When communism crumbled two decades ago, eastern Europeans were only too delighted to discover the fast-food chains that symbolised the West. But today they increasingly long for organic food.
"The general trend is that more and more organic products are being sold in former Soviet-bloc countries," says Amarjit Sahota, the head of the research department at Organic Monitor, a consulting firm based in London. The Romanian capital recently saw the opening of organic stores named Biofood, or Bio Revolution, and in neighbouring Hungary, organic markets are regularly held countrywide each week.
In Poland, there are organic corners in almost every supermarket. In the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the country's first specialist organic store, which opened last year, is extending its activities to a neighbouring cafe. Even Transylvania's archbishop has converted to pesticide-free food. "As consumers become more informed about food production, they look for higher quality products," says Mr Sahota.
Romanian newspapers for instance are multiplying reports on organic agriculture and healthy food, with Adevarul, the biggest daily, creating a "green page" dedicated to environmental and organic topics. "Romanians were fascinated by McDonald's and Coca-Cola after the 1989 Revolution, but today people think more about their health and are starting slowly to come to organic food," says Marian Cioceanu, the president of NGO Bio Romania.
But the eastern European market is tiny compared with western Europe, with research by Organic Monitor showing 2007 organic food and beverage sales amounting to ?60 million (Dh320.71m) in eastern and Central Europe, compared with ?20 billion in Europe as a whole. In Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, organic food and beverages account for a mere 1 per cent of total food sales, according to agriculture ministries in both countries.
But growth is steady, with little impact on the sector from the economic crisis. In Romania, organic food sales in 21 supermarkets owned by the French giant Carrefour increased 15 to 20-fold in the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year, says the managing director Andreea Mihai. In Poland, the number customers of the online organic shop Ecolive.pl almost tripled in one year, says Beata Mioduszewska, a company official. "Our branch of activity was not at all impacted by the economic crisis even though prices remain a big hurdle for Polish customers," she says.
Extra costs are due to the lack of processing facilities in these countries, meaning a long journey between the producer and the consumer. In Poland, organic fruits and vegetable cost 30 per more, while organic eggs and cheese are three times the prices of their industrial equivalents. In Bulgaria, organic products cost between 30 and 50 per cent more. In Romania, where the average monthly salary is ?325, one litre of organic apple juice is twice the price of regular juice, or ?3.30 instead of ?1.20 to ?1.70.
"Central and Eastern European countries have large amounts of organic farmland that produce raw materials such as cereals, organic fruits and vegetables. But the finished products - biscuits, dairy products, breakfast cereals - are all processed in western Europe," says Mr Sahota, and have to be transported back to organic stores in eastern Europe. "It's not very ecological in terms of the carbon footprint."
Romanian farmer Aurel Petrus, for instance, is a pioneer in organic farming. He produces organic wheat, corn, sunflowers, hay and malt on 1,300 hectares in the village of Stefan Cel Mare, 100km east of the capital. Business is profitable, with revenues of about ?500,000 last year and 18 full-time staff as well as seasonal workers. But most of the crops have to be exported to Austria and Germany due to a lack of organic processing facilities in Romania.
"Under former dictator Ceausescu, state farms used a lot of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, but there were no funds for village co-operatives," he says. "The lack of funding helped us in a sense because the land did not receive any chemical substances for years, which enables us today to be certified for organic farming." Though Mr Petrus, 49, does not receive EU subsidies for organic farming because the Romanian government failed to present an acceptable distribution mechanism, he is convinced the "future is organic", as stated on a sticker in his office.
* Agence France-Presse