Monday, October 15, 2007

Promoting Sustainable Rural Development

Numerous articles and news items released during the last months confirm that organic farming and food in Bulgaria is increasingly gaining public attention in the country and abroad.

Organic agriculture was introduced to Bulgaria in 1990, when agricultural land was put into small plots and distributed among the population after the fall of the communism. The EU as well as the government of Bulgaria encourage the transition to organic farming and subsidise organic farmers and food producers. Precisely it is since 2006, when SAPARD (Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development) got introduced in Bulgaria in preparation of accession of the country to the European Union, that farmers receive financial support during the three-year conversion period to organic farming.

Most organic farms in Bulgaria are very small and run less than one hectare. Some cooperatives have succeeded in bundling the activities of these small holders or wild collectors in order to make available quantities relevant for export. Only few farms are large enough to provide these quantities directly. They often rely on investments from and supply contracts with foreign companies. On one hand, this hinders the establishment of local processing capacities, on the other hand it helps surviving the difficult conversion period. In 2005, about 0.3 per cent of agricultural land was farmed organically.

Currently, 90 per cent of all Bulgarian organic food is exported to wealthier members of the EU. The country’s crops include fruits (apples, peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, and grapes for wine-making), nuts (walnuts and almonds), herbs and spices (dill, peppermint, lavender and many others) as well as essential oils, tobacco, and vegetables. Cows, sheep and goats are kept for the production of milk, yoghurt and cheese. Lamb and calf meat is available as well as organic jam and honey. In addition, large areas of wild land have been certified as organic to collect wild fruits, herbs and mushrooms. It is assumed that currently about 60 per cent of raw materials come from wild collection.

Organic rose oil, tobacco, wine and fruit growing are assumed to be of the highest potential for the country. Organic aquaculture seems also promising due to favourable natural conditions. In 2004, four farms produced organic propagation material and seeds (strawberries, lavender, roses, and dill). Only five farms kept livestock according to organic guidelines, compared to 77 organic plant production holdings and 12 green house facilities. The “National Plan for Development of Organic Farming” reports that the beekeepers produced close to 1000 tons honey in the same year – which seems a lot, considering that they kept 23 500 bee colonies only.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, nine manufacturers are currently certified organic and provide dried and frozen herbs, spices, seeds, (wild) fruits, vegetables, honey and rose oil. Examples for processing companies which maintain an internet website are:

· IRA-EKO Ltd. (, dried herbs, spices, seeds, and roots

· Biostart Ltd. (, herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables

· Ecomaat Ltd. (, essential oil and cosmetics

· Cooperative Bio-Bulgaria (, essential oils, herbs and fruits, dairy products, meat, and honey

· Balkan Bioherb (, herbs and spices – in cooperation with the Dutch company Euroherb

Two milk producers and one processors recently launched the organic yoghurt brand “Bio Kiselo Mlyako” (the dairy was formerly known as “Rima”) which since has attracted much media and consumer interest. The project was initiated by the largest certified organic dairy farm in Bulgaria near Troyan, keeping around 50 cows - with plans of expansion. (

The project has been promoted since its beginnings by Magdalena “Magi” Maleeva, Bulgaria’s international tennis champion. Ms. Maleeva spent several years in Switzerland were she became interested in organic products. On her website she aims to inform her fellow citizens on organic production and environmentally sustainable practices in a fresh and funny way.

In the meat sector, “Tandem”, a local producer of meat products, has announced plans last year to invest EUR 2 million within the next two years in an organic animal breeding programme. Tandem is one of few Bulgarian meat manufacturers which only process locally farmed beef and pork, despite the fact that beef from Argentina and Brazil and pork from Western Europe is available to lower prices than meat of Bulgarian origin. Although Tandem has already adopted the EU standards necessary for export, production is primarily intended for the domestic market.

However, awareness for and availability of organic foods within Bulgaria is still limited. Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism: some supermarkets have started to sell a small range of organic products, mostly imports. Furthermore, the first organic box scheme “Gaia” (home delivery service for organic vegetables) was launched in August 2006. (

Most data are based on the annual reports of the two national certification bodies, SGS Bulgaria Ltd. ( and Balkan Biocert Ltd. (, although several foreign control bodies have also been active within Bulgaria. Balkan Biocert is being established in cooperation with the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the Swiss Institute for Market Ecology (IMO) and the Foundation for Organic Agriculture “Bioselena” in Bulgaria ( In 2005, Balkan Biocert already opened its first branch in neighbouring Macedonia where organic farmers, processors and traders also need accredited certification services to be able to export their produce.

Besides Bioselena, the association “Agrolink” is lobbying for the interest of organic farming and sustainable rural development in Bulgaria ( Agrolink also publishes the organic magazine “Zhiva Zernia” (Living Earth) and maintains an organic demonstration farm where consumers can directly get involved with the production of organic food. The chairperson, Dr. Svetla Nikolova, represents her country at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). In addition, the Organic Farmers’ Association Agrolink (OFA Agrolink) was founded in 2004 as a second, independent organisation. The cooperative “Bio-Bulgaria” is another organic farmers’ initiative already founded in 1999, which is linked to “Bioselena”.

Another project which has helped to spread and promote organic agriculture methods in Bulgaria is the “Bulgarian Herbs Network” which was created within the framework of the JOBS scheme. “Job Opportunities through Business Support” is implemented by the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The mission is to support the growth of competitive businesses by providing professional and innovative assistance to micro and small entrepreneurs. Herbs and organic agriculture form part of the priority areas.

The continuous effort of these and many other organisations eventually resulted in considerable political support. A working group formed, together with representatives from all relevant ministries and under the guidance of the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), to develop an Organic Farming Action Plan. The process was co-financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and MAF, and backed by the larger project “Capacity Building for Sustainable Land Management in Bulgaria” SLM (, a joint initiative of the Bulgarian government and the UNDP.

The “National Plan for Development of Organic Farming in Bulgaria 2006-2013” provides a comprehensive overview of the current situation and of future opportunities and challenges for organic farming in the country. It is available for download in Bulgarian language from the Bioselena-Website and as hard copy in English language from the SML Project Office (

In the future, foreign control bodies will have to apply for permission to the MAF if they want to become active in Bulgaria. In addition, a Bulgarian organic logo is going to be developed by the MAF. The ministry also announced to support organic farming and food processing with around EUR 12.6 million in 2007 in order to boost the domestic market and gain market shares on the European market. 75 per cent of this investment is to be financed by the European Union (SARPAD), the remainder by the Bulgarian government. It is expected that within 5 years 1000-1500 crop producers with an average farm size of 5 hectares will be supported. There are, however, no plans to also directly support animal farming. Till 2013, 8 % of agricultural land in Bulgaria shall be farmed organically and 3 % of the food products sold there shall be organic according the strategic goals of the National Plan. In addition, legislation, education and research, and certification in the field of organic farming shall be improved within the next years. The Bulgarian law on genetically modified organisms (GMO) is already highly restrictive which favours organic farming and prevents conflicts between organic and non-organic farmers.

Katharina Reuter (PhD thesis)

Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture