Nov 172015
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

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The transcript of Dialogos Radio’s interview with Panagiotis Oikonomidis of Greece’s “No Middlemen Movement.” This interview aired on our broadcasts for the week of November 5-11, 2015. Find the podcast of this interview here.

MN: Joining us today on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series is Panagiotis Oikonomidis from the “No Middlemen Movement,” or Κίνημα Χωρίς Μεσάζοντες, in Greece. Oikonomidis will speak to us about the movement and its work in crisis-hit Greece, and more broadly on issues that have to do with local food production and the social economy in Greece. Panagiotis, thank you for joining us today.

PO: Great to be here with you and with your listeners.

MN: To get us started, share with us an introduction to the No Middle-Men Movement and what it does.

PO: Specifically, I am part of a group named “Breaking Up the Middle Men,” which is located in Petroupolis, one of the suburbs of Athens. This group is a member of the national No Middle-Men Movement. All of these local organizations, all of these solidarity groups which comprise the social economy in Greece through the national structure of the No Middlemen Movement, are interconnected with each other. This movement, aside from dealing with the practical issues of coordination and the exchange of information and know-how, also meets the needs which are expressed collectively through the national network of the No Middlemen Movement.

MN: Share with us some history about the No Middlemen Movement and how it first began.

PO: This movement first got started in 2012. At the time, it was first called the “Potato movement” and it got started with an initiative in the northern Greek city of Katerini from a local group there which decided to take action in response to the increasingly worsening Greek crisis and its impact on Greek society. This initiative had an immediate impact on both consumers and food producers. The founding members of this movement were attempting to find a solution that would allow them to assist both consumers and food producers at the same time, without there being any middle men involved. As you know, when an agricultural product is produced, this product is purchased by a merchant, who then usually packages it, distributes it, and resells it, before that product finally makes it to the market, whether it is on the shelves of a supermarket or at a farmer’s market.

In Greece, the farmer’s markets were revived beginning in the 1980s, as a means for farmers to bring their products direct to consumers, in specified locations within a municipality and in collaboration with the local municipal authorities. This is significant to keep in mind, because over time, these farmers’ markets have been transformed into markets which are dominated by middle men. At the present time, the best case scenario is that only perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the sellers who are at any given farmers’ market are actually farmers, while the rest are retailers and middle men.

So, as I was saying, what happens is that the product leaves the farm at its initial price, and then its price increases, both due to the fact that there is value added to the product by packaging or processing it, but also due to the profit margin of the middlemen involved. As a result, an agricultural product which might cost 35 cents per piece when it leaves the farm, reaches a cost of 1 euro and 10 cents once it hits the shelves. Obviously, this is a huge markup, and an added consequence of this market structure is that the middlemen end up wielding a tremendous deal of influence over the marketplace, allowing them to create artificial shortages of certain items, for instance, in order to inflate prices.

As the crisis in Greece deepened, all of these things, with regards to how the agricultural marketplace operates, began to rear their ugly head. This is where the No Middlemen Movement came in, to attempt to rebalance the situation, addressing the issue of cost for consumers, while also promoting the production of local, Greek-made produce. This is another extremely significant issue in Greece. There are agricultural products which are indeed produced in Greece, but there are also similar items which are imported from other countries at much lower prices and which somehow manage, through some illegal process, to end up labeled in the marketplace as products produced or grown in Greece and are promoted as such to consumers. This, of course, adversely impacts Greek agricultural production.

The No Middlemen Movement is attempting to address all of these issues, such as ensuring that items are accurately labeled as to whether they are produced in Greece or not or ensuring that they are sold at a fair price that would be good for consumers and allow them to purchase quality, locally-grown produce at an affordable price, while also guaranteeing that the farmer would earn enough in order to be able to prepare for his next harvest. The first efforts of this movement began in the city of Katerini in March of 2012 and was quickly dubbed by the media as the “Potato movement,” because the initial item that was sold were potatoes. Over time though, our movement began to provide directly to consumers a more diverse range of items, such as olive oil and honey, and at this time we offer around 90 or 100 different categories of goods.

MN: We are on the air with Panagiotis Oikonomidis of the No Middlemen Movement from Greece here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Panagiotis, with how many farmers and producers does the No Middlemen Movement presently work with throughout Greece, and how are they able to distribute their products through your network?

