EU scheme brings Armenian and Moldovan organic producers to ExCeL

Armenian and Moldovan organic producers were at Natural & Organic Products Europe last month as part of a EU-funded initiative aimed at greening the economies of Eastern Europe.

Countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have already shown they are at competitive advantage for the development of sustainable, organic agriculture because of historically low levels of pesticide use and a availability of skilled agricultural labour. They are also increasingly interested in exporting to markets in the European Union.

Organic ambitions
Now, countries including Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine are being actively supported in their organic ambitions through a programme called EaP Green, funded by the European Union, whose organic agriculture component is implemented by UNEP.

By supporting the growth of organic farming methods, the EaP Green programme aims to reverse biodegradation, preserve natural capital and mitigate climate change, while revitalizing rural economies and stimulating trade.

At the joint Armenia-Moldova stand at NOPE, Natural Products News talked with Claudia Assmann, UNEP Programme Officer, and IFOAM Consultant Bo Van Elzakker, about the practical aims of the scheme and producers’ experience at the busy London event.

Portraitfotos , Mercator Kolleg fŸr internationale Aufgaben , Kollegjahr 2009/2010, I. Jahrgang Potsdam 30. Juni 2009 FŸr Oliver Haack und Marisa Klasen Foto© David Ausserhofer
 Foto© David Ausserhofer

Assmann told NPN: “As part of the EaP Green programme, UNEP is assisting countries in the region to advance their transition to green economies: an economy that is resource-efficient, low-carbon and socially inclusive. Our focus on the organic sector is an effort to demonstrate that economic growth, sustainability and poverty reduction are not trade-offs but complementary and mutually supportive elements of a green economy transition. The organic sector in the EAP region has proven that a green economy can create market, export, and associated employment opportunities– which is contrary to the the perception that green initiatives add additional cost. Investing in small holder organic agriculture has in fact proven to be the most sustainable way of reducing poverty.

“At the moment organic is still a very niche market in Armenia and Moldova. The organic producers we have here on the stand are still mostly quite young businesses – but they see a real opportunity in being able to export to the UK and other parts of the EU.

“Being at an event like this in London is a really important learning exercise. It’s not just about signing orders, it’s also about understanding what the customer wants.”

Van Elzakker agrees. “It quickly became clear from speaking with distributors and retailers in London that it is quite tough to sell finished products to the UK. But we have discovered that there is a big interest from processors here in sourcing high-grade organic ingredients. So, that’s a real opportunity for countries like Armenia and Moldova who produce high quality fruit, berries and herbs.”

Supporting wild varieties
Van Elzakker talks me through some Armenian and Moldovan specialties. “Armenia is a mountain country well known for its herbs, essential oils and fruit. Apricots are the biggest fruit crop, but it also produces good quality plums, peaches and apples. It is particularly strong on wild fruits – you could say it is a gene centre for traditional varieties that go back centuries. Making and buying organic products derived from these wild varieties supports their sustainable maintenance.

“Moldova is well-known for its walnut production. It’s also a wine producing country and we’ve brought wine makers to London. They have wines made with European grape varieties but they also have wines made with traditional Moldovan varieties like feteasca neagra. It is a little bit different to Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot and it’s been creating a lot of interest. These activities are also good for preserving agrobiodiversity.”

“Overall we’ve had a very positive reaction over the two days here in London. We and the exporters have learned a lot in a short amount of time and I think that will probably lead to a switch in their thinking about how to approach markets like the UK, which will be very beneficial in the long run.”