Czech organic food market growing fast but most produce still imported

Vojtěch Kotecký and Kateřina Kotásková present campaign Czech Cake Wanted, photo: CTK

Organic food is selling in ever increasing quantities in the Czech Republic. Between 2006 and 2007 sales grew by almost 50 percent, and some predict further growth of around a third every year until 2011. That’s good news for Greens. However, they’re less pleased about the fact over half of the organic produce sold in this country is imported from abroad. Hoping to change that, the Czech branch of Friends of the Earth has just launched a new campaign entitled Hledá se česká buchta, or Czech Cake Wanted. I discussed it and other aspects of the Czech organic food market with the group’s Vojtěch Kotecký at the campaign’s launch.

Vojtěch Kotecký and Kateřina Kotásková present campaign Czech Cake Wanted, photo: CTK
“It seems that the primary reason for the major share of imported food on the Czech organic market is the current lack of interest on the side of the major Czech food producers. When you look at big Czech bakeries, meat processors, dairies and similar companies they usually tend not to be engaged in the organic market, and leave this opportunity to importers.”

Is the structure of Czech organic farming also a factor?

“Well, the structure of Czech organic farming is one of the reasons behind the lack of local organic food on the market. For example, there’s a major undersupply of local organic vegetables and fruit. But that doesn’t seem to be the primary reason for the lack of interest on the side of producers.”

What about price? Can Czech organic farmers compete with say German organic farmers?

“I don’t think that this is a question of price. In the end you have much lower labour costs in the Czech Republic, and labour costs are a major factor in organic farming, because it basically replaces chemicals – pesticides and fertilisers – with labour. This is something which should play into the hands of Czech organic farmers. The problem is that Czech farmers usually do not enter the organic market, simply because they don’t see major interest on the side of food producers. They wouldn’t be able to find somebody to sell their produce to.”

What difference does it make where the organic food comes from? Surely for people like yourselves in the environmental movement the most important thing is that people are buying organic food – why does it matter where it comes from?

“It matters for two reasons. First this is a major lost opportunity for Czech farmers and the Czech landscape. This is an opportunity where we could change the way farming uses our landscape. We could radically reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers in Czech agriculture. We’re just losing this opportunity and leaving it to other countries. Secondly of course when you import organic food from abroad you increase traffic pollution, you increase carbon emissions from long-distance transport and so on.”

I know internationally the idea of buying local food has become an important part of the philosophy of the Green movement, and I’ve even heard the word ‘locavore’ for somebody who eats locally produced foods – is there a local food movement in the Czech Republic?

“I think this is an area where the Czech Republic follows the trends of western European countries. Just like with organics, local food is becoming a trendy issue in the Czech market. I think that we will more or less follow the situation in western countries. The key thing is it is not an issue for environmentalists and environmentally strongly aware people, the so-called Dark Greens, but is becoming a mainstream interest.”

Is organic food seen as a kind of luxury by Czech consumers? It’s a bit more expensive.

Vojtěch Kotecký with Martin Bursík, photo: CTK
“Of course it is more expensive, and people will tend to see it as a niche market. But I think that the main reason for that is not so much the price, but rather the structure of the organic market. When you look at organic food in shops you will usually find very specialised foods, rather than normal, everyday things like bread, vegetables, potatoes, milk, butter and so on.”

Are you optimistic for the future in this area?

“I’m very optimistic, for two reasons. First, when you look at the Czech market, it is skyrocketing. The Czech organic market grew 49 percent between 2006 and 2007. Second, when you look at the trends in western European countries this is something the Czech Republic will follow and has always followed – and the situation in western European countries has completely changed over the last 15 years.”

Is the Czech state supporting organic farming sufficiently?

“The Czech government provides some subsidies and it’s actually one of the most progressive governments among the new member states of the EU. But compared to some western European countries, like Sweden, other Scandinavian countries, Austria, it is still lagging behind.”

Your campaign is called Wanted Organic Czech Buchta, it’s a kind of cake – why have you chosen the buchta as a symbol for this campaign?

“Two reasons. First it is a typical, everyday Czech food. And second because it is made from typical, normal, everyday ingredients, like flour, sugar, eggs…So if we get organic buchtas on the market, we will get everyday foods with them.”

Could I now go out and buy an organic buchta somewhere in Prague? Is it available in the shops?

“It is not available in the shops, though you could find it in some specialised producers. But the most important thing is that buchta is something you will bake at home rather than buying it. That again shows that what is necessary is the availability of everyday foods which are the ingredients for backing buchtas, rather than the availability of organic buchtas in supermarkets, per se.”