Article published in The Kyiv Weekly, 12/04/2012
In Ukraine, the beginnings of organic farming have proved difficult for producers because of a lack of know-how, insufficient funding and no support from state authorities. Plus the challenge of growing and selling organic food has had to match strict requirements set by Western standards. Certification by an accredited body makes up a ultimate prize for all efforts.
Building the trust
Oleg Zukhovskyi is the largest producer of organic milk in Ukraine. His “EthnoProduct” group owns about 8,000 ha and 2,000 cows. “I started to work on my certification about 4 years ago. The transition period lasted for about 3 years, and I received my certificate from the “Institute for Market Ecology” (IMO) in autumn 2010. Now, all of my milk products are certified as organic and consumers all over Ukraine can trust their organic qualities. It was worth it”. In order to receive his certificate, he had to guarantee a completely organic feeding of his cows, their proper veterinary treatment and to ensure they have enough space to move and grow up freely. Every year, he has to spend about UAH 100,000 to renew his license. He also has to undergo several controls, whether planned or unannounced, by authorized inspectors.
Organic certification is an essential component of the development of organic farming in Ukraine and elsewhere. “Certification helps to build bridges between producer and consumer. The signs displayed on products in shops and supermarkets tell the consumer what was grown where and how. It avoids falsification of products, it builds a relationship of trust between the two ends of the chain”, explains Sergiy Galashevskyy, general manager of the Ukrainian-based certification body “Organic Standard”. Such a positive effect is confirmed by Oleksandr Koroliov, organic producer in the outskirts of Kyiv. “It is a question of reputation. My consumers are made up of people who are wondering about the content of their plates. Thanks to the certification, they know exactly where their vegetables come from”.
Nationalization of certification
In the first years of the organic farming in Ukraine, several international certification bodies have been certifying organic farmers, processors and traders, such as ABCert (Germany), EcoCert (France), Icea (Italy), Control Union/Skal (Netherlands), Etko (Turkey). The largest amount of certificates has been delivered by the IMO within the framework of a Ukrainian-Swiss project aimed at enhancing organic production in Ukraine. In 2007, Organic Standard was created as an answer to an increased demand and need to ease the integration of organic products on domestic markets. It showed an evident appropriation of the phenomenon of organic production by Ukrainians.
Sergiy Galashevskyy recalls: “First Ukrainian-Swiss project was focused on promoting organic farming in Ukraine, on bringing know-how, knowledge, methods. At some point of the implementation of the project, they understood that there was a need for a Ukrainian certification body. Organic Standard is a copy-paste of the IMO so to speak. Our added value? To be as close as possible to our clients, understand their problems, their needs, their expectations, and to speak the same language”.
Organic Standard is now the leading certification body in Ukraine. It has certified about 100 producers, that is about 60% out of some 190 organic farms. 15 other international operators provide certification to the remaining producers, processors and traders. Thanks to its initial partnership with the Swiss IMO and its recognition by the European Commission, Organic Standard is one of the 30 non-EU certification companies to offer facilities for export to the European single market along with the organic certificate. In Ukraine, it is the only one providing such an advantage, along with the Turkish Etko.
Why go organic if pseudo-organic works?
Certification represents a high cost for Ukrainian farmers who would want to turn organic. Prices vary according to size and type of farming, from about UAH 1,500 to 100,000 in the case of “EthnoProduct”group. Plus, the efforts and investments required for a proper transition from conventional to organic farming may scare many producers away. Sergyy Galashevskyy regretfully admits such a problem: “You have to consider that many farmers offer what we call ´pseudo-organic´ products, which most of the time have nothing to do with organic. Thanks to catchy logos and consumers´ lack of knowledge, they have access to markets and supermarkets. So many farmers actually think: ´Why should I ask for certification if I don´t need it?´”
Tools to differentiate an organically certified product from a conventional or pseudo-organic one do exist. Organic Standard and its counterparts ensure that the products they certify display the word “organic”, the logo of the certification company and a reference to a control body. Yet such a confusion on Ukrainian food markets may leave consumers confused and tricked.
Towards clearer rules?
Up until now, there is no efficient tool in Ukraine to prevent sales of pseudo-organic products. Apart from raising awareness through advertising, holding conferences and issuing publications on the topic, organic producers and certification bodies have no legal means to counter unfair competition. The Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) currently studies the possibility to set a framework to the development of organic farming in Ukraine and to provide legal safeguards to involved actors. A previous bill on the issue was vetoed by President Viktor Yanukovich back in May 2011, because of alleged technical shortcomings.
Two new bills have been introduced in the Rada in early 2012, one authored by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the other by “Motherland Defenders Party” MP Yuri Karmazin. Despite some technical differences, both bills reflect on a shared will to ensure a balanced development of organic farming in Ukraine. Yuri Karmazin intends his bill to arrange a protected space, shielded from what he denounces as a “mafia of pesticides”. The bills have still to undergo further examination by the Rada and it is too early to tell whether the proponents´ goals will be achieved.
“The most important is to avoid the duplication of the scheme of organic certification in Ukraine”, Natalia Prokopchuk, Project Coordinator of the « Organic Certification and Market Development in Ukraine » at the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) stresses. “The objective has to be clear: provide a clear and coherent framework for the production, processing, distribution and consumption of organic products in the country. And to avoid also that extra administrative requirements result in more burdening of producers and corruption. It should be a benchmark for the organic law to be adopted here in Ukraine, as it is already successfully implemented in Western countries and Japan”.
For now, there is no talk of providing state technical and financial assistance to Ukrainian organic farming, as some Western states do. But the definition of a legal framework could make a significant difference on its perspectives of development. As for many sectors of activities in the country, organic farmers await clear rules and their actual implementation for their vegetables, milk and fruits to make a real impact on the Ukrainian ways of consumption.