[Sdpg] The Organic Alternative: Slovenia, the European Union, and the Debate over Sustainable Agriculture
Santa Barbara Permaculture Network
sbpcnet at silcom.com
Sun Jan 9 16:06:25 PST 2005
The Organic Alternative:
Slovenia, the European Union, and the Debate over Sustainable Agriculture
Also available in PDF format (3 MB).
by John Feffer *
"There is no other way for Slovenian agriculture except sustainable
-- MARTA HRUSTEL MAJCEN,
STATE UNDERSECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE, FORESTRY, AND FOOD, REPUBLIC OF
Slovenia might seem like the merest thorn in the side of agribusiness. It
is a small, mountainous country on the western edge of the Balkans,
half-covered in forest and without much arable land. Only 6 percent of the
population of 2 million is involved in agriculture. (2) The average farm is
only 5.5 hectares, (3) a far cry from the U.S. average of approximately 176
hectares (4) or even the European Union (EU) average of 18 hectares. (5)
But Slovenia, which became a member of the EU in May 2004, may have an
outsized impact on European agriculture. Last year, Slovenian organic
farmers and their counterparts in four neighboring provinces of Austria
(Carinthia, Styria) and Italy (FriuliVenezia-Giulia, Veneto) declared what
they hope will become a showcase for organic farming: the world's first
organic bioregion.Government ministers from the areas involved have
endorsed the plan. The members of this new "Alpe-Adria" bioregion have
declared themselves free from all genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
and the initiative's planners are pushing organic farming as the future of
agriculture. Coordinating marketing programs and attracting more
eco-tourists to organic farms are also part of the vision.
As these farmers take aim at industrial agriculture, one significant
potential ally is big, bureaucratic, and wealthy: the European Union itself.
Europe's Agricultural Strategy
If agriculture were a boxing ring, Europe and the United States would be
locked in a heavyweight bout for market domination. Despite some similar
tactics--such as using massive subsidies to effectively undercut
agriculture in the developing world--the two contenders have very different
approaches. European agricultural subsidies have a large environmental
component while the U.S. government favors the largest operators. (6) The
EU takes organic agriculture very seriously while the U.S.government
ignores the subject. And Europe has adopted a cautious attitude toward
GMOs, while the U.S. is blazing full speed ahead with bioengineering.
In 2003, this transatlantic battle moved to the World Trade Organization
(WTO), where the U.S. is arguing that Europe's cautious approach to GMOs
constitutes a barrier to trade. Although the EU lifted its ban on new GMOs
in 2004, the U.S. has refused to withdraw the WTO challenge, and is
considering a second suit over Europe's new regulations on labeling GM
products and implementing a rigorous system of traceability. A U.S. victory
would anger Europeans, most of whom consider GMOs dangerous and more than
90 percent of whom want to know exactly what they're eating. (7)
Meanwhile, the EU's proactive approach to organic agriculture is bearing
fruit. According to the European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming,
released in early June 2004 by the Commission of the European Communities,
organic farming is at the heart of an EU effort to produce more
"environmentally friendly, quality products." Land under organic
cultivation in the EU rose rapidly, from 1 percent in 1995 to nearly 3.5
percent in 2002, an annual increase of nearly 30 percent. (8) Italy and
Austria are rapidly approaching 10 percent organic in terms of total
agricultural land. (9) Consumer demand--particularly for dairy products and
baby foods--is behind the 8 percent annual growth rate in the organic food
retail sector. (10) In the United Kingdom, seven of the top supermarket
chains are supporting a massive increase in organic farming and organic
This growth is also driven by EU institutions' attention to organic
agriculture, which is part of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP),
last overhauled in 2003. These newest CAP reforms increased funding for
agri-environmental subsidies and provided new "quality incentives." Organic
farmers benefit because they already meet the stricter environmental
standards. The CAP delinked subsidies from agricultural production,
heralding a shift away from price supports and toward investments into
improving land and livestock, another potential boost for organic farmers.
Incentives that cover the period of conversion to organic cultivation and
scrapping mandatory land set-asides for organic farmers will further
encourage growth in the organic sector. (12)
The EU has poured money into research programs such as the multifaceted
research agenda of the European Network for Scientific Research
Co-ordination in Organic Farming (ENOF) and a recently announced study at
England's University of Newcastle that will compare the taste and
nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods. (13) And the EU has
concluded that organic farming does less damage to the environment and
biodiversity, does a better job of protecting the soil, and ensures a
higher quality of animal welfare for livestock. (14)
The 2004 Action Plan proposes to promote organic agriculture in the EU by
encouraging the purchase of organic food by largescale kitchens such as in
hospitals, schools, and staff cafeterias; disseminating information across
the EU on the virtues of organic farming and food; applying more widely the
EU logo for organic foods that was introduced in 2000; and strictly
excluding GMOs from organic products.
