Technological innovation and a focus on developing high-end agricultural products are transforming the agricultural sector of Cyprus.
Taking a decisive step towards quality, rather than quantity, Cyprus is focusing on identifying niche markets for its high-quality produce. Top priorities for 2017 in the agriculture sector are further reforms and boosting green growth through the efficient and climate-smart use of resources. These goals fall in line with the country’s longer term strategy, which is to achieve a more resource- efficient economy, and develop competitive and sustainable agriculture and fisheries industries. These will also contribute to the stimulation of the Cyprus economy, with the creation of new employment opportunities and growth in rural and coastal areas – while ensuring high quality of life and the protection of the environment.
Although abundant with fresh produce and a sunny climate, farming in Cyprus is faced with droughts and environmental challenges, as well as an ongoing struggle for economic relevance. In the early years of Cyprus’ independence, the contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP was about 20%, whereas today it has dropped to around 1.7% and employs 4% of the workforce. However, the sector has tackled these trials and tribulations head-on by adopting new technologies, bringing new products to the market and widening its customer base.
Agriculture has shown remarkable resilience and production has remained at stable levels, despite recent macroeconomic challenges – proving there are positive future prospects for the sector if it continues to develop on a more professional, niche and scientific basis. New structural reforms are also set to increase competitiveness and productivity, allowing Cyprus to become more dynamic, export-oriented and most importantly to adopt a mentality of continuous modernisation.
Cyprus’ agricultural share of total domestic exports is around 13.4%, and it is quintessentially Mediterranean with health-promoting foods such as citrus fruit, vegetables, grapes and potatoes. As for processed agricultural goods, Cyprus’ key exports are halloumi, fruit and vegetable juices, meats and wines. The island’s famous halloumi cheese has become one of the top export products for Cyprus. The country has a rich gastronomical history, and halloumi – with its rich flavour and particular texture – constitutes a cornerstone of Cypriot cuisine. In 2010, the island was exporting 7,690 tonnes of the cheese, bringing in €47.63 million, while in 2015 these numbers increased to 15,250 thousand tonnes and to €103 million respectively. This trend is on a strong upward trajectory with the expected registration of halloumi as a product of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
Three international quality logos attest to specific traditions and qualities of food, agricultural products and wines. Two of these – the PDO and the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – have a specific link to the region of a product, while the third logo, the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), highlights a traditional production process. There is growing interest from Cypriot producers to gain this unique badge of quality, as it brings added value to their products. In addition to halloumi, there are five other products listed on the European registry: Loukoumi Geroskipou and Koufeta Amygdalou Geroskipou, two traditional sweet products produced in Paphos; Glyko Triantafyllo Agrou, a particular spoon sweet produced in Pitsilia area; Pafitiko Loukaniko, a tasty wine-marinated sausage, and the most recently registered product, Kolokasi Sotiras/Kolokasi-Poulles Sotiras, which is a unique vegetable cultivated in Cyprus. In the wine category Cyprus boasts the famous Commandaria, said to be the first known PDO wine in the world. In addition, Zivania and Ouzo are alcoholic beverages listed as PGI products since 2004. It is expected that in the next few years the European registry will be enriched with more Cypriot foodstuff denominations.
Aquaculture products are the third most important produce in Cyprus, in terms of export value. Specifically, these products are sea bass and sea bream and approximately 65% of the total national production is exported to markets in Middle Eastern countries and the USA. The aquaculture sector represents about 75-80% both in terms of volume and value of the total national fisheries production, and the total national aquaculture value for 2015 reached €39.2 million. The traditional markets for Cypriot citrus products have been Russia and the United Kingdom, both enthusiastic consumers of oranges, tangerines and mandora, a cross between a mandarin and an orange. Agricultural exports to the EU constitute around 64.2%, while other European countries 16.7% and Asia 16.2%.