PO: As of the end of 2014, the No Middlemen Movement had 45 active groups operating throughout Greece. 26 of those groups are based in the Athens region. On average, 23 farmers and producers participate in each region where we are active, and between our foundation in 2012 and the end of 2014, our movement distributed a combined total amount of food totaling approximately 5,000 tons. This should give us an initial picture of what our movement has been able to accomplish during this time.

Now, how do we select farmers and producers to join our movement? Some of our criteria include that the food items offered are produced in Greece, that the individual who is joining our movement is a farmer and not a middleman or distributor, and that a fair price is offered for their goods. It is either our movement that comes in contact with a farmer or producer initially, or they can get in contact with us, either through our national network or one of our local organizations. Upon expressing their interest in participating in our movement and providing their produce to us, we ask them to name their selling price for the goods they are offering, how the food will be packaged, and from that point forward, in order to confirm that they are indeed a professional farmer, we ask for a copy of their tax return as well as for a copy of the declaration they have made to the Ministry of Agriculture, specifying the produce that they are growing and the total acreage they are dedicating to each item. This allows us to confirm that they are indeed a food producer and that the price that they have set is reasonable.

From that point, we perform a market study and determine the price levels for various goods in supermarkets, greengrocers and at the farmer’s markets, and based on that information, we agree to a final price with each producer who is interested in joining our movement. The next step is to make these items available via our website, where consumers can find an order form allowing them to pre-order for the types of items that they would like to purchase and the quantity of each item. On the day of distribution in each region, each producer sets up their stand with the produce that they are offering, and each consumer who has pre-ordered items can come by and pick up the items that they ordered, directly from the producer. The transaction, in other words, takes place directly between the producer and the consumer. Our movement does not participate at all in the final transaction.

This is the general idea as to how the No Middlemen Movement operates. There are of course small differences and variations from group to group throughout Greece, but in general each of our participating groups operates in this way.

MN: You mentioned earlier that the No Middlemen Movement is active in 45 regions throughout Greece. What are some of the areas you are active in outside of Athens, and how many families or households do you estimate have been able to obtain food and produce from your movement since its inception?

PO: There is of course our founding organization in the city of Katerini, as well as in cities such as Larissa, Volos, Rethymno in the island of Crete, Komotini, Thessaloniki, while our team in the city of Ioannina may have been inactive this past year. In Thessaloniki, our participating groups have faced many difficulties as of late and are currently in the process of reorganizing and rebuilding. They were targeted by the local farmer’s markets and by local municipalities who disagreed with the operation of the No Middle-Men Movement in the city or by groups who wanted to appropriate the actions of our movements for their own gain.

Now, in terms of how many households we have been able to provide food and produce to, we don’t have exact figures. What I can tell you though is just in the Athens region alone, we were able to provide food to 2,200 households in need, through one of the parallel actions of our movement. One of the things that the No Middlemen Movement does is that when a farmer provides part of their harvest to be sold direct to consumers through our network, our movement keeps 4 percent of the food and distributes it for free to families and households who are most in need. In 2014, the families we helped in Athens alone through this program surpassed 2,000, and so far what we have been seeing from this year’s figures is an increase of 20 to 25 percent of those numbers for this year.

MN: How does the No Middlemen Movement come in contact with households who are in need?

PO: We have a support structure in place which provides assistance to such households, either through the provision of ready-cooked meals, or through the distribution of packages of food which are comprised of food items donated through the No Middlemen Movement or which are collected by our volunteers, who stand outside of supermarkets and other establishments and ask for donations of items such as pasta or rice or flour from shoppers. These items are then sorted and distributed to households who are in need of this food. We operate through our nationwide network in order to distribute this food, and even though the percentage that we withhold from the food made available to our movement from each farmer is small, at 3 or 4 percent, the quantity adds up, if you consider that just at one market in one region we may have 15 producers who are providing a total of 10 tons of produce.

MN: We are speaking with Panagiotis Oikonomidis of the No Middlemen Movement from Greece here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Panagiotis, you mentioned earlier the fact that the No Middlemen Movement was targeted in the city of Thessaloniki…share with us more details about the various problems and challenges that your movement faces, either in terms of its outreach to the greater public, or at the hands of the government and other authorities.

