Athens, Greece - When an economy shrinks, prices are meant to go down in response to falling demand. This has not happened in Greece - at least not yet. While the Greek economy shrank by an average of five per cent a year between 2009 and 2011, consumer prices rose by an average 3.7 per cent a year. The combination of falling revenues and rising prices has led to an explosive political mix.
It is not politicians but grassroots activism that has come to address this issue. In April, the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) reported a 24.6 per cent drop in potato prices from March 2011 - the largest ever one-year drop in any commodity. The reason for this historic deflation was what has come to be known as the potato movement - and it is having an empowering effect on Greeks, not only as consumers, but also as citizens and voters.
The seminal event of the movement was a free distribution of more than ten tons of spuds in the centre of Greece's northern metropolis, Thessaloniki, on February 5. It was organised by a group of farmers from the village of Nevrokopi, Greece's potato-growing capital.
The farmers were protesting against imports of Egyptian potatoes - while they had barns full of the Greek product - after a meeting between the agriculture minister and potato importers days earlier failed to yield any concessions.
A growing movement
The first to invite the farmers of Nevrokopi to sell their potatoes at wholesale prices was the Pieria Prefecture Voluntary Action Group, based in the northern Greek town of Katerini, on the foothills of Mount Olympus.
The Pieria group was formed in late 2007, after a series of wildfires devastated Greece's forests, to provide the local fire service with an early warning system. It was already busy creating a free supermarket for the destitute when it heard of the potato handout in Thessaloniki. On February 19, it organised a sale of potatoes to the Katerini public at 25 cents a kilo - one-third of market price.
Days later, the movement spread to Thessaloniki's Aristotelian University. Christos Kamenidis, a professor of agricultural marketing, organised a potato sale on campus with student volunteers. "I was worried that we would [only] sell three or four tonnes. We sold 50 tons on the first day," Kamenidis said.
"People just fell upon the produce. The producers couldn't cope with demand."
The entire greater Thessaloniki area now holds regular sales of cheap produce, and the movement has spread south to the capital, Athens, and beyond.
The potato movement is changing the food market...