'Sustainability is a step beyond organic': Regenerative food production in Crete

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability Food quality Food safety

Confusion still exists today between organic and sustainable practices and food producers are not doing enough to keep the eco-system alive, according to Greek social cooperative Local Food Experts.

The term 'sustainability' is somewhat over-used. To counter this a new movement focusing on ‘regeneration’ is evolving, connecting the land with the farmers, utilising practices that sequester carbon to build soil health, promoting biodiversity and informing consumers where their food was produced and how it was farmed. 

Regenerative food


FoodNavigator visits one movement putting this concept into practice with farmers in Crete.

Here, Local Food Experts has partnered with the TUI Care Foundation (part of TUI Group) to create the ‘Crete – First Steps Towards a Sustainable Food Destination​’ project, which aims to spur change in food production.

The project is working with farmers to promote regenerative agricultural practices such as replanting indigenous seeds, which would otherwise become extinct, returning to a traditional form of farming to produce sustainable - not necessarily organic - products and re-fertilising the soil in the process. 

As a result of this movement, food production in Crete is progressively changing. Over the last two years, the island is slowly coming out of the financial crisis which hit Greece in 2007 and Crete is now entering a new chapter after electing Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis this month.

The 'First Steps'​ project defines ‘sustainable’ production as encompassing the whole food system: from how the farm is managed to how the crop is grown. It looks at if the water is used efficiently; promotes crop diversification to enhance the soil health and conserve land resources; supports energy efficiently and the use of renewable energy such as wind, solar, or water-based power; and considers the way the product gets packaged and transported sustainably to the consumer.

Kostas Bouyouris, chief projects officer, Local Food Experts, said in the past farmers in Crete felt isolated after the hotel industry changed the landscape of the island by recruiting the younger generation who no longer wanted to work on the land with their families. This often left the produce and the land to decline. 

The association was co-founded in 2013 by Bouyouris and a group of scientists and field experts in tourism and agriculture. It partnered with TUI Austria in 2016 connecting food tourism with sustainable farming projects.

The goal of the foundation, together with its other partners Futouris and blueContec, is to achieve sustainable regional development by linking the local agriculture with the tourism sector under the umbrella of sustainability.

Currently the project includes: 192 farmers on the island, five hotel groups, three food production units (for wine, olive oil and cereals), two wineries, one agri co-op and a monastery. 

In Crete the farmers don’t work towards a legal European framework of what is organic. It is based more on self-assessment and traditional methods of farming, which in itself is sustainable. There exists today confusion among consumers regarding what is organic and sustainable​,” said Bouyouris. 

Our initiative works to improve soil quality. Sustainability is a step beyond organic, because it works better on behalf of the communities and for the environment​.” 

Michalakis Estate

Two wineries taking part in the project are Lyrarakis Winery and Michalakis Estate, who are reintroducing Cretan grapes such as Plyto and Dafni and saving them from extinction. 

Greek wine and olive growers currently face stiff competition from Italian and Spanish farmers to earn enough money in the aftermath of the Greek economic crisis between 2007–2008. The crisis led to a series of sudden reforms and austerity measures which saw impoverishment and loss of income and property in the country and revelations that previous data on government debt levels and deficits had been under-reported by the Greek authorities. 

Thanks to the project, Michalakis Estate cultivates its land using sustainable practices and has successfully grown and launched nine wines using indigenous grape varieties from the island. This year it won a silver medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards for its Vidiano white wine.

Angeliki Iatrou, communications manager, Michalakis Estate, said Cretan indigenous varieties Vidiano, Thrapsathiri, Plyto, Dafni, Muscat of Spina and Malvasia di Candia, are cultivated on the slopes of the Michalakis Estate, together with the classic locals, Vilana, Kotsifali and Mandilaria. 

With the grape varieties (white; Dafni, Vilana, Vidiano, Plyto and black; Kotsifali and Mandilari) it has produced nine wines; Dafni Michalakis Estate, Vilana Michalakis Estate, Vidiano Michalakis Estate, Plyto Michalakis Estate; Variental White, Variental Rose, Variental Red and an organic white and red. 

At the Orthodox Agios Georgios Epanosifi monastery the 27 monks who live there harvest grapes for wine and olives to send to local presses. The Very Reverend Bartholomew and Reverend Akakios have donated 90% of their land to the local farmers to cultivate olive groves. The remaining 10% belongs to the monastery where they make wine and produce cereals from the grains. To them, organic is traditional or biological farming. 

This is a monastery which is in close relation with the local society​,” said Bouyouris. 

They have a very extensive part of land which is around 1,200 hectares, and 600 hectares of this land is around the monastery. Half of it, 300 hectares are cultivated with grains, grapes and olives. Grains and grapes are managed by the monastery itself together with 10% of the olive land. The rest of the 90% of the olives are managed together with the local people and then they are sharing the production. This is very important for us because it is a way of communicating sustainable agriculture and sustainable development to local residents.​ 

Religion itself and the monastery believe in treating the land in the proper way. Not adding too much input, trusting the fertility of the land so that they can get a good crop. The methods they apply is very close to the idea of organic and sustainable agriculture so it was not very hard to switch to the methods we were suggesting​. 

The most challenging thing for us was to communicate and transfer the practices to the local farmers. So we invited them to the monastery to communicate with them the agricultural practices for them to consider. Many of the farmers realised they were already applying sustainable practices and we have 20% of farmers now participating in the project and we expect this number to double in the next couple of years​."   

Kritsa olive oil

Another example, is the agricultural co-operative of Kritsa, one of the first co-operatives to apply what we call ‘common’ production. Common production of olive oil is where all the members bring their olives and the olive oil that is produced is put into one common tank so there is a unified quality​. 

As part of the project we invited the co-operative to separate a part of their area, where the olive cultivation is done in a more traditional way, because the area is remote and rocky and we had 120 farmers participating in the project. They were also asked to apply sustainable self-assessed methods of farming so this year we have the first ‘self-assessed’ produced olive oil which can be marketed​. 

It was interesting for us to realise that young people, who are members of the co-operative together with the older members were applying traditional practices for cultivating their olive groves, so they were very much accustomed to the ideas and practices we were suggesting to them and we realise that sustainability as a word might not be known among these people but sustainability as a concept is a well-established thinking on how we treat the land​. 

This gives us the incentive to realise that people are ready to accept sustainability and they are ready to improve the methods of food production," ​Bouyouris said. 

According to Euromonitor, global attention on sustainability has skyrocketed over the last five years, in line with the growing pressures on natural resources and climate change combined with an increase in conscious consumption and ethical living (‘Business Sustainability Game Changers’, Maria Coronado Robles. 2019).

There are three sustainability trends that are reshaping businesses across all industries, with implications for all players across the value chain, from raw materials and product manufacturers to logistics companies and retailers. Businesses that embrace ethical living, the circular economy and sustainable packaging will make headway in enhancing their brand image and reputation and winning over more ethical and demanding consumers.

However, there is a gap between consumers’ willingness to minimise their impact on the environment and the purchasing decision, as they still rank efficacy, value and aesthetics as key desired properties.

The higher price of ethical products, along with the lack of transparency and traceability across the supply chain, prevents consumers from making more ethical decisions. Understanding where products come from, as well as how materials were sourced, transported, and manufactured, could make a difference in the willingness to pay more for ethical products. Early adoption of novel technology to track supply chains offers a huge opportunity for companies with strong sustainability commitments.

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