A communal desire to support small-scale traditional producers in the face of growing threats from regulations and the food industry united food communities from ten countries across the Balkan Peninsula last week for the first ever Terra Madre Balkans. During the three-day event in Sofia, Bulgaria, 165 representatives from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, UNMIK Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey took part in an exhibition area as well as conferences and workshops on the topics of sustainable food production and rural tourism development in the region, with a central focus on the fate of traditional foods in light of EU-membership.
“Throughout the region home-made production is still widespread, demonstrating that food traditions are still playing a fundamental role in rural Balkan culture,” says Michele Rumiz, Slow Food co-ordinator for the Balkan region. “However those making a living as rural farmers often produce at too small-scale a level, and are threatened by the growing presence of industrial food. Furthermore, consumers don’t yet appreciate the value of artisan produce and public institutions often perceive them as a useless legacy of the past to be overcome, rather than a resource.”
“Most of the countries in this area also have food safety standards that favor industrial production, which often means that small-scale producers cannot access the market,” says Rumiz. Strict safety standards imposed by the European Union and national governments pose further barrier to farmers, and, despite the benefits of small-scale farming to communities and the environment, many smaller farms in the area are leaving the food production system.
It was for this reason that participants jointly called to step up regional action to hold politicians accountable for enforcing clear and accessible standards and legislation that benefit both small-scale producers and consumers. Themes of the meeting centered on raising awareness of the preservation of traditional food production and supporting producers to move beyond homemade production to artisan production to increase their presence on the market.
Both Slow Food and the Terra Madre network have been well rooted in the region for a number of years, counting more than 500 members, nine Presidia, 47 Terra Madre food communities, and eight food and taste education programs in schools. Yet until now, the network from across the peninsula has never come together to exchange ideas in a meeting of this kind. Balkan countries share many similar food traditions and socio-economic conditions, therefore safeguarding their rural heritage needs collective efforts that go beyond national borders.
“I have been to many meetings before this one and I don’t think we’ve ever achieved as much as we achieved here,” said Slow Food Turda Convivium Leader Márta Pozsonyi who was among the participants. “We talked so much over the three days, staying up each night until the early hours of the morning, discovering our similarities and sharing our ideas. We have managed to create a real, functional network that we can now use in a great way.”