Some Eastern European countries now have twice as much agricultural land turned over to organic farming as those in Western Europe, and experts are predicting a bright future for the industry in the former communist bloc.
Christof Arndt, project coordinator at the Dresden-based EkoConnect non- profit group promoting organic agriculture in Eastern Europe, told IPS: "The last few years have seen a huge rise in organic farming, food production and consumption in Eastern Europe, and the market is developing really quickly - despite the recession."
In Eastern Europe under communism, almost all farming was collectivised and controlled by the state. When the regimes fell, some farmers began offering organic products. These were initially seen as a curiosity by many consumers, and organic food became available in the mass market only slowly.
But in the last decade many more farms and outlets have been established, and consumption of organic foods has risen sharply.
The Czech Agriculture Ministry said last month that almost 10 percent of agricultural land in the country is now given over to organic farming - twice as much as in Germany, according to EkoConnect. The number of Czech organic farms at the end of 2009 grew to 2,700 - a 50 percent jump on 2008. Consumption of organic goods rose 40 percent year on year in 2008 to 1.8 billion Czech crowns (69 million euros).
In Bulgaria the amount of farmland used for organic farming has risen 27- fold between 2002 and 2007, according to the country's agriculture ministry. In Poland there were 14,900 organic farms registered in 2008 - up from just 300 in 1996.
According to figures from the European Union's statistical agency Eurostat, between 2007 and 2008 the second, third and fourth highest increases in the total amount of land used for organic farming in the EU were recorded in Bulgaria (+ 22 percent), Slovakia (+ 19 percent), and Hungary (+ 15 percent). In the period between 2005 and 2008, the highest increases were found in Poland (+ 94 percent), and Lithuania (+ 89 percent).
Industry monitors in individual countries have also reported large rises in organic food consumption across the Eastern European region in recent years.
In Poland, the Symbio organic food producer claimed sales of organic food rose by 300 percent in 12 months between 2007 and 2008. In the Czech Republic, organic food consumption rose by 70 percent year on year in 2007, according to EkoConnect.
Experts say that the rise in organic farm numbers and production and consumption of organic food has been driven by subsidies introduced by governments over the last decade combined with people becoming more informed about organic food and changing their diets.
Dysfunctional communist-planned food production and farming contributed to national diets in the region being based around meat-laden and fatty meals with few vegetables, and designed to be filling instead of healthy. When communism fell diets improved only slowly as eating habits changed. But with the spread of information on the benefits of healthy eating, younger generations are now keen to try organic foods.
"Consumers today are very informed about organic foods and want to make sure of what they are feeding themselves," Karolina Dytrtova, project manager at the Bio Institut organic food industry research and education institute in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, told IPS.
The organic food industry in the region as a whole remains small compared to the West, though. According to the London-based Organic Monitor industry monitoring group, in 2007, while organic food and beverage sales in the whole of Europe stood at 20 billion euros, Eastern Europe accounted for just 60 million euros of that.
Experts say the relative cost of organic foods is stifling consumption in a region with some of the lowest wages in the entire EU. In Slovakia, for instance, where the average monthly wage is 800 euros, organic chicken meat costs as much as 10 euros per kilo in shops. Non-organically farmed chicken costs around 2.50 euros.
In the Czech Republic, surveys cited in local media have reported the difference in prices of organic and non-organic foodstuffs is as much as 140 percent for some products. In Poland it is up to almost 300 percent for organic dairy products, and in Romania, where the average monthly wage is just over 350 euros, organic produce can cost consumers almost twice as much as industrially produced similar products, according to local media.
Industry experts say high prices are partly down to a lack of facilities to process finished products, meaning that many Eastern European producers end up exporting large amounts of raw materials to Western Europe for processing. Much of that is then sold in Western Europe as finished products such as packs of biscuits or dairy products, but some is sent back again to Eastern Europe for sale - a costly and, some argue, relatively environmentally unfriendly process.
The rate of growth in consumption of organic products has fallen during the global recession. In the Czech Republic, growth in organic food consumption had been 70 percent year on year in 2007, but dropped to 40 percent in 2008, and experts have estimated it will be as little as five percent in 2009.
But environmental groups maintain the tail-off is relatively small and only temporary. Vojtech Kotecky of Friends of the Earth in the Czech Republic told local media: "There will be a return to fast growth once the recession is over."
(Via IPS News)