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Going green in Moldova

Tamsin WalkerSeptember 8, 2015

Nestled in neighboring Ukraine's nook, the Republic of Moldova almost looks as if it is hiding. But when it comes thinking about an organic future, the former Soviet state can hold its head high.

Carrots in the ground
Image: Fotolia/Subbotina Anna

Landlocked between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova spans a modest area of 34,000 square kilometers. With a far less modest seventy percent of that space given over to agriculture, and a long history within the former Soviet Union, the country is not rich. In fact, it is one of the poorest in Europe.

But it is thinking ahead, and trying to make the best possible use of its resources and rural heritage. And in a era where conservation and clean food enjoy increasing attention, that means going green.

Unlike many western European farms and vineyards that have made the shift to organic, the transition in Moldova was by default. It was, says Birgitt Boor, of the East and South-East Asia arm of the #link:http://www.bcs-oeko.com/en_about_bcs.html:BCS organic certification agency,# a natural byproduct of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"After the fall of the Iron Curtain, most big eastern European state companies were broken up into small ones and privatized, and they just didn't have the money for pesticides."

Twenty-five years later, she adds, Moldova is largely free of the once widely used pesticide known as ddt, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. But that enforced detox was not the only favor mighty Moscow inadvertently granted its former charge.

In 2006, it accelerated the tiny Republic's shift towards organic by imposing a wine import ban.

A green lining

With a disproportionate export dependency on their former lord and master, Dumitru Alaiba, Head of Secretariat, Economic Council of the Prime Minister's Office says many vineyards went bankrupt. But the damage failed to crush the industry.

"It may sound rough, but Russian bans do good for Moldovan products – over time," Alaiba told DW, adding that the restrictions ushered in a new understanding of the importance of quality. And that includes organic viniculture techniques.

"The truth is that the quality of Moldovan wines in 2007 and now are incomparable," Alaiba continued. "Our winemakers have started investing in quality, in technology, in marketing their products, in trying new markets."

In essence, the whole industry underwent a revolution in the space of less than a decade, and when Moscow decided to introduce another ban last year, a growing European client base meant it was far less painful. In the aftermath of Russia's fruit embargo last year, Alaiba sees farmers in that sector embarking on a similar rethink.

"It could go through the same qualitative transformation in the next decade or so," he said, "moving the country forward" as a result.

The problems of certification

That any such progression will leave some by the wayside is inevitable. Not least because organic certification requires funds unavailable to many in a country with Europe's lowest average monthly income.

"Farmers, processors and even traders have to pay for inspection services and certification," Boor said. "But as soon as they have it, they can charge higher prices for their products."

It's something of a Catch22. Sergiu Botezu, a Moldovan who has worked for the US on development projects, says many poor farmers just can't afford to invest in themselves in that way, so end up having to sell their produce for next to nothing at local markets.

"That is why organic farming is not moving ahead everybody would like in Moldova,” he told DW.

However slow, the industry is developing, and the country's green products can be found on the shelves of shops across Europe. That gives Alaiba reason enough to be optimistic about the future.

"I am sure that with greater EU access for Moldovan products, our farmers will see the opportunity."

A beautiful side-effect

Women working with fruit in a processing environment
The entire production process has to be organic in order to achieve certificationImage: DW
Vineyards spread into the distance
The wine industry has undergone a transformation in the past decadeImage: DW/S. Ciochina

But reaching consumers in Germany, Sweden or the UK is not the only thing that makes organic farming in the republic a positive thing.

As chairman of the #link:http://www.biotica-moldova.org/:BIOTICA Ecological Society,# Alexei Andreev played a pivotal role in drawing up plans for a #link:http://iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/europe/?10085/Developing-a-National-Ecological-Network-in-Moldova:National Ecological Network in Moldova,# and is all too aware of the conservation challenges facing his country. These, he says, include the "further loss of valuable habitats in forests and wetlands, climate change induced shifts in ecosystems and the continued degradation of grazing lands."

Although organic agricultural practices are not a cure-all for the environmental ills of the nation, he says going organic is the way foward, and can help in more ways than taking the chemicals out of food.

"It is very important, both in theory and practise," he said. "It means grazing in fenced areas, and restoring crop rotation of perennial legumes, which is very rare at the moment."

Using the same land for different crops at different times helps get rid of insects and diseases associated with a particular plant, which improves yield, while simultaneously encouraging greater biodiversity.

But Andreev is also a strong advocate of agricultural-environmental schemes that encourage the use of compost to improve soil fertility, creation of communal forests or the planting and maintenance of live fences as a means of protecting habitat for biological diversity.

And that is perhaps the kind of commitment Moldova has to make to itself if it is to truly benefit from its accidental detoxification and allow its budding reputation as a powerhouse of eastern European organic produce to flourish.

Fresh fruit and vegetables
Moldovan farmers have their sights set on organic food sellers in the EU, which could also be good for the environmentImage: Robert Kneschke/Fotolia