The organic sector in Romania has grown significantly over the last two decades. Between 2001 and 2021, the organic land area expanded by 1916% (EUROSTAT, 2023b), reaching 4.3% of the utilized agricultural area (UAA) in 2021. The two main land use type in organic agriculture are arable land (59,24%) and permanent grasslands (37,09%) (EUROSTAT, 2023b). The main arable crop groups are cereals, green fodder and oilseeds. The main permanent crops are fruits, grapes and berries (Organic Europe, 2023). The domestic share of organic retail sales accounts for 0.2% (FiBL, 2023). The organic sector in Romania is highly dependent on export to Western-Europe and Middle East (Organic Europe).
KEY DRIVERS AND BARRIERS FOR THE ORGANIC SECTOR DEVELOPMENT
For Romania, market access and subsidies tied to EU membership had a notable, but not always consistent impact on the development of the organic sector. Phases of stagnation or even de-growth suggest that fairly powerful barriers curb sector development even under conducive conditions (smallholder structure with no chemical use). Apart from the i) strong export orientation for organic (raw) products and the respectively ii) pre-mature internal consumer market, pronounced barriers exist in policy: such as the iii) general distrust in policy support; iv) short-term political interests in EU funding as well as v) strong ‘mainstream’ lobbying power vis-a-vis a highly divided, and therefore weak farming community. With a better coordinated or equipped AKIS alone such structural barriers are hard to overcome.
Even though organic farming institutions date back to the 1990s or even before, the EU accession in 2007 for Romania accompanied by the availability of supporting instruments and EU organic market access pushed the development of the sector. A short-term interest in receiving funding is seen in Romania, aligned with a lack of confidence in supportive government policies of organic farming. On the policy level, (human) resources were and are dedicated to the development of organic farming in Romania, but organic farming is still confronted with mainstream lobbying dominance. This results in a rather weak position of organic farming institutions in the policy arena. Internal conflicts within the organic farming associations hamper the representation of organic farming interests in the policy arena. This role is rather taken by individuals of the organic farming community. In Romania mainstream organisations are involved to some extent in research activities on organic farming as well as providing extension and advisory services to organic farmers. Export of mainly raw material has been the biggest driver for organic farming development in Romania, but also seen as the biggest hindering factor for development of a local market. In recent years, evermore processors are entering organic farming and evermore consumers are interested in organic products, especially in urban areas. Overall, communication to consumers has increased but is still considered insufficient. The lack of positive reactions from consumer market perceived by farmers is seen as an obstacle for conversion to organic farming. Though, scholars see great potential in supporting organic farming in Romania due to historically low level of chemical use in agriculture in large parts of the country. Additionally, high land fragmentation and the increasing number of small farms are perceived as supporting factors for organic farming development.
AKIS in Romania
The strength of the Romanian AKIS for organic agriculture lies in regional cooperation and commitment of different actors. Current developments aim at strengthening the position of organic actors within the system. Challenges persist, however, in terms of fragmentation, funding, coordination, and specialisation. On the one hand new policy goals are set to improve coordination and target training; on the other there is not a clear implementation plan on how to achieve these goals.
Knowledge creation, research and innovation
Although agricultural research in Romania is only recently becoming participatory, it is already generally demand-driven and responsive to the information needs of organic farmers. However, knowledge transfer in a post-socialist country principally suffers from a fundamental lack of trust between actors. Experience with structured dialogue is scarce and the capacities of AKIS actors in organic agriculture are still broadly insufficient. Knowledge exchange works particularly well where clusters provide an enabling environment for networking and cooperation. The main knowledge hubs are the InterBio consortium with four clusters active in different regions and knowledge centres, some university departments, and some public research institutes. In the absence of a centralized digital information platform for organic farmers, local infrastructures developed for the clusters, business and export purposes, technology transfer and R&D can fill this gap. Knowledge creation and efforts in information dissemination are still mainly dependent on EU funding and programmes. National R&D programmes and private organisations or investors provide complementary funding.
Education and training
There are few public education programmes and vocational or other types of training programmes focusing on organic farming. There are training and educational programmes that do not focus on organic farming practices, but still offer knowledge on more sustainable alternatives to conventional practices. There are some training programmes that cover regulation and other aspects of organic conversion. These are usually organised by AKIS actors actively involved in the development of clusters, farmer umbrella organisations, and even certification bodies. Most training programmes and knowledge transfer events are linked to EU projects. At national level no effort has been made to develop training programmes for advisors to improve their knowledge of organic farming.
Advice and consultancy
In Romania, organic farmers and processors do not have access to extension services specialised in organic agriculture, and there are no concerted efforts to change this any time soon. There are not centrally coordinated, strategic efforts to develop advisory services for organic. Existing advisory covers general aspects, such as sales support, assistance in internationalization and Business to Business (B2B) negotiations, branding, marketing, or business plan development. AKIS actors formally responsible for professional training of advisors for organic are not in place. Therefore, advisory service providers in most cases are not sufficiently familiar with organic farming, certification requirements, or the conversion process. Moreover, there is little effort to improve farmers’ access to extension services.