By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
BUCHAREST — When communism crumbled two decades ago, Eastern Europeans were only too delighted to discover the fast-food chains that symbolized the West. But today they increasingly long for organic food."The general trend is that more and more organic products are being sold in former Soviet-bloc countries," said Amarjit Sahota, head of the research department of London-based consulting firm Organic Monitor.
The Romanian capital recently saw the opening of organic stores named Biofood, or Bio Revolution, and in neighbouring Hungary, organic markets are held countrywide on a regular weekly basis.
In Poland, there are organic corners in almost every supermarket, and in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the country's first specialist organic store, which opened last year, now is extending its activities to a neighbouring cafe.Even Transylvania's archbishop has converted to pesticide-free food."As consumers become more informed about food production, they look for higher quality products," Sahota told AFP.
Romanian newspapers for instance are multiplying reports on organic agriculture and healthy food, with Adevarul, the biggest daily, creating a "green page" dedicated to environmental and organic topics."Romanians were fascinated by McDonalds and Coca-Cola after the 1989 Revolution, but today people think more about their health and are starting slowly to come to organic food," said Marian Cioceanu, president of NGO Bio Romania.
But the Eastern European market remains a Tom Thumb compared to Western Europe, with research by Organic Monitor showing 2007 organic food and beverage sales amounting to 60 million euros (88 million dollars) in Eastern and Central Europe, compared to 20 billion in Europe as a whole.
In Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, organic food and beverages account for a mere one percent of total food sales, according to Agriculture ministries in both countries.But growth is steady, with little impact on the sector from the economic crisis.In Romania, organic food sales in 21 supermarkets owned by French giant Carrefour increased 15- to 20-fold in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, managing director Andreea Mihai told AFP.
In Poland, customers of online organic shop Ecolive.pl leapt 200 to 300 percent in one year, company official Beata Mioduszewska told AFP."Our branch of activity was not at all impacted by the economic crisis even though prices remain a big hurdle for Polish customers," she said.
Extra costs are due to the lack of processing facilities in these countries, meaning a long journey between the producer and the consumer.Organic products in Poland can cost between 30 percent -- for fruits and vegetables -- to 300 percent -- for eggs, cheese -- more than industrial equivalents.
In Bulgaria, differences ranges between 30-50 percent more.In Romania, where the average monthly salary is 325 euros, one litre of organic apple juice is twice the price of regular juice, or 3.3 euros instead of 1.2 to 1.7 euros."Central and Eastern European countries have large amounts of organic farmland that produce raw materials such as cereals, organic fruits and vegetables."But the finished products -- biscuits, dairy products, breakfast cereals -- are all processed in Western Europe," said Sahota, and have to be transported back to organic stores in Eastern Europe."It's not very ecological in terms of the carbon footprint," he added.Romanian farmer Aurel Petrus, for instance, is a pioneer in organic farming.Aged 49, he Tproduces organic wheat, corn, sunflowers, hay and malt on 1,300 hectares in the village of Stefan Cel Mare, 100 kilometres east of the capital.
Business is profitable, with a revenue of around 500,000 euros last year and 18 fulltime staff as well as seasonal workers.But most of the crops have to be exported to Austria and Germany due to a lack of organic processing facilities in Romania."Under former dictator Ceauscescu, state farms used a lot of pesticides and chemical fertilizers but there were no funds for village cooperatives," he told AFP."The lack of funding helped us in a sense because the land did not receive any chemical substances for years, which enables us today to be certified for organic farming."Though he does not receive European Union subsidies for organic farming -- the Romanian government failed to present a distribution mechanism acceptable to the EU -- Petrus is convinced the "future is organic," as stated on a sticker in his office.
Likewise for Mihai and Mariana Huzu in Plevna village, east of Bucharest.With the support of French organisation Ecolife bio, this year they began producing organic tomatoes, aubergines, basil and "gogosari," a Romanian variety of red pepper, in the backyard of their country house.Mihai, 41, built his own small greenhouse and put a donkey to use to help plough the field."Organic farming is a lot of work but we live better than with our former jobs. We are happier," said the former village shoe-shop employee. Her husband was a construction worker.
Each week, a small van from Ecolife bio collects their vegetables for supermarkets in Bucharest or direct sale to customers."We have about 100 customers who come two evenings a week to our head office to get their organic vegetables. Most are doctors or families with children who believe it is important to eat organic food," said Gilles Caillaud, a founder of Ecolife bio.He believes the future will see an increasing number of eastern Europeans switching to organic.