PO: The No Middlemen Movement has created new conditions in the existing marketplace. Earlier, I mentioned the fact that the operation of farmers’ markets in Greek cities was restarted in the 1980s, especially in the largest cities such as Athens, Thessaloniki, Patra, and Iraklio. Conversely, farmers’ markets are les common in the smaller city, because these cities have much easier and much more direct access to their local producers, who are only a short drive away for anyone who wants to visit a farmer and buy their produce directly from them. Obviously this isn’t possible in the bigger cities, and so the farmers’ markets were reborn, even though they had actually been around since prior to World War I. Soon after the war these farmers’ markets largely disappeared from the urban landscape, but they were resurrected beginning in the 1980s, as a result of political decisions that were made at the time to combat the middle-men and their distribution networks, which had originally sprung up during the years of the military government in Greece. Along the way though, the farmers’ markets were used as a political tool, and increasingly, more and more permits were given to individuals who were not farmers, but rather wholesalers and middlemen, in direct contradiction of the whole idea of a farmers’ market.

Within the No Middlemen Movement, we are not claiming to have invented something new. What we believe we have accomplished though is to create a new method for operating something which already exists in Greece. The No Middlemen Movement operates with its members and volunteers at its core. It is a leaderless organization, without any political affiliation. It is a movement which concerns all citizens, both producers and consumers, while proving to food producers that there is another way in which the structure of food production and distribution could be organized in Greece.

Something which we need to take into account is that in the 1970s, Greece produced over 80% of the food which it consumed domestically, while today these numbers have been reversed, with 80% of food consumed in Greece being imported and only 20% produced domestically. This percentage has gradually increased over the years, as a result of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policies, and with the tacit acceptance of successive Greek governments, which never lobbied for better terms for Greek agriculture within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policies. As a result, not only is Greek agriculture and food production not supported, but farmers have grown into the habit of simply receiving a subsidy from the European Union and being satisfied with this. In the meantime, the productive capacity of Greece has been diminished. One of the things that we are trying to do as part of the No Middlemen Movement is to help revive Greek agricultural production.

The No Middle-Men Movement, as you might understand, is facing challenges not just from the middle-men and distributors themselves, the ones who are profiting off the backs of the Greek public, but also from organized political interests which support the demands of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policies and the European Union as a whole. It therefore is to be expected that we will face challenges from these circles. In terms of what actually took place in, the attacks against our movement began in 2013, perhaps because political conditions in the region were conducive to such an organized attack against us.

That same year in Athens, one of the local municipalities fought the activities of our movement, and then created his own copycat version of our movement in his municipality, apparently in an effort to score political points prior to the local elections. The biggest challenge for us though followed in 2014, when the Greek parliament passed a law concerning outdoor markets. The passage of this law led to a 10 day strike conducted by the farmers’ markets throughout Greece. Within this law, there were certain articles which pertained to the operation of farmers’ markets, while the law essentially abolished the operation of open-air markets throughout Greece. This of course encompassed farmers’ markets, as well as farmers who could stand at the side of the road with their truck and a sign and sell their produce. This was essentially abolished by law. The result of the 10 day strike which I mentioned a moment ago was for the law to be passed without the articles concerning the farmers’ markets but with all of its other clauses intact, including those covering open-air commerce more broadly. Those who were impacted were small farmers and the No Middlemen Movement, because the farmers who were participating in our movement were doing so with the permits that they already possessed as farmers to sell goods publicly in open-air locations. This covered their operations within the framework of the No Middlemen Movement. Essentially, the then-agriculture minister shelved the articles of the law which pertained to the farmers’ markets, to use them for future political pressure and clientelistic dealings, and in order to favor certain parties. This was essentially the climax of the battle against the operations of the No Middlemen Movement.

Of course, certain things have changed since then. There is now a discussion as to how the current law might be changed in some ways and how the No Middlemen Movement might be recognized, not as a body that is operating in opposition to the existing farmers’ markets, but as a complement to them. Because, as you may know, then these farmers’ markets begin operations in the morning, the items for sale are offered at a certain price, but if you go in the afternoon, before closing time, the prices on the same food may be reduced by as much as 50% compared to the starting price, as sellers are trying to get rid of inventory to avoid having to carry a large load back with them and incur higher transportation and fuel costs as well. However, this is dishonest, because if they are able to sell products at a profit at 50 cents, why is the starting price set at 1 euro or more?

