We are what we eat

The Greeks’ relationship with the Cretan diet, as the Mediterranean diet could also be termed, is typical of their relationship with their country’s culture and its natural and architectural beauty: In less than two generations we have managed to squander the wealth that was refined by centuries – if not millennia – of acquired wisdom. In the past five decades we have seen our old way of life destroyed, the cobbled paths of villages bulldozed into dust, coastlines covered in cement, rivers and ravines poisoned by garbage, towns and villages stripped of green and smothered by cars. So is it any wonder that we would violate the very foundations of our lifestyle – our diet?

We are fortunate that we can still enjoy the benefits of a long tradition of healthy eating, thanks to the momentum that drives most Greeks to seek out quality in what they consume. People who have grown up eating the oily “magirefta” foods, such as lentils etc, which their mothers and grandmothers cooked, will be more likely to select them when the opportunity arises than will the children who are growing up on a staple of red meat, fried potatoes and a range of other foods that are overwhelmingly rich in calories and which lead to obesity and ill health.

Here we see the dangerous confluence of tradition with the its breakdown: The older generation – today’s grandmothers – who grew up during the long years of deprivation want to make sure that their darlings are getting plenty to eat; but what they eat today is not what they would have been eating yesterday, when fast-food outlets and processed foods were not an option. Lifestyles also changed along with our diet. The majority of Greeks no longer live in the countryside and, of those who do, fewer of them are involved in agriculture. And even farmers have pickup trucks and mechanical equipment that save them from long walks and heavy lifting. The result: People who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were at a comparable age are also overindulging in food, cigarettes and drinks.

From a hard life that was forced on them by their hard land, the Greeks went straight to the luxuries that their grandparents would never have imagined. With the serious lack of organized (and mandatory) school sports, very few children build up the physiques and the character to help them cope with their future sedentary lifestyles. And so we became a nation of “soft people,” the “malthakoi” that the ancient Greeks so abhorred. Prizing a sound mind in a sound body, they would surely have been horrified to see the modern Greeks surrender to the excesses of the good life. In fact, they would probably have blamed the country’s many ills on the fact that citizens had given up the rigors of physical and mental exercise and were allowing their children to grow up fat and idle.

Fortunately, the healthy solution is at our fingertips. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil and the other features of the Cretan diet are all readily available year-round and are still cheaper than most other options. Clever businessmen understand that people want to eat healthy food but may not always have the time to cook, so even some fast-food franchises tailor their menus to reflect this. What we need now is for even cleverer people to marry the beneficial ingredients of the Cretan diet with our changing lifestyle, creating ready-to-eat meals that are actually good for us. But perhaps the most effective way to get Greeks to eat right is to force school canteens to carry only healthy food, not their greasy, sweet or highly processed fare. As all the healthy ingredients are produced in Greece, we will attain healthier bodies as well as a healthier economy: Not only will we import less, but a successful brand of healthy food would be a great product to export.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009


The Greeks’ migrations

The history of the Greeks is an endless river that springs up from the depths of central Asia and acquires a homeland at the bottom of the Balkan peninsula, across the Aegean and in Asia Minor. From there, like blood pumped by a powerful heart, Greeks spread out across the world. The fate of their homeland – the prosperity or hardships of little Greece – always determined the emigration or return of its children. After they conquered the area we now know as Greece, the Greek tribes quickly expanded – either through the creation of colonies around the Mediterranean and Black seas or through war (such as the Trojan War and Alexander’s conquests), or through trade. The lack of arable land and shortage of other natural riches forced the Greeks to become seafarers, mercenaries and merchants. They learned the art of survival far from friends and family – they became the first cosmopolitans, the first global citizens.  As adventurers, they opened roads and created Greek settlements, large and small, everywhere – from the deserts of the ancient Middle East to the suburbs of Melbourne.
The past century saw great developments in the Greeks’ migrations, an epic that has still not found its poet. With the opening up of the “new world” of the Americas, Oceania and Africa, hundreds of thousands of Greeks left their villages in search of a better life. They took root far from their homeland, creating new hearths of Hellenism far from the familiar coasts of the seas near Greece. But the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the persecution of the Greeks of Turkey and Stalin’s deportation of Greeks from the Crimea and the Caucasus, pushed Greeks deep into central Asia again – but also resulted in more than a million coming to Greece. This new blood (rich with the experience, wealth and inventiveness that Greeks acquire when the live abroad), strengthened the anemic Greek state, which only found its current form after World War II. At the same time, hunger and the stifling horizons of post-war Greece pushed tens of thousand of young Greeks to leave for Australia, Germany, Belgium and other countries in search of hope and prosperity. Also, many students who studied abroad realized that only outside Greece could they fulfill their expectations, that only as emigrants would they be judged according to their merit and be paid according to their worth. With the billions of euros that flowed into Greece from the European Union, it was no longer poverty that forced the more restless, the more daring Greeks to seek their fate elsewhere. Now it was the lack of opportunity and the thirst for knowledge that inspired the descendants of ancient mariners to migrate.
In the past few years, things have changed once again. Instead of poor Greeks leaving, poor foreigners are coming to Greece while it is the Greeks with the education and means to do so who have been seeking their fortune elsewhere. The foreign immigrants gave new life to Greece’s countryside, propped up the social security funds and helped complete major construction projects.
Now the global economic crisis is laying bare all the problems of Greece. In addition to the dysfunctional  social, educational and political systems, our economic problems can no longer be hidden behind borrowed prosperity. The lack of competitiveness (for which Greek workers are the least to blame) and debt are undermining the future. The problems faced by other countries are leading to a drop in tourism: the money that we were used to waiting for will not be coming, we will have to seek it elsewhere.
The solution for Greeks has always been to look beyond their country’s limits. The Balkans, the Arab states, Russia and Turkey were always favored areas for trade and settlement. In these regions the Greek presence has withered or disappeared, but the past acts like a beachhead for the future. Greek communities in foreign lands – as well as isolated professors, students, contract workers, sailors and entrepreneurs – are like firm stepping stones in history’s river. They show that for those who dare, home is not just the hard and beautiful country of their birth or ancestry, but the Earth itself.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 13 April 2009

