On March 27 in Kavadarci, Slow Food Bitola organised a conference entitled “Quality Protection of Traditional Products” to shed light over the recently adopted regulation to implement EU quality schemes and Geographical Indications in the Republic of Macedonia.
Over a hundred and twenty small-scale food producers gathered in Kavadarci to learn more about a process that should represent an opportunity for the many that produce traditional food products. The conference was also attended by Emilie Vandecandelaere – agribusiness economist at the FAO – in charge of the development of green value chains and supporting sustainable voluntary standards.
EU quality schemes are supposed to provide protection from expropriation and generalisation for the many traditional products still produced in rural areas in Macedonia that are still unknown to the wider public.
So far so good, yet the devil is in detail. In Macedonia, like in most of the Balkan countries, the vast majority of small-scale producers are not registered to be legally entitled to sell their produce. There are several reasons for this. First of all, producers are still selling most of their food produce on the informal market, and are afraid that fulfilling such fiscal and hygiene requirements would increase their production costs, making their products less competitive on the market. Uncertainty over the legalisation process and its cost coupled with a general lack of support by public authorities often make this process difficult and seemingly unachievable. In addition, owing to the socialist legacy, producers often lack an entrepreneurial approach, self-consciousness and the confidence needed to develop their small businesses.
During the conference it didn’t take long for the audience to realize that if most small-scale farmers remain invisible to the State, they will not be able to benefit from the adoption and implementation of the EU quality schemes. To date, of over 1,500 products registered as protected Geographical Indications, only 15 belong to the Balkan Peninsula, excluding Greece (as of November 2014).
The risk is not just that small-scale producers might not benefit from EU quality schemes. A real risk is that many communities throughout the region risk their traditional products being co-opted by industrial producers, delineating standards and codes of conduct that adhere to large-scale production. This would jeopardise the opportunity for small-scale and artisan food production to benefit from the traditions they have carefully safeguarded for centuries.
The implementation of sound and feasible flexibility provisions within hygiene regulations would help to create an environment that facilitates and encourages small-scale farmers to register their businesses, It is this that remains at the very heart of the problem of agricultural and rural development in the region; a problem that the Terra Madre Balkans network has been trying to tackle since the very beginning through the European Commission-funded ESSEDRA project. Considering that the Balkans hosts the vast majority of the European Union’s small-scale farmers, this issue is crucial for the future of agriculture throughout the European Union itself.