But the EU has by no means turned entirely Green. While Europe and the U.S.
battle for control of agricultural markets around the world, a less visible
struggle is taking placed within Europe, over the future of European
agriculture. And Slovenia, at the edge of the new Europe, is one of the
Going Organic in Slovenia
Boris Fras is proud of his grape vines. The leaves, he points out, are
light green, not the dark green color caused by chemical fertilizer. His
fields do not leach dangerous residues into the land, the groundwater, or
the nearby sea. Conventionally cultivated vines start to give out after
twenty years, he says. By contrast, his vines will produce for at least a
century. Fras takes the long view. (15)
Fras is the head of the Union of Slovenia Organic Farmers' Association
(USOFA), which is a prime mover behind the AlpeAdria bioregion. USOFA has
presided over a tremendous increase in organic farming in Slovenia, from a
mere 41 farms in 1998 to over 1,400 five years later. (16) While the
percentage of agriculture in Slovenia devoted to organic cultivation is
roughly equivalent to the average of 3.3 percent, back in 1998 it hadn't
even broken 0.1 percent. (17)
One reason for this expansion is the commitment of the Slovenian government
to more environmentally benign farming. In 2001, the Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Food introduced the Slovenian Agri-Environmental
Programme (SAEP), which attempts to preserve the country as a "garden of
Europe." (18) The program links sustainable agriculture to environmental
protection and, by extension, to the tourism that Slovenia is increasingly
banking on. These links matter greatly in Slovenia because farming takes
place in some of the country's most beautiful, biodiverse areas-- in the
mountains, the national parks, and the limestone cave-laced regions known
as karst. Today's farmers are building on a legacy of stewardship that has
made Slovenia such a green haven. "If farms didn't farm sustainably, that
land wouldn't have been protected. We wouldn't have these natural areas
today," says Marta Hrustel Majcen of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Through SAEP, which is modeled on a similar EU program, livestock producers
receive support to reduce flock density and prioritize indigenous breeds.
Subsidies help farmers prevent soil erosion in alpine areas and in the
karst, preserve traditional approaches to farming, mow steep slopes, follow
crop rotation techniques, and preserve the habitats of large carnivores and
rarespecies of birds. Some SAEP funds are earmarked explicitly for organic
The market, too, is sending encouraging signals to organic farmers. Though
at the moment imports continue to meet Slovenes' burgeoning demand for
organic foods, local producers may have an advantage: according to research
sponsored by USOFA, Slovenes favor foreign products--except in the case of
food. (19) Organic products are now available in Slovenian supermarkets,
and organic producers do brisk business at the farmers' market in the
capital city of Ljubljana.
Organic farming is not, however, the chief focus of Slovenian government
initiatives, which emphasize improvements in conventional agriculture under
the general rubric of "integrated production." Integrated farming
incorporates good agricultural practices such as choosing pest-resistant
varieties, using nonchemical plant protection when possible, and following
optimal crop rotations. "All farming should have good agricultural
practices. But this should not be promoted as sustainable agriculture,"
says Anamarija Slabe, an agronomist with the Ljubljana-based Institute for
Sustainable Development. Integrated production--which may use chemical
fertilizer, for example--falls short of the rigorous requirements of
organic farming, she explains. (20) Organic farmers are angry that the
Slovenian government has introduced a label for the products of integrated
farming that is nearly identical to the organic label.
Slovenia's participation in the Alpe-Adria organic bioregion, then, is one
part prag-matism (Slovenia has no other choice than sustainable
agriculture) and one part dream (of a future where organic farming is the
dominant rather than the quirky approach). But in Slovenia, as in other
countries, agricultural ministers and organic farmers may be sharing a
single bed while dreaming somewhat different dreams.
An Organic Future?
As part of an EU-funded research project, Slovenia's Institute for
Sustainable Development is interviewing organic farmers on whatthey expect
will happen as a result of the country's recent entrance into the EU.
"Farmers are pessimistic," Anamarija Slabe says. "They don't think farming
will do so well in the EU. But when asked about organic farming, they think
it will have better results." Slovenia's conventional farmers face
declining prices for food and reduced EU subsidies. But organic farmers can
still benefit from growing agri-environmental subsidies and rising consumer
In the best-case scenario, the Alpe-Adria organic bioregion will become
increasingly formalized through joint programs, the exchange of knowledge,
coordination of marketing, and the requisite infrastructure of employees
and offices. Slabe, while still cautious about her own government's
commitment to the plan, wants farmers to work toward a common action plan
with basic goals, such as reaching 10 percent organic for the whole region
in the next five years.