Rich, poor and precious land

Last Tuesday, after months of violent demonstrations, the president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, was overthrown when the island nation’s army threw its weight behind the young leader of the opposition, Andry Rajoelina. The new president moved immediately to cancel a deal with South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics for the 99-year lease of one million hectares of land for crop cultivation. «The land of Madagascar is not for sale nor for rent,» the 34-year-old president declared, closing an issue that had provoked an outpouring of rage among the Indian Ocean island’s 20 million people. Most of the world, beset by the consequences of the global economic crisis, took little notice. But the developments in Madagascar will have caused serious headaches wherever rich countries are thinking of exploiting large tracts of land in other countries for their own benefit. In the past year, several countries that have a cash surplus but a shortage of arable land and water have been looking for ways to guarantee their food supply. The chief reason has been 2008’s sudden rise in the price of staple foods, which, though 50 percent off their peak, remain about 28 percent higher than in 2006. Worse, however, is the fact that the tight supply of food prompted many exporting nations, such as India, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam and Argentina, to curb exports so as to safeguard their own supplies. Countries that depend on imports began to worry that they might face social and political unrest if they could not find food on the open market. Saudi Arabia, which subsidizes the price of rice for its people, started looking into the possibility of cultivating land in Sudan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. A few weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that the first rice grown abroad by Saudi Arabian investors was presented to King Abdullah. The rice was grown in Ethiopia, which is experiencing serious food shortages of its own, with 11 million of its 80 million inhabitants being directly dependent on food aid from the United Nations.

Saudi investors, subsidized by their government, have concluded a similar deal with Sudan – another one of 32 countries that need direct food aid from abroad. The United Arab Emirates is examining the possibility of cultivating land in Kazakhstan and Sudan; Libya is thinking of doing the same in Ukraine; China is exploring possibilities in southeast Asia and Africa. The idea makes sense: If countries that have money but little arable land cooperate with those that have land but are short of cash, both sides stand to gain. But already we can see the danger of rich countries making deals at the expense of the population of poorer ones. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, used to be a strong supporter of such foreign investment in food cultivation, but he is becoming concerned. ‘The risk is of creating a neo-colonial pact for the provision of non-value-added raw materials in the producing countries and unacceptable work conditions for agricultural workers,’ Diouf said last August. The nightmare scenario is that rich countries will exploit the land at the expense of the native populations, which are usually closely tied to the land both emotionally and practically through subsistence farming. Tensions will therefore be high. Also, such farming is likely to focus on maximum production with minimal environmental safeguards. Furthermore, if large amounts of foodstuffs are taken off the free market through such bilateral deals, then supplies for the rest of the world will be even tighter, leading to even stiffer price hikes, at a time when 963 million people are already malnourished.According to the FAO, the increasing global population and socio-economic development demand a doubling of food production by 2050. For food prices to remain reasonably stable, this entails a 50 percent increase in irrigation and an additional 100-200 million hectares of arable land. (To appreciate these figures: In Greece, some 1.1 million hectares are under permanent cultivation.) Arable land, like water, is fast becoming a strategic asset. Every nation will have to calculate the value of its land anew and give it the protection that it deserves, showing it respect as the ultimate renewable source of wealth, power and sustenance. In the extensive redistribution of wealth being carried out across the globe these days, the value of land and its potential must be part of any new dispensation.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 23 March 2009