The most important crops produced in Cyprus are: cereals (wheat, barley); melons (watermelons, sweet melons); vegetables (potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers); and other fruit and tree crops, such as grapes, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, bananas, almonds, olives and carobs. An area of success has been the marketing of the Cyprus potato – one of the most important agricultural export products and easily recognisable by its reddish peel and extraordinary taste. Thanks to climatic conditions, fresh new Cyprus potatoes intended for export are available to European markets far before the traditional continental season – and have been especially popular in the UK.
Innovation has also helped to revitalise traditional minor crops, or ones that were set aside by the advent of high-input and intensity cropping systems. For instance, a current joint effort spearheaded by the University of Cyprus, the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) and the Central Chemistry Laboratory, is characterising and screening the indigenous carob genetic resources and developing food and medicinal products of high added value. This development is revitalising a crop once vital to the local economy, but gradually abandoned over the decades. Other examples are the cactus pear – also known as the prickly pear – and pomegranates, which are minor crops well-adapted to the harsh climatic conditions of Cyprus and gaining popularity.
One interesting new area of cultivation is hemp. A new legal framework for hemp cultivation in Cyprus could be another game changer, creating a sub-sector of agricultural production. Foreign investors have already shown interest in setting up operations in Cyprus for hemp cultivation and to sell it as a natural fibre source – in similar fashion to the industries in France, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.
Organic farming has shown steady growth in Cyprus. From 45 organic farmers with 1,665ha of cultivated land in 2002, the country saw an increase to 1,032 farmers in 2015 with 46,980ha, constituting around 3.6% of total cultivated agricultural land. This is an impressive development from a small country when compared to larger EU member states, where the total organic cultivated land is around 5.4%. Also retail shops selling fresh and local organic products have increased significantly.
Cyprus also provides various financing opportunities for farmers through the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme to stimulate the development of the sector, ranging from support in the conversion from conventional farming to organic, for investments into quality systems and practices, promotional aid, cooperation with the food industry to create short supply chains, and helping young farmers to get started.
In the last few years, Cyprus has witnessed a rise in targeting specific market groups, such as the vegetarian/vegan community, which has driven increased demand for protein sources and the use of herbal medicinal products and supplements as an alternative to synthetic medicines. Due to its special climatic conditions, Cyprus has the ability to become a major production country for these products and attract further investment in the agricultural sector, thus facilitating the creation of new small businesses, more jobs and reinvigorating rural life.
The structure of agricultural holdings shows that entrepreneurship is high in Cyprus, as from around 40,000 holdings 99% are individual companies. However, the small holding sizes cause challenges in the equitable and efficient management of agricultural investments, and land consolidation needs are high in all sectors, except for citrus and potato farming. In addition, there is a strong need for the modernisation of the sector in technological processes to meet consumer needs. The fact that only 2.6% of farm managers are under 35 years old continues to pose a hindrance in implementing more innovation in the sector, which in turn has slowed down the competitiveness of the agricultural economy. In terms of automation and remote sensing technologies, Cyprus is lagging behind compared to other OECD countries, making it essential for the country to promote more innovation in precision agriculture tech through the participation in EU-funded research programmes.
The flipside of its wonderful warm climate is that water scarcity has been one of the most serious problems faced by Cyprus through the centuries. Droughts are common and it is estimated that climate change in the Mediterranean basin will lead to further reductions in annual and seasonal water availability. However, thanks to the latest water desalination and recycling technology, the impacts of drought will be mitigated and provide water security to satisfy the water needs for domestic, agricultural, industrial, environmental and other uses. New state-of-the-art desalination plants mean Cyprus will be self-sufficient in its domestic water needs and will contribute to the preservation and development of agriculture.
A Fertile Future
While challenges remain for agriculture, Cyprus has demonstrated that it is adaptable, resilient and capable of responding to adversity with creativity and vision. Cyprus agriculture may not be able to compete in quantities and prices in the mass production model, but with its supreme produce the real opportunity and key ingredient for success is to invest in quality. Creating more registered PDO products will strengthen regional development through the creation of new small businesses and thus new jobs. A focus on innovation and sustainability will be the key objectives to gradually drive the transition of Cyprus to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy, influencing market demand, and creating new investment and employment opportunities.
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Updated: May 2017