Greek fires decimate honey sector, opening floodgates for cheap, fraudulent imports

Greece stands to lose as much as 10,000 tonnes of honey per year for the next 30 years - totalling 300,000 tonnes over the coming decades. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The wildfires that swept across Greece this summer have decimated the country’s beekeeping sector, leaving it vulnerable to a barrage of cheap and potentially fraudulent honey imports, EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA has warned.

According to best estimates, more than 10,000 bee hives have been destroyed by the fires this summer, leaving the market up to 10,000 tonnes short of the coveted Pinetree honey this year, according to Federico Facchin, policy advisor and honey expert at COPA-COGECA.

One of the worst hit areas included the country’s most productive honey regions, the island of Evia, which accounts for as much as a third of Greece’s honey production.

According to the latest figures from 2019, Greece produced just over 22,000 tonnes of honey, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), with pine honey accounting for 70% of the total production.

“For a sector which is already under pressure, this is yet another blow,” Facchin stressed.

While support is on hand in the short term, including up to €70 per hive from national insurance programmes and €12 per hive in EU support, the real problem will be in the long run, according to Facchin.

Pointing out that it takes 30 years for a pine forest to mature, he said the repercussions of the fires will be felt for years to come.

As such, he estimated that Greece stands to lose as much as 10,000 tonnes of honey per year for the next 30 years – totalling 300,000 tonnes over the coming decades – and that things are just set to worsen for the sector with the advent of climate change.

EU honey harvests feel the sting of climate change with record losses

Honey harvests dropped by 40% this year, on the back of extreme weather conditions, according to EU farmers association COPA-COGECA, who sounded the alarm and warned that the sector urgently needs help from the European Commission.

The loss of this coveted crop has sparked concerns of a surge in imports, bringing with it an increased risk for potential food fraud.

“If we are going to lose this quantity of honey, but consumers will continue to ask and look for honey on the shelves, then the inevitable consequence of this will be an increase in honey imports into the EU,” the pointed out.

The EU is the second-largest world producer of honey after China, with around 280,000 tonnes of honey a year. Besides its agricultural importance, the sector is also vitally important for pollination.

However, around 40% of domestic consumption of honey currently comes from imports, mainly from Ukraine and China.

While the farmers’ association stressed it is not against trade per se, Facchin pointed out that flooding the market with cheap honey runs the risk of undercutting the EU honey sector if not handled with care.

According to Facchin, the production cost alone of honey in the EU averages between €3.8 and €4 per kilo, while imported bulk honey can cost as little as €1.45 per kilo.

“Professional beekeepers simply cannot compete with such low prices,” Facchin warned.

Asked about the large cost disparity, Facchin pointed to low labour costs combined with the adulteration of honey – bulking the honey with cheap sugar syrup.

“Nowadays adulteration has reached such a high level of quality, some detection techniques being currently used are outdated,” he warned, adding that adulteration techniques are “always one step in advance, and detection methods are not up to scratch”.

Struggling beekeepers undercut by cheap honey imports, says new report

European honey producers are calling for an emergency action plan to be put in place to save the sector, pointing to a drop in production across the EU and a rise in cheap imports.

While customs and border controls are the responsibility of national authorities, Facchin reserved strong criticism of the fact that there are currently no EU-wide guidelines which set out a common criteria for laboratory testing of honey.

“There is no coordinated voice, no plan of action,” he said, pointing to the need for some common practices to guarantee the quality of honey entering into the bloc.

Another area which would help bolster the EU honey sector is a reconsideration of origin labelling, Facchin said.

“Everyone – NGOs, consumers – is asking for more information in supermarkets, for more awareness of products, but so far only a few member states taken steps to increase the information provided on honey,” he said.

Currently, the EU directive on honey stipulates only that honey must be labelled as ‘non-EU’, ‘EU’ or a blend of the two.

But the criteria for this are poorly defined, according to Facchin.

“I can put 1% honey from an EU country, and mix it with 99% from a third country, but on the label you will only see ‘EU and non-EU’ origin,” he pointed out.

While he is not against the mixing of honey, Facchin called instead for clear country of origin labelling to help support EU producers.

“A clear, simple, and efficient origin labelling will help the internal market and the EU’s honey production, while giving the type of information the consumers are asking us for,” he said.

EU food origin labels should be placed on the cards, stakeholders say

Adding another element to the current food labelling debates in the EU, stakeholders have called for an EU origin label to be taken into consideration, saying this would encourage consumers to support the European livestock sector.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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