Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is shaping to be a very successful year for the Greek processed tomato sector, with the harvest in Thessaly reaching 70%.

Story: Vana Antonopoulou

Many have argued that climate change –already visible in Greece– may have made the country as well as the regions of Elis and Thessaly inhospitable for the tomato crop. And it is true that the processed tomato industry is at a crossroads. The traditional tomato paste, which is mainly focused on the domestic industry, is not going through the best times as it does not reflect the new eating habits of the western world. However, this years COVID-19 pandemic, strengthened the international demand for tomato-based products and more generally for processed tomato products, which allowed the Greek tomato industry to dispose of almost all of its stock and at quite fair prices.

“Tomato production in 2019 was 400,000 tons, while this year it is expected to reach 440,000 tons, a 10% rise from the last yield. In fact, producers were pleased with last years’ yields and are willing to increase their tomato cultivation land.”

Significantly above average yields

Despite these difficulties, the overall picture of the crop for this year has not changed, with yields moving significantly above the average of recent years and the quality of the tomato paste gaining in brix degrees. In fact, tomato production in 2019 was 400,000 tons, while this year it is expected to reach 440,000 tons, a 10% rise from the last yield –although we are still waiting on the final numbers. In fact, producers were pleased with last years’ yields and are willing to increase their tomato cultivation land.
In addition, global production is also 5.1% higher (namely at 39.29 million tons), according at least to the World Processing Tomato Council. As far as the rest of the countries in the Mediterranean basin are concerned, tomato yield in Egypt is expected to reach 420,000 tons, Italy is looking at 5 million tons, while Spain expects a lower yield at around 3 million tons. Finally, Turkish officials Finally, Turkish officials state that tomato production in 2020 will be around 2.2 million tons.

Tomatoes, an overview

In addition, tomatoes occupied the largest area of crops in the EU, which amounted to a 11.7 percent of total vegetable arable land for the year 2015. During the same time, the areas used to grow tomatoes were predominately in Italy (41.9%) and Spain (22.8%), followed by Romania (9.5%), Portugal (7.3%) and Greece with a 6.7 percent.
Mr George Polychronakis, Special Adviser to the Greek Association of Export and Distribution of Fruits, Vegetables and Juices, Incofruit Hellas, states that “in Greece, 13,323 hectares of tomatoes were grown in 2017 and 878,770 tons of tomatoes were produced, of which 540,308 tons were intended for fresh consumption and 338,447 tons for processing. From the 8,583 hectares producing fresh tomatoes, 5,917 hectares were field crops which produced 230,653 tons of tomatoes.”
“With regards to tomato production, the largest arable area in Greece is located in Crete, but most tomatoes go to the Greek market,” confirms Mr Alexandros Vourtsakis, CEO at Hellenic Farming SA. “In fact, exports take place mostly during winter, when the number of tourists in the country is at its lowest,” he discloses.
Mr Aristides Molfetas, Commercial Director at Karantinos SA explains that “tomato is a significant crop for merchants, since it can be distributed to all three channels of the market –modern trade, wholesale or the HoReCa channel– and is directly linked to the Mediterranean diet. In addition, Greek climate ensures that our country produces the best tomatoes. And since prices are more or less fixed, the only way to differentiate is by investing in quality and flavor. Therefore, we urge tomato farmers to certify their products (many of them are looking into the GlobalGAP accreditation) and I think they have finally realized that in order to sell and, especially, export their produce, they need to get certain internationally recognized certificates.”
Traceability is also very important. Greek farmers and tomato suppliers are strictly adhering to the latest legislation as well as exploring all the newest trends concerning safety, innovation, and consistency in size, color and flavor. According to Mr Vourtsakis, the latter is assured by “choosing the right tomato varieties and by using specific farming methods, such as hydroponics. Specifically, in the case of hydroponics –a rising type of cultivation– we can provide plants with all the necessary nutrients according to their stage of development, exactly when they need them.”

Increased international prospects for Greek tomatoes

Although its production only accounts for a tiny proportion of the global processing output (1.2%), Greece is one of the rare countries whose products are exported all around the world. About 15 destinations absorb most of the tomato products exported by the Greek industry, in Europe as well as the Middle East, the Far East, the US, etc. In total, more than 40 countries worldwide import and consume significant quantities of pastes, canned tomatoes and sauces of Greek origin. This widespread commercial distribution, based on operations that are 80 percent focused on foreign markets, means that Greece was able to rank 10th in 2017 among worldwide paste exporters, 4th among canned tomato exporters and 35th among exporters of sauces. In terms of revenue, the country ranked 13th worldwide with a turnover for its exports of 62 million euros (approximately $76 million on average over the past five marketing years).
“Things have changed regarding exports,” says Mr George Polychronakis. “There has been a partial adaptation of the tomato crops to new varieties addressing the requirements of the international markets and exports are picking up. In fact, fresh tomato exports have increased approximately 7.1 percent in volume between the years 2017 and 2018 and 9.4 percent in terms of value for the same period.    ”
By refocusing production on more elaborate product categories, the Greek industry has initiated a new set of dynamics that is more than likely to carry fruit in the years to come. Already, the value of each ton of raw tomatoes for distribution in foreign markets has been greatly improved in recent years: over the past 20 years, the value of each ton exported has grown from 112-113 euros to 207-208 euros.
“Greek tomatoes are in many ways superior to their counterparts from other countries. For one, they are grown in a clean environment and they are free from pesticide residues –pesticides are not necessary in Greece,” confirms Mr Polychronakis. “As a result, there is a strong interest from other countries. Specifically, Thessaloniki and the Lasithi prefecture in Crete export mostly towards the Balkans and the countries of Central Europe, as do the prefectures of Heraklion and Chania, also in Crete, Messinia in the Peloponnese, and the regions of Imathia, Thesprotia and Thrace in Northern Greece.” He also mirrors the belief that Greek organic tomatoes are very popular both in Greece and abroad, stating that they have a significant export potential not only in the Balkans, but also in other international destinations.

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