Crete Needs to Restore its Gastronomic Heritage

Culinary expert Nikki Rose says Crete has wandered far from its roots as the “Garden of Greece,” losing traditional farms, villages, and cuisine in the process. Mass tourism has been partly responsible, and sustainable tourism could help reverse the trend, restoring Crete’s traditional, organic, more ecologically suitable agricultural methods. Consumer demand for health and gastronomy is on the rise. Catering to it could help Crete restore its 4,000-year-old agricultural heritage and once-robust ecosystem. The approach called “agro-ecology” shows the way.

Tourism in Crete can thrive anew with the farming ways of old

by Nikki Rose

Horiatiki, traditional Greek salad, on the coast of Crete. Photo: Nikki Rose.

People relying on tourism for their livelihood can make their industry more vibrant and progressive by forming alliances with organic farmers and agroecology programs. Both residents and visitors will benefit.

In March 2020, the Greek Ministry of Tourism and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council signed a Cooperation Agreement to harmonize the Greek tourism industry with international standards for sustainable tourism. Greek Minister of Tourism, Harry Theoharis, said “Our major goal is the restart of Greek tourism sector after the pandemic, capitalizing on sustainable tourism thematics, such as diving tourism, gastronomy tourism and mountain tourism….”

Travelers interested in these themes, especially gastronomy, are typically well informed supporters of organic food production and conservation. Consumer demand for organic food is increasing around the world. Data from 2018 reports the global organic market at over USD100 billion and growing. There are 2.8 million organic producers worldwide.

Agroecology entails more than producing food without toxins. It integrates conservation of indigenous traditional knowledge and food self-sufficiency. Agroecological farming has been shown to increase ecological resilience, improve health and nutrition, conserve biodiversity and natural resources, improve economic stability, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Agroecology aligned with sustainable tourism can also help us achieve several UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As tourism begins to recover from the conoravirus crisis, there’s an opportunity for residents of Greece to incorporate the concept of agroecology in the process. The island of Crete provides an excellent example of lessons learned and ignored.

Crete, the “Garden of Greece”

Crete’s Minoan history, mythology, and agricultural and culinary artifacts can teach us about our future. Four millenniums ago, the Minoans showed respect for nature, living in harmony with it. In the ancient city of Knossos, a sign reads: Pasi Theis Meli– Honey is Offered to All Gods. Around the world today, our bees and other pollinators are being killed by pesticides. This is a serious threat to our food supply, farmers’ livelihoods, and traditional cuisine. The notion of promoting “gastronomy tourism” is moot until we protect our pollinators.

Beekeeper, eastern Crete. “The notion of promoting gastronomy tourism is moot until we protect our pollinators.”  Photo: Nikki Rose

The traditional Mediterranean Diet is on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list. Studies conducted in Crete before the introduction of industrial farming noted a primarily vegetarian diet based on wild sources and traditional organic cultivation. Today, only six percent of land in Greece is farmed using sustainable organic methods.

Crete is known as “The Garden of Greece,” but most commercial agriculture today is subsidized industrial monoculture and greenhouse farming. Small-scale organic farmers cannot compete in this “Big Ag” system. Yet this system has not worked well for years. Boreholes have depleted natural aquifers, causing desertification, biodiversity and soil depletion. Production decreases as climate crises increase, impacting all farmers and beekeepers. Amid archaeological sites dating back thousands of years you can find recently abandoned villages. All of the small-scale farmers and artisans are gone, along with their resilient communities.

Large tourist resorts can encroach on communities, increasing the cost of living and doing business. All-inclusive resorts import the majority of their food and stifle local business by their “no need to leave our compound” model. These resorts also extract large amounts of Crete’s natural resources, including fresh water, and erode biodiversity.

The Value of a Holistic Approach

Greece has a unique opportunity to support Community-Based Sustainable Tourism (CBST) and Agroecology, because some rural communities still exist and there are many organic farmers still struggling to make a living amid numerous barriers. There are well-established agricultural cooperatives producing organic food and beverages. There is a high percentage of organic-biodynamic vintners in Crete and other regions of Greece.