The No Middlemen Movement does not operate this way. Our prices are unified, and are valid from the beginning to the end of each market we organize. It is the price which we advertise to our consumers, allowing them to budget their purchases, and we make every effort to keep these prices steady throughout the entire season. In other words, we attempt to keep the same price for each item we sell from the beginning of the season in September or October, all the way until the end of the season in June. This helps the farmers who are participating in our movement as well, since they know that they will come to our markets and be able to sell their produce, their harvest, receive their money immediately instead of being given a check, which is typically the case with the wholesalers and middlemen, and they know that they will have a steady price for the entire season. This setup allows families to budget their food purchases in advance, while the farmer knows that after every delivery of food to our movement, they will be able to pay their workers, and for their supplies, their seeds and fertilizer, their equipment and for their maintenance costs, and to plant their seeds for next year’s harvest. This setup lays the groundwork for a complete and total restructuring of the primary sector of the economy.

MN: You mentioned earlier the issue of domestic agricultural production in Greece, and despite the major decline that we have seen in recent decades in terms of production, there are statistics which show that Greece does still have self-sufficiency in certain sectors of food production even today. On a more general level, do you believe that Greece could once again become self-sustaining in terms of its food production and reduce its reliance on imported food products, and how could this take place?

PO: This is a major topic, one which we could discuss all day. Essentially you are referring to the complete restructuring of the primary sector in Greece. It is clear that our movement, the No Middle-Men Movement, is a successful example of how an alternative economic model could work and how it could ensure self-sufficiency on a small scale. At the same time, numerous scientific and university studies show that Greece could indeed once again attain self-sufficiency in terms of its food production. In fact, in many sectors of food production, Greece has the capacity to produce a plethora of food, which would allow it to export these products in exchange for food products in which it does not have enough production, allowing Greece to attain a balance of trade. For example, we used to have an overproduction of sugar, and recently, Greece’s sugar production industry was reopened once again. The surplus sugar could be traded for something else that the country needs to import. However, when you get to the point where you are unable to produce even those things which you are capable of producing, and you import these goods instead, it follows that you will run a trade deficit, that you will be forced to take loans and that you will therefore be dependent on the whims of those who are loaning money to you.

Aside from the agricultural sector though, Greece also has the capabilities to boost its capacity in the industrial sector, and particularly in the light industries and in the production of specific parts. Greece is privileged to have a well-educated, well-trained workforce, and it has the capacity to produce industrial products on demand. My belief is that Greece’s comparative advantage in terms of industrial production is not in the mass production of goods, which other countries are better able to do. Greece’s advantage is in the know-how that its workforce possesses for the production of specialized products, on demand.

Until relatively recently in Greece, around 15 or 20 years ago, there were many light industries in existence in Greece, which received subcontracts to produce specialized parts. This is Greece’s major strength in the industrial sector. And this sort of production can, of course, develop in conjunction with the development of the agricultural sector. Indeed, the agricultural sector is in need of machinery, parts, and supplies, and there is such production in Greece even now which could meet such demand. However, there needs to be a strategy and a plan in place. For instance, if you have major agricultural production in the regions of Macedonia or Thessalia, which are significant agricultural regions, you need to ensure that these regions also have producers who will make supplies, such as fertilizers or packaging or feeds, which the farmers in these regions could use, and that farmers would have local mechanics to go to in order to repair and maintain their equipment. Such industries co-existing lead to the creation of a local economic cycle. And all of this has to happen at the local level, but within a national planning framework, with a strategy as to what direction the national economy will go in.

In order for this to happen, it is necessary for the people to be on board with such change as well, as they will be the ones who will be participating in this process. No matter what we say, no matter which political forces, which government ministers, which government enforces such changes or supports them, those who will actually do the work in the fields, in the factories, and in the workshops, and those who will actually produce the wealth, are the ordinary people. Therefore, they are the ones who should have the first say over how this process of change should take place and have the belief instilled in them that such a process is possible. Such a process essentially represents a collective way in which a country can survive. It has been proven that a country cannot survive based on loans. With loans, a country is entirely dependent on its lenders, and as a consequence, it ends up being sold off, piece by piece, one airport at a time and one harbor at a time, to its lenders.

MN: We are on the air with Panagiotis Oikonomidis of the No Middlemen Movement from Greece here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Panagiotis, do you believe that the current economic model can sustain itself, or does it have an expiration date? And as a second part to this question, how do you believe that the social economy could contribute to a different economic model?

