Photo: Stevia Hellas Cooperative

European tobacco farmers switch to stevia

The food and beverage industry in Europe is increasingly using stevia. The increased demand causes tobacco farmers in southern Europe to change crops and become stevia farmers instead

10 January 2020 •

The glob­al mar­ket for ste­via grows more than 8 per cent annu­al­ly. It is grow­ing fastest in the Asia-Pacific region – and in Europe, which makes it prof­itable to grow ste­via here. This was giv­en atten­tion to by BBC the oth­er day with a report about the first com­mer­cial ste­via farm in Europe.

First stevia farm in Europe

The farm­ing began as an idea of Christos Stamatis in 2011. He had seen how American tobac­co farm­ers suc­cess­ful­ly had switched crops from tobac­co to ste­via, and now he want­ed to con­vince tobac­co farm­ers in his home region of Greece to do the same.

He went to cafés in Phthiotis – a region­al part of Central Greece – to meet farm­ers and con­vince them to invest €500 each. He con­vinced 150 farm­ers to come with him.

We dis­cov­ered crowd­sourc­ing long before it became main­stream in my vil­lage,’ Christos Stamatis tells BBC, adding: People have pow­er and we took advan­tage of it.’

The result became Stevia Hellas Cooperative, which today employs around 300 people.

In 2011, Christos Stamatis took the ini­tia­tive to form the coop­er­a­tive Stevia Hellas Cooperative, for which he is CEO. Photo: Stevia Hellas Cooperative.

Golden opportunity

Stevia seeds are hard to cul­ti­vate — only one in ten ger­mi­nates. Therefore, they are grown from cut­tings, which are allowed to grow for ten to twelve weeks in green­hous­es before being plant­ed in the field.

The fields must be well-drained for ste­via to thrive. The plants do not want to be wet on their feet’. And a lot of sun and heat is need­ed for the right sweet­ness to devel­op. But it must not be too dry. The air should be mid-humid.

Karta över grekland som visar var Fthiotis ligger.
Europe’s first ste­via farm is found in Phthiotis which is a region­al part of Central Greece.

In oth­er words, ste­via has quite spe­cif­ic require­ments to thrive. And those require­ments are met by the fields of Phthiotis. The envi­ron­ment is a mix of Mediterranean cli­mate and moun­tain cli­mate. To the north, west and south high moun­tains rise, and in the east waves from the Aegean Sea roll over the beach­es of the Malian Gulf.

Such a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty for ste­via cul­ti­va­tion is not unique to Phthiotis. Similar micro­cli­mate is found in oth­er places in south­ern Europe. Christos Stamatis plans to take advan­tage of that. He tells BBC:

Our next plan is to form a ste­via sup­ply chain with Mediterranean coun­tries such as Italy, Spain, France or Portugal.’

High demand

Christos Stamatis also has a gold­en busi­ness opportunity.

The food and bev­er­age indus­try is increas­ing­ly in demand for ste­via. The growth in the next few years is expect­ed to be between 8.2 and 8.7 per cent per year, accord­ing to sev­er­al mar­ket analy­sis com­pa­nies. And Europe is one of the fastest-grow­ing markets.

The analy­sis com­pa­ny Expert Market Research writes in a report that the Asia-Pacific region fol­lowed by Europe is the world leader in the ste­via mar­ket. The two regions togeth­er make up 62 per cent of the world market.

Stevia is better for the health

The great and grow­ing inter­est from the food and bev­er­age indus­try for ste­via is because con­sumers more and more are

  • demand­ing less sug­ar in food and drink, and
  • avoid­ing food and drink with syn­thet­ic sweeteners.

Consumers’ desire to reduce sug­ar is due to increased aware­ness of the health risks with exces­sive caloric intake. And their unwill­ing­ness to obtain syn­thet­ic sweet­en­ers is due to increased sus­pi­cion of every­thing that is per­ceived unnatural.

These two trends togeth­er mean that the only con­ceiv­able solu­tion for the food and bev­er­age indus­try is high-inten­si­ty plant-based sweet­en­ers – for exam­ple ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides found nat­ur­al in ste­via.

Stevia is better for the environment

But health is not the only thing that the food and bev­er­age indus­try must take into account. The envi­ron­ment is becom­ing an increas­ing­ly impor­tant issue for con­sumers. As the neg­a­tive effects of glob­al warm­ing become more evi­dent, more peo­ple will make tough demands on pro­duc­ers regard­ing their envi­ron­men­tal impact. Here, ste­via has a sig­nif­i­cant advan­tage over sugar.

Stevia has a water foot­print that is 96 per cent low­er than that of cane sug­ar and 92 per cent less than that of sug­ar beet. And for the same sweet­ness, ste­via only needs one-fifth of the cul­ti­va­tion area required for sugar.

Stevia växter på ett fält med berg i bakgrunden
Stevia is one of a hun­dred species of the Asteraceae fam­i­ly, which also holds plants such as daisies, hawks­beards and this­tles. It grows to 30 to 80 cen­time­tres high, has leaves that are about 2.5 cen­time­tres long, and it has white flow­ers. Photo: Stevia Hellas Cooperative.

First but hardly the last

Stevia Hellas Cooperative was first in Europe to com­mer­cial­ly grow ste­via. But they are hard­ly the last. Increased demand will make it more prof­itable for more farm­ers in south­ern Europe to pro­duce the sweet plant.

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