A CBST agroecology approach covers every section of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria:
A) Sustainable management, stakeholder engagement;
B) Socio-economic stability, social wellbeing;
C) Cultural sustainability, protecting cultural heritage;
D) Environmental sustainability, conservation of natural heritage.
That includes several aspects in particular:

Community benefits: Greece can collaborate with appropriate experts to support organic producers by providing incentives, training, and establishing sales and distribution structures that rely not just on tourism or exports but every avenue of opportunity, such as schools, hospitals, museums, and events. CBST initiatives in collaboration with neighbors involved in the arts, artisan food production, natural medicine, ecology, history, education, and small-scale accommodation will help to sustain resilient societies, better able to withstand tourism crises like coronavirus.

Youth: Greece’s financial crisis has triggered a “brain drain” of young, well-educated Greeks emigrating to seek a better life. One priority for Greece is to create opportunities for the youth to earn a real living at home. Rather than emigrating, many young Greeks have returned to their family’s villages to open small businesses, including organic farmer cooperatives. They are striving to sustain the life they cherish, which also appeals to many visitors. European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides said, “…without prospering farmers, we will not ensure food security. Without a healthy planet, farmers will have nowhere to farm.”

To promote Greece’s cultural heritage and gastronomy, we need to support our suppliers first

Fisheries: The small-scale fisheries industry, nostalgically depicted on postcards, is near extinction. Large-scale illegal operations throughout the Mediterranean, overfishing, and water pollution are depleting precious seafood supplies and poisoning aquatic species. Greece’s current 24% value-added tax rate is pushing small-scale traditional tradespeople out of business, including taverna owners. In order to promote Greece’s cultural heritage and gastronomy, we need to support our suppliers first.

Heritage plants: Local heirloom seeds provide the foundation for our extraordinary traditional cuisine. Policies that support industrial farming threaten their extinction. The Global Movement for Seed Freedom is growing, including the well-established Peliti in Greece.

Peliti Heirloom Seed Festival, Paranesti, Crete. Photo: Nikki Rose

Agronomist Stella Hatzigeorgiou, co-founder of Melitakes agricultural cooperative and heirloom seed festival in Pirgos, Crete, said: “Heirloom seeds contain multiple genotypes that give them strength to adapt to external changes, such as climate changes. Their resilience increases good harvests, and farmers have their own seeds for the next season. Plants from local seeds are well adapted to local climatic and soil conditions and external enemies (insects, fungi, bacteria). And rich natural biodiversity is crucial for all healthy cultivation.”

The Time Is Now

On May 20, 2020 the European Commission adopted a “Biodiversity Strategy and a Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system. The two strategies are mutually reinforcing, bringing together nature, farmers, business and consumers for jointly working towards a competitively sustainable future.” These strategies require support of the EU Common Agricultural Policy/Green Deal, Member States, and farmers, but it’s a positive start, which includes:

  • Reducing dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reducing excess fertilisation, increasing organic farming, improving animal welfare, and reversing biodiversity loss.
  • Protecting and restoring well-functioning ecosystems to boost resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future diseases.

Agroecology should not be marginally connected with tourism, whether we call it agritourism, wine tourism, or gastronomy tourism. Real, safe food should be embedded into everyday life wherever we live or travel. Agroecology programs can increase the number of visitors supporting conservation programs. If we collaborate with our organic farmers and their communities, we can help leave a legacy of a healthier planet and food system for generations to come.

Appendix: For More on Agroecology
Content as provided by Nikki Rose

Agronomist Dr. Vassilis Gkisakis, at the Hellenic Mediterranean University, Agroecology Greece, and Agroecology Europe said, “A major initiative of Agroecology Greece/Europe is the education of agronomists and training of farmers, not just in sustainable farming practices but also in a holistic, systemic approach to agriculture.” For further research, see:

Nikki Rose

About Nikki Rose

Founder & Director, Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries Culinary Network, www.cookingincrete.com, celebrating Crete’s cultural and natural heritage An award-winning program for best practices.

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