PO: Yes, I do believe that the current economic model has an expiration date. Though in the past several decades it has shown a tremendous resiliency to overcome internal crises, I would say that since 2008, it is experiencing great difficulties. The issue is that it is not simply experiencing another cyclical crisis. What we are seeing now is a basic, structural crisis of the economic system, and I believe that it has finally reached its limits. Now, how long this stage will last, it is hard to say. It could be 5 years, or 10 years or 50. It will depend on the actions of that other major factor in the economy: the people, those who produce goods, those who produce the wealth, who have begun to see that they can have a say, that they can have an opinion in the direction of the economy.

Within this framework, the structures of the social economy and the solidarity movement, which comprises the so-called “third sector” of the economy, can play a major role in improving the quality of life of the people to an extent, and also to serve as a tool of political emancipation and education for the people, to enable them to understand that they have the ability to create politics, to realize their political goals, and to create small, successful examples which could be built upon to create a broader and overriding economic structure.

This is part of the obligatory, I would say, daily political struggle, if we choose to define it in such terms. Now, the existing political and economic system has the ability, to an extent, to absorb such challenges, or to eliminate them, by force if necessary, if it cannot absorb them. However, this system cannot absorb nor can it stop everything new that is created, especially when these new structures that are being born are created completely outside the framework of the existing system. We are witnessing the birth of a new logic, of a new mode of thinking on a global scale and not just in Greece, though Greece does receive a lot of attention as a result of the crisis.

The social economy in Greece is not a fluke. We are talking about the No Middlemen Movement, with the existing family support structure, with community pharmacies and medical clinics, with community kitchens, with community tutoring pools which provide services to those students who cannot afford private lessons. It is clear that a sense of solidarity is ingrained in the Greek culture. What has changed though, particularly in terms of politics? The indignants’ movement, which spilled out into the streets in 2011 and 2012, the mass demonstrations and gatherings which took place, gave the people the opportunity to think, to learn, and to act. When these movements were violently suppressed, the participants of these movements returned to their local communities and brought with them all of the know-how and experience that they had attained, and began to implement it at the neighborhood level. Therefore, it could be said that this network of solidarity movements that we are seeing today is a continuation of the mass demonstrations of 2011 and 2012. The two are connected.

And to be clear, I am talking about solidarity movements, which are separate from NGOs. To give you an example, right now we are seeing the tremendous crisis with the refugees who are arriving from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The first people who arrived on the scene to assist these refugees came from the solidarity movements which I have been talking about, whereas after the end of the summer, after their summer vacations in international resorts, only then did the members of various NGOs show up. However, these NGOs only operate in economic terms, meaning that they will only participate and take action if they have first received funding. And so, we have seen various NGOs that were formed 15 or 20 years ago and which were continuously pursuing funding from European and Greek state sources, who are suddenly presenting themselves as groups who have been formed to help the refugees, but which in reality are organizations behind which are people who have close relations with previous government regimes in Greece.

What is noteworthy about this whole situation is the fact that the ordinary people, if you follow tools such as Facebook, support those structures which have a direct relationship with society, with those volunteers who are your next door neighbors, people the local communities know and see every day, people whom the local communities know are not profiting from such a crisis, because they are volunteers in the genuine sense. We are not talking about volunteerism in the sense that we saw it in Greece during the Athens 2004 Olympics, during a time of national euphoria, when there was a call for volunteers at the Olympic Games simply to solve the economic problem of the games’ organizers, bringing in volunteers while huge sums of money were consumed elsewhere. By all means I am not speaking poorly of those who volunteered, their intentions were good, but perhaps they did not realize that they essentially fell into a trap, that someone else pocketed money that had been allocated for the work that they ultimately performed as volunteers.

MN: In closing, where can our listeners find out more information about the No Middlemen Movement?

PO: There is a structure within our movement known as “Solidarity For All,” which pays a central organizing role in terms of collecting information and connecting our various local organizations. Its website is at www.solidarity4all.gr. On this site, you can find continuous updates about our movement’s actions and its structure. Our annual report for 2014 is also posted, which is available in English, French, German, and Spanish, in the international section of our website. This report contains a tremendous amount of information, both from international statistics, as well as data that our movement has collected. Also from our website, any citizen can find out about our movement’s actions at a local, neighborhood basis and can find out what is happening in their area and can come in contact with their local group.

MN: Well Panagiotis, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and best of luck with your continued efforts!

PO: I thank you as well for your efforts, because while groups like ours are able to tackle the issue of solidarity on a local and national level, there is also the issue of global solidarity, and it is radio programs like yours which play a major role in this regard. So we thank you for your efforts and for your invitation.

MN: Thank you once more!

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