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Synthesis/Regeneration 37   (Spring 2005)

Slovenia, the European Union, and the Debate Over Sustainable Agriculture

by John Feffer

“There is no other way for Slovenian agriculture except sustainable agriculture.”—Marta Hrustel Majcen, State Undersecretary of Agriculture, Forestry, and Food, Republic of Slovenia.[1]

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% 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 US 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. In 2003, Slovenian organic farmers and their counterparts in four neighboring provinces of Austria [Carinthia, Styria] and Italy [Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Veneto] declared what they hope will become a showcase for organic farming: the world’s first organic bioregion. 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.

Slovenian organic farmers … declared what they hope will become a showcase … the world’s first organic bioregion.

Europe’s agricultural strategy

If agriculture were a boxing ring, Europe and the US 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 US government favors the largest operators.[6] The EU takes organic agriculture very seriously while the US government ignores the subject.

In 2003, this transatlantic battle moved to the World Trade Organization [WTO], where the US 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 US 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 US victory would anger Europeans, most of whom consider GMOs dangerous and more than 90% of whom want to know exactly what they’re eating.[7]

Meanwhile, the EU’s proactive approach to organic 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% in 1995 to nearly 3.5% in 2002, an annual increase of nearly 30%. Consumer demand—particularly for dairy products and baby foods—is behind the 8% annual growth rate in the organic food retail sector.[8] In the United Kingdom, seven of the top supermarket chains are supporting a massive increase in organic farming and organic sales.[9]

This growth is also driven by EU institutions’ attention to organic agriculture, which is part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy [CAP]. 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.[10] The EU has poured money into research programs such as a recently announced study at England’s University of Newcastle that will compare the taste and nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods.[11] 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.[12]

The 2004 Action Plan proposes to promote organic agriculture in the EU by encouraging the purchase of organic food by large scale 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.

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 20 years, he says.

By contrast, his vines will produce for at least a century. Fras takes the long view.[13]

Fras is the head of the Union of Slovenia Organic Farmers’ Association [USOFA], which is a prime mover behind the Alpe-Adria 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.[14] 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.”[15] 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. “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 rare species of birds. Some SAEP funds are earmarked explicitly for organic farmers.

According to research sponsored by USOFA, Slovenes favor foreign products except in the case of food.[16] Organic products are now available in Slovenian supermarkets, and organic producers do brisk business at the farmers’ market in the capital city of Ljubljana.

…although organic products are generally twice the cost of conventional ones, demand outstrips supply.

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 non-chemical 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.[17] 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 pragmatism [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?

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.

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 0.3–0.5% threshold for unintended presence of GMOs in non-GM seed. The organic community supports a 0.1% threshold and is worried that contamination by GM crops and seeds will undermine the whole concept of organic farming.[18]

Even if GMOs are controlled, the rosy estimates of a growing organic movement—30% by 2010?—may hit a wall. At the moment, although organic products are generally twice the cost of conventional ones, demand outstrips supply.[19] 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.

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 US, Canada, and Argentina, Europe is rapidly coming to the same conclusion.


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.

3. Ibid.

4. United States State Fact Sheet, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, 2002 figures; http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/US.HTM

5. European Union: Basic Information, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, 1997 figures; http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/EuropeanUnion/basicinfo.htm

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/Contributed%20papers/Diakosavvas.PDF

7. See, e.g., 2001 Eurobarometer poll results at: http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/press/2001/pr2312en.html

8. First Global Meeting of Organic Agriculture Producers and Seed Industry to Discuss Issues of Organic Seed Production, Quality, Certification and Market Access, Food and Agricultural Organization, July 5, 2004.

9. The supermarkets, for instance, support the increase of organic farming to 30% 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.

10. CAP review to prompt rise in organic farming, says expert, Irish Times, July 21, 2004.

11. Organic Food Taste Study, Farmers Guardian, June 25, 2004; Organic Farming Research in the EU: Towards 21st Century, ENOF White Book, 1999.

12. 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 (2000) Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy, Stuttgart Hohenheim: University of Hohenheim, vol 6.

13. Interview with Boris Fras, Koper, Slovenia, June 9, 2004.

14. 2003 figures for number of organic farms from communication with Anamarija Slabe, July 28, 2004.

15. Information on SEAP comes from Slovene AgriEnvironmental Programme, 2001–2006, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, Republic of Slovenia, 2001.

16. Interview with Marjana Dermelj, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 8, 2004.

17. Interview with Anamarija Slabe, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 10, 2004.

18. Labelling threshold plea from organic producers, Farmers Guardian, April 2, 2004.

19. 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/v3n23a05-sylvander.htm

John Feffer is a policy analyst and writer based in Washington, D.C.

[27 mar 05]

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