asking for higher prices and abuse of the basic definition of the word. I find it impossible (and farcical) to believe a guarantee of 'organic' when a food item consists of more than one product and/or has had some kind of treatment. The labeling will try to convince you that every single food item found in the final product was grown/raised/farmed organically, but at the end of the day, a packaged product with an expiry date and a long shelf life must have had some kind of preservative added to it, whether natural or not, and it is likely to have undergone some kind of chemical HACCP treatment that will render it not quite 'organically cooked*'.

The question of whether food is organic or not can only be answered by the definition of 'organic' in the context that it is being used. I still feel suspicious when I see organic food with too much packaging and/or processing.

Greeks have embraced the 'organic' label, but 'fairtrade' is still an unknown quantity here. Have you ever tried to define 'fairtrade' to a Greek? It's interesting that here in Crete (at least), we never come across this label. Because we do a lot of walking whenever we travel, we have the time to read nearly all the signs we come across on the road, and I often point out signs and wording that I feel my family should be aware of because such signs/labels are very global in nature but they are not found so often where we live. This holiday's buzzword was 'fairtrade'.

My husband had no idea what it meant. I tried to explain it, but even when I pointed out the word in other signs, he could never remember its meaning. His biggest problem with the concept was that he couldn't understand how and where the concept could be applied. The concept of 'fairtrade' is generally defined as found in Wikipedia:
Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries to make better trading conditions and promote sustainability.
... and 'fairtrade' certifiers:
Fairtrade seeks to transform trading structures and practices in favour of the poor and disadvantaged. By facilitating trading partnerships based on equity and transparency, Fairtrade contributes to sustainable development for marginalised producers, workers and their communities. Through demonstration of alternatives to conventional trade and other forms of advocacy, the Fairtrade movement empowers citizens to campaign for an international trade system based on justice and fairness.
Funnily enough, Greece has its own 'fairtrade' site, a relatively recent one by Western global standards:
Fair Trade Hellas is a Greek Non Governmental Organization founded in 2004 and was registered as a non-profit company. The organization was the first one to promote the idea of Fair Trade in Greece, a philosophy that battles poverty on a global scale. Our goal is the promotion of ethical and responsible consuming in Greece together with the provision of products from small producers in poor countries.
So where is the problem? I can only speak my opinion: the 'fairtrade' concept is often associated with products like coffee and cocoa, bananas and mangoes, and all sort of other products (including non-food such as cotton and gold) that the western world cannot live without, but which are farmed/raised/grown in the non-west. They are found in 'poor' countries (as the Greek definition points out) with a standard of living that westerners regard as very low, which includes elements such as the $1-a-day salary, squatters' housing conditions, outdoor kitchens, and other stereotypes of developing countries. According to this stereotype (note the black hand on the UK site, the same picture being used by the Greek site too), naturally Greece will not fit into the picture.

But Greece is now being labelled by the west as an economically 'poor' country. Nevertheless, Greeks don't think of themselves as poor in the image of 'fairtrade' poverty. So 'fairtrade' is seen as someone else's problem, not a Greek concern, especially now that Greece is facing her own very serious economic problems.

Taken more broadly, however, fairtrade is actually a highly Greek concern. The nascent Greek Potato Movement fits into the idea of 'fairtrade': Greek potato growers were sick and tired of middlemen buying their harvest for 20-25 cents/kilo, with an end price for the consumer of 70 cents/kilo, so they organised to sell their product at similarly low prices directly to the consumers via web sales. The movement later spread to all sorts of long shelf-life products that Greek consumers often buy in bulk (eg rice, flour, olive oil). It's just a matter of time for some Greek to come along and rename the Potato Movement as an act of fairtrade (our 500 orange trees are ready and waiting).

The 'fairtrade' concept denotes a kind of sensitivity that the Greek stereotype is usually regarded as lacking. It's true to some extent that Greeks don't readily donate to charity in the same way that other EU citizens are willing to, but 'fairtrade' is not about providing charity: it is about fair practices in farming. Greece is one of the few EU countries that actually still has a fair number of small-size farmers (most other EU countries have mainly commercialised agro-business farming), but her raw materials are not as respected or highly acclaimed as other countries' products. When this injustice is placed in the context of the globalised free market, one can perhaps understand why Greeks have not embraced the fairtrade concept yet: they cannot concentrate on the unfairness of others' trade when theirs is not getting the treatment it deserves.

The fairtrade concept simply needs to be placed in a truly Greek context for it to become more well-known and acceptable among Greek society in general. It needs to have its κουλτουρiάρικο connections removed from it. It's kind of like the vegetarian/vegan dilemma - one is seen as acceptable, whereas the other is still quite un-Greek.

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Labeling of products nowadays is basically a way to make higher profits. Although I take food labelling seriously, I am still deeply suspicious of it. The labels I am likely to believe are those that contain only words I understand, whose meanings have not been distorted by commercial demands: for example, appellations such as 'organic cocopops' and 'fairtrade recipes' sound more like misnomers.

*organically cooked: no such thing really - see for yourself by googling it...

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