37% of organic farmland in Greece accounts for olive trees, making them the second largest bio cultivation in the country after cereal and rice.

Story: Vana Antonopoulou

The market of organic food is growing strongly in Greece, after a long period of inactivity. This particular fact together with a significant increase in organic exports has led Greek growers to undergo a change in mentality. They’ve implemented organic methods in their production and work on obtaining GlobalGAP certification for their products and farming methods. In fact, with regard to organic farmland, Greece is currently in 10th place within the EU, accounting for 3.3% of total European organic crop area.

As far as permanent crops, such as olives, are concerned, the organic area in the EU amounts to more than 1.2 million hectares. In 2015, olive groves represented 34% of all organic permanent crops in the EU-28, with 454,227 hectares. Most of them are located in Spain (197,136 ha), Italy (179,886 ha), Greece and Portugal (21,766 ha), while the largest part of the production of organic olives in Member States together is utilized for the production of oil.

In Greece, the number of organic olive area appears to have peaked in 2008 with 64,136 hectares, followed by a declining path. Organic grove numbers, however, are currently fluctuating, amounting to 47,605 hectares in 2015 and representing 0.72% of total utilized agricultural area, while rising to 0.75% in 2016 according to the latest estimates by Eurostat.

The evolution of the organic olive area in Greece

Source: Eurostat data on the basis of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production.

Organic table olives

In average, approximately 5,000-6,000 tons of organic processed table olives are produced each year, with 60% accounting for Kalamata olives and 40% for green olives (mostly of the Konservolia variety and a minimum of Chalkidiki). In addition, about 90% of Greek organic table olives is exported. And the numbers will only keep going up. According to Mr Georgios Doutsias, Chairman of DOEPEL (Interprofessional Organization of Table Olives), organic table olives are a growing trend, which will keep expanding over the next years. “Greek table olives are exported mainly in the so-called ‘expensive’ markets, which are more environment and health sensitive. That’s why they are constantly asking for more bio products and, in our case, more bio table olives. This trend will only keep growing, probing even more Greek olive growers to go organic.”

“In Greece, olive trees are sprayed with pesticides using biological agents. In fact, dacus bait, an eco-friendly way to get rid of the destructive fruit fly, is most commonly used, and therefore, the level of active substances is extremely low,” explains Mr Doutsias. “But the fact remains that however healthy and environmentally-friendly conventional Greek table olives may be –and they do have a competitive advantage compared to olives from other countries– there is also a growing demand in purely organic products, forcing a small but steady increase in production.”

The case for Greek organic olive oil

According to Mr Kostas Liris, agronomic engineer/oleologist and judge at the prestigious NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, there has been a gradual increase in Greek organic EVOOs for many years now, but the rate remains very low. “Sometimes it is hard to find an organic olive oil with excellent chemical and organoleptic characteristics –in fact, occasionally, non-organic olive oils are better. And almost always, at least as far as Greek EVOOs are concerned, there are no pesticide residues, even in the non-organic ones. You see, Greeks never spray excessively their olive groves,” he explains.

Mr Yiorgos Economou, General Manager at SEVITEL (Association of Hellenic Industries for the Standardization of Olive Oil) concurs that “even conventional olive groves are somewhat organic in Greece, since farmers employ traditional cultivation practices with limited use of pesticides. In fact, in recent years, the most dangerous pesticides have been banned and aerial spraying of crops has stopped altogether.”

Vassiliki Roussi, certification manager at Bio Hellas, an organic certification body, adds that “recently, there’s been an increase in organic olive oil processing. Organic olive groves have always been there, but, in the past, there was no way to access the markets. Nowadays, you see the processing sector rising, helping Greek EVOOs travel all over the world.”

Find out more about Greek organic products.