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“The taverna owner looked at me as if I was a fresh lobster”: Greece’s import data & production deficit

Official data on Greek imports for 2016 have once again shone a spotlight on Greece’s production deficit. Although a maritime country Greece spent €434 million on fish import. Although it had and still has a flourishing cotton cultivation, if spent €659.8 million to import cotton. What’s the problem with Greece? The production deficit seems to have little to do with the economic crisis of the last 7-8 years. It has to do with the EU Funds that spoiled the people, the quotas that enforced limitation of productivity and a mentality that opposed modernization.

Data on Imports for 2016:

Last year Greece spent 1.53 billion euros in clothing imports and 497 million in footwear.

Despite extensive cotton cultivation in the region of Thessaly, the country imported textiles worth a total of 659.8 million euros.

On veal and pork imports, Greece spent 1.1 billion euros, even though the country is self-sufficient in far-healthier sheep and goat meat.

Fish imports into a typically maritime country amounted to 432 million euros and cereal imports amounted to an impressive 613 million euros.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere of insecurity has made Greeks resort to the refuge of gold: In 2016 the value of non-monetary gold (considered a precious commodity and not a financial element) amounted to 9.39 million euros, up from 3.98 million euros two years earlier. – via kathimerini

One should ask why there is production deficit in Greece. The problem has little to do with the bailout agreements mantra “high taxes and lack of competitiveness hinder investment.”  It is a phenomenon that emerged once the country entered the European Union, the funds started to flow and the quotas were imposed.

I recently saw a documentary about tomato processing factories in Argolis (Argolida) in Eastern Peloponnese peninsula.  The area is one of the most productive in agriculture in Greece.

It was sad to see all these abandoned or demolished factories and the old black and white pictures of smiling workers. It used to be an old-fashioned kind of industry, where factory owners knew the workers by name.

The majority of these factories were processing mainly tomatoes in form of tomato paste and canned tomatoes for local consumption and export. These relative small enterprises were sending the Greek tomato paste even all the way down to Australia. In the peak of the “tomato paste” economy, 40 factories in Argolis were processing more than 600,000 tons of tomatoes per year. 98% of these factories disappeared. There is still only one tomato processing business in the area, but its procession unit in another prefecture, in south-west Peloponnese.

In the late 1970’s, factories that were operating for 20-50 years started to close one after the other. The process was concluded in late 80’s, beginning of the 90’s. In the report, it was said that these factories closed when tomato cultivation was cut down and local farmers turned into cultivating citrus fruits, mainly oranges and lemons.

It was a friend from the area who told me that the factories closed when the EU funds started to flow. He, like most teenagers and students from the area, used to job in these factories during  summer time and school holidays to help their families or earn for their studies in the big cities. Slowly but gradually the flourishing sector that was feeding thousands of people and their families died out.

Unfortunately, I have no data about how many workers earned their living in these factories. and how the production deficit developed in the last decades.

But the friend said that when the subsidiaries came, the rich businessmen and land owners closed their factories or halted agriculture production. At the same time, some factory units or land plots were sold to robuster businesses or richer landowners.  “We, the poor without land, were left with nothing.” Modernization and automation of production led also to mass lay-offs. Some had to sell their small land plots to survive.

In the information portal of Argos, we read about the economic development of the area:

“Private initiative in industry seems to develop in the 1930s, mainly in the fields of textile industry, agriculture, as well as in the field of food. Agricultural and industrial evolution of the area develops different perspectives with the entrance of the country in the E.U. Many of the businessmen realize the urgent need for the improvement of quality of their products and are modernized, while others refuse to follow the commands of our times. So, although there is an increase of subsidies, modernization and the output of competitive products, there is a need for specialization and scientific grounding for farmers.”

In an article from 2013, we read that there was a campaign to revive the tomato processing economy and re-start the powerful sector. There were 11 factories processing 400,000 tons of tomatoes. one of them had filed for bankruptcy. I don’t know how many of  these factories are still in operation in 2017.

A similar phenomenon was observed in Macedonia: many farmers gave up or just drastically limited the peach and apricots cultivation when the European funds started to pour into the pockets of hard struggling people. Fruit and vegetable processing factories were built in the area, in the 70’s, “30 years later, not one of them still exists.”

As for the fish… when I was recently on the island of Antiparos, I was not surprised to see the local tavernas right next to the sea offering deep frozen fish, kalamari and shrimps at a price of €9-€15 per dish. Still expensive if one considers the economic crisis, but… At the same time, one could choose from a variety of fresh fish offered at 60-65 euro/kilo. One portion of fresh fish, i.e. half a kilo of fresh Aegean fish would then cost 30 euro. A huge difference in taste and price.

via GIPHY

Years ago, Antiparos was famous for the fresh, locally fished lobster, at a price Greeks could afford. Beginning of July there was no sign of lobster, fresh or frozen, at all.

I asked one of the oldest tavern owners what happened to the lobster I used to …blahblahblah. He looked at me with a nostalgic glance as if I was the fresh lobster he had been missing in the last decades and told me “lobster is nowadays imported, sold at a price of 50 euro. Who will pay for that?”. He said further that there is no more lobster to be fished. Died out. He also added that in last decades, when the old fishermen retired, the young Greeks refused to continue the tradition. I was left with my open question about the deadline the lobster fishermen of Antiparos used to keep with religious piety: no lobster fishing after August 20th for the protection and reproduction.

At the Greek supermarkets, a kilo of deep frozen and mostly imported octopus is almost the same +/- 1.5 euro for the fresh one. The majority of fresh octopus is also imported mostly from south-west Africa.

We produce fairly little, although Greece – some big islands and certainly the mainland – has all possible climate preconditions for agricultural production. And fish should belong to the Aegean, as the old anarchists used to say.  Production deficit? We should seriously -and away from political ideologies – ask ourselves Why can’t Greece have sufficient production at least in some sector?

PS More information and data about such an important topic are much appreciated.

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5 comments

  1. I work in the food trading industry. We were looking to buy tomato paste to sell to another country and we called xxxs. They offered around 0.7 euros a can. I said but the Italians sell it at 0.35 a can. He said we don’t compete with Italians so we don’t bother to export, Greeks eat higher quality food!

    So no sursie, we ended up buying 100,000 euros worth of Italian tomato paste to sell it to another country, 100,000 Greece missed out on!

  2. Good article,bravo!It doesn´t help at all to blame always the others,look at yourself and try to do your things better.Greets from Crete,Petra

  3. keeptalkinggreece

    thank you 🙂

  4. The problem of the destruction of the Greek industrial and agricultural base is certainly complex. We can pinpoint some factors however. A major one was the flow of European funds which gave temporary profits to farmers at the expense of politicians, behind their back, accepting quotas in production of traditional products such as olive oil or fruit. It can be seen now that these European “policies” were the result of crooked Greek politicians not objecting to the long term strategies of larger countries such as France and Spain, which protected their own interests, while limiting the capabilities of Greek agriculture. The country has had treason in its blood for longer than we can remember; this is why production of such a species has gone so well in recent years.

  5. very interesting article!
    I am Italian just moved to Athens and can tell you stories of what is happening to our agriculture as well.
    it was a huge experiment thanks to the European policies..we also started importing tomato from China but the overall reality is more complex. so my idea is that you cannot go too much in the microeconomics of restaurants or agriculture. it is pretty obvious that we cannot always cry on the past glory but move on to face reality and challenges that globalization poses.
    Greece does not have specialized industrial export and foreign direct investments (except speculative ones): politicians and entrepreneurs must change this or the country will bleed out!

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