Certain obstacles stand in the way of this best-case projection. Organic
advocates, although generally pleased with the EU's Action Plan, are
furious with the European Commission's plan to accept a 0.3 to 0.5 percent
threshold for unintended presence of GMOs in non-GM seed. The organic
community supports a 0.1 percent threshold and is worried that
contamination by GM crops and seeds will undermine the whole concept of
organic farming. (21)
Even if GMOs are controlled, the rosy estimates of a growing organic
movement--30 percent by 2010?--may hit a wall. At the moment, though
organic products are generally twice the cost of conventional ones, demand
outstrips supply. (22) Consumer interest in organic produce may plateau,
however, as memories of mad cow disease and other fiascos fade. Without an
expanding market, conventional farmers will be reluctant to go organic.
For Slovenia, there is an additional challenge of competition from other
new and soon-to-be EU members. The Czechs have more land under organic
cultivation. And Bulgaria, which may join the EU as early as 2007, has also
set its sights on filling the organic niche. (23)
In the end, though, the challenges facing the organic movement in Slovenia,
and Europe more generally, pale in comparison to the challenges faced by
conventional agriculture. Consumers have not had to pay the true cost of
their food for many decades. If the costs of despoiled land, shrinking
water supplies, generous government subsidies, and the health consequences
of pesticide and fertilizer use (for consumers and farmers both) were
factored into the price of that tasteless beet in the supermarket, the
average consumer would likely choose the locally grown organic beet in a
heartbeat. Slovenia has embraced sustainable agriculture because of its
geography. Facing major producers like the U.S., Canada, and Argentina,
Europe is rapidly coming to the same conclusion.
* John Feffer is a policy analyst and writer based in Washington, D.C.
1. Interview with Marta Hrustel Majcen, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 9, 2004.
2. Anamarija Slabe, "Slovenia: Building an environmentally friendly
agriculture," Ecology and Farming, IFOAM, May-August 2003, p. 30.
4. "United States State Fact Sheet," Economic Research Service, United
States Department of Agriculture, 2002 figures;
5. "European Union: Basic Information," Economic Research Service, United
States Department of Agriculture, 1997 figures;
6. For a comparison of the agricultural subsidies that the WTO includes in
the "Green Box" as environmental payments -- the EU around 20 percent of
total subsidies, the United States at around 1 percent -- see Dimitris
Diakosavvas, "The Greening of the WTO Box," paper given at the conference
Agricultural Policy Reform and the WTO: Where Are We Heading? June 23-26,
2003, p. 7; http://www.ecostat.unical.it/2003agtradeconf/
7. See, e.g., 2001 Eurobarometer poll results at:
8. "European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming," Commission of the
European Communities, June 10, 2004, p. 7.
9. Ibid, p. 7.
10. "First Global Meeting of Organic Agriculture Producers and Seed
Industry to Discus Issues of Organic Seed Production, Quality,
Certification and Market Access," Food and Agricultural Organization, July
11. The supermarkets, for instance, support the increase of organic farming
to 30 percent of total agricultural land by 2010. See Stephan Dabbert, Anna
Maria Haring, and Raffaele Zanoli, Organic Farming: Policies and
Prospects(London: Zed, 2004), p. 26.
12. "CAP review to prompt rise in organic farming, says expert,"Irish
Times, July 21, 2004.
13. "Organic Food Taste Study," Farmers Guardian, June 25, 2004; "Organic
Farming Research in the EU: Towards 21st Century," ENOF White Book, 1999.
14. This is the general conclusion of the EU Action Plan. One source of
this assessment is M. Stolze, Anna Maria Haring, and Stephen Dabbert, "The
Environmental Impact of Organic Farming in Europe" in Organic Farming in
Europe: Economics and Policy, Vol. 6 (StuttgartHohenheim: University of
15. Interview with Boris Fras, Koper, Slovenia, June 9, 2004.
16. 2003 figures for number of organic farms from communication with
Anamarija Slabe, July 28, 2004.
17. The percentage of utilizable land in Slovenia under organic cultivation
or being converted to organic is now at 4.4 percent, according to 2003
figures. EU-wide figures for 2003 are not yet available.
18. Information on SEAP comes from "Slovene AgriEnvironmental Programme,
2001-2006" Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, Republic of
19. Interview with Marjana Dermelj, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 8, 2004.
20. Interview with Anamarija Slabe, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 10, 2004.
21. "Labelling threshold plea from organic producers," Farmers Guardian,
April 2, 2004.
22. On demand for organics in Europe, see Bertil Sylvander and Aude Le
Floc'h-Wadel, "Consumer Demand And Production Of Organics In The EU,"
AgBioForum, Vol 3 (no. 2 and 3), 2003; http://www.agbioforum.org/v3n23/
23. "Organic food: Hearing on the Action Plan for 'Niche' Organic Farming,"
Food and Agriculture Organization, January 22, 2004.
(C) 2004 BY FOOD FIRST. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. PLEASE OBTAIN PERMISSION TO COPY.
More information about the San-Diego-Permaculture