Slow Food Makes Some Rapid Advances

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jul 26 2010 (IPS) - “We are trying to change children’s attitude to food and to make sure there are still farmers in our countries in a decade or two,” says Marta Pozsonyi, one of the Romanian representatives at the first Terra Madre Balkans meeting that took place in Sofia last week.

The Sofia reunion was the first to take place among producers from the Balkans under the framework of Terra Madre, the world meeting of slow food communities launched by Slow Food International in 2004.

Slow Food International is a non-profit eco-gastronomic organisation founded in 1989 to counteract fast food, the disappearance of local food traditions, and sensitise people to the impact of consumer choices.

The concept of slow food is catching on fast in the Balkans, where small- scale farming is severely threatened by the promotion of industrial agriculture and by commercial practices which keep small producers from selling directly to consumers.

Over the past weekend, thousands of Bulgarians visited the Botanical Gardens in Sofia, buying natural, locally produced foods from farmers in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.

Cheeses, fruit preserves and honey were among the most popular products. Even though production processes across the region share similarities, local twists make each sample special.

The stalls set up by the organisers of Terra Madre Balkans were a surprise to Bulgarian consumers, as currently Bulgarian legislation does not allow for direct commercialisation by producers.

“Everything disappeared in a couple of hours, not even the farmers expected such a result,” comments Maya Todorova from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Bulgaria, who helped organise the meeting. “There is a great interest for traditional and healthy products in Bulgaria. Everyone who was coming was asking where they could buy those products in Sofia.”

Unfortunately, there is no permanent outlet for such products in Bulgaria, but Todorova says Bulgarian NGOs are now working with the Ministry of Agriculture to change legislation in order to allow direct commercialisation by producers, at least in the form of weekly Slow Food markets, as it happens already in neighbouring Romania.

Access to markets is one of the main problems faced by small farmers in Balkan countries, as oftentimes the national legislation forces producers to sell to intermediaries as opposed to directly to the public.

Tough safety standards imposed by the European Union and national governments pose additional obstacles to farmers, obliging them to spend scarce money and time on meeting the requirements.

According to a study published in April this year by the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD), most of the smaller farms in Central and Eastern Europe will slowly exit the food production system — even though subsistence farming represents one of the most important poverty alleviation tools in these countries.

In the Balkans, low-intensity subsistence and semi-subsistence farming are often high nature value farming, providing environmental benefits and helping to preserve biodiversity.

“Through their work, small-scale farmers both produce and care for rich landscapes and nature which provide valuable benefits to people, including water management, erosion control, carbon sequestration, not to mention biological diversity,” says Yulia Grigorova, Nature and Prosperity Coordinator at the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Importantly, on markets saturated with industrial food sold in the supermarkets, small producers can offer consumers natural nutrition with considerable health benefits.

There is a stark conflict between the numerous benefits provided by small farmers and the high interest of consumers for natural products, and the limited ability of small producers to make a living off their work. But over 180 participants in the Sofia meeting were determined to find ways to survive.

“For me, the most important thing to come out of this meeting was the possibility to share our experiences, our successes and difficulties,” Marta Pozsonyi told IPS. “It is sometimes difficult to meet even inside the same country. It is great to meet people who share the same culture and to discuss production processes and common problems with them.”

Cooperation among farmers seems to be key. However, with the exception of Yugoslavia, the communist experience gave co-operatives a bad name in Eastern Europe.

“Because of collective farms during the communist period, there is a fear of cooperatives in the region,” Maya Todorova told IPS. “But cooperatives existing in Western Europe allow farmers to save money on operational costs such as transport, marketing and promotion. This practice has been very successful and farmers in the Balkans need to learn from it.”

“We have tried to group farmers in cooperatives, but people were afraid,” agreed Marta Pozsonyi. “It would make a huge difference if, for example, costs for registering products — which can go into the thousands of euros — could be shared.”

Yet Terra Madre Balkans seems to have opened the doors to cooperation in spite of this skepticism. Participants in the Sofia reunion agreed to set up a network of farmers using high-altitude grasslands in the Balkans. Producers also sought advice on how to access payments for ecosystem services, which are available but hard to apply for.

And a decision was made to invest in the future of the region. Pozsonyi, representing Slow Food Turda in Western Romania, has been working on a project to bring slow food to kindergartens and schools in her locality. Legislation currently prohibits schools from buying natural products from local producers. In spite of this obstacle, Pozsonyi taught kids how to bake bread and set up a vegetable garden in a kindergarten for children to grow their own vegetables.

In the future, she hopes legislative changes will allow slow food farmers to supply schools — a goal that was taken up by producers in other Balkan countries.

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