Organic food in Russia: healthy and trendy

The organic food market in Russia is in its developing stages. Source: ITAR-TASS

The organic food market in Russia is in its developing stages. Source: ITAR-TASS

In their search for natural, organic food, many Russians may visit open-air markets, fancy and expensive bio-stores or trendy new farmers’ cooperatives.

There is also a question of choice between locally grown or imported organic food. GMOs? Fast-food? Health food? Food is becoming a concern for many and is a need for all. The food business in Russia continues to grow and the supply is growing larger and larger. But what about organic food: is it healthy or just a trendy habit?

Russia is not exactly famous for its healthy diet. Smetana (sour cream), majonez (mayonnaise), sausages and salo (specially prepared fat) are difficult to incorporate in a perfect nutrition plan. But dietary lifestyle choice is making its way to Russia along with fitness clubs and organic food.

The organic food market in Russia is in its developing stages. According to an American study, from 2002 to 2008, organic food sales in Russia increased almost 20 times. But for the time being, the Russian Federation does not have standards in place for “organic” labeling.

For urban Russians who are increasingly health conscious there are three possibilities to avoid standard supermarkets’ food products: the classic open-air markets (rynok), the trendy bio-stores or the newly created farmers cooperatives. However the most typical way to buy fresh grocery products in Russia remains local open-air markets. Fruits and vegetables that are sold at these locations are grown locally, sold at reasonable prices and enjoy a good reputation along with having a “natural” flavor.

Despite the advantages of the above mentioned markets, according to Rosstat data (Federal State Statistics Service), more and more consumers prefer the new large supermarkets and malls to traditional markets. Moreover, municipal authorities are now closing these open-air markets (which are an alleged hot-spot for criminal traffic and just plain dirt) and constructing modern commercial structures.

In Moscow for example, the local authorities plan to close 19 enclosed and open-air markets by the end of 2012. In 2011 alone, 14 markets and old commercial centers were closed. This process of closing down and reconstruction is designed to give Moscow a new and modern look.

As for buying fresh bio-products, only two options remain: expensive and fancy bio-stores and trendy new farmers’ cooperatives. A range of stores in Russia, especially in  Moscow and St Petersburg, offer imported organic products. Currently in the absence of Russian bio-labeling, most organic products are imported from the European Union, in particular from Germany, France and Italy.

The first Moscow bio-store, “Rizhaya Tyvka”, opened in Moscow in 2004. However due to people’s misunderstanding of what ‘organic products’ mean and to the lack of marketing preparations, this store closed within a year and an half. However, now many supermarkets and retail stores offer organic food.

A wide choice of foods can now be found: from butter and marmalade to teas and fruit and vegetables. However these stores target the wealthier consumers, and it’s worth pointing out: for an ecologically conscious consumer, buying imported goods does not really make sense. Actual organic food is not only healthier, it is also considered to be more environmentally friendly. However, wasteful CO2 emissions, which are generated to transport these goods, make them a paradox for go-green consumers.

A new trend is thus developing in Russia’s big cities: locally grown organic food. Online stores or ordinary shops offer local farm products., for example, is an organic grocery store, a restaurant and an on-line delivery service. As one of its founders, Boris Akimov, explained to the Voice of Russia, Lavkalavka is a “cooperative service which gets farmers together at a regional level around the cities where we deliver food (Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Kaliningrad). We offer all types of grocery products which grow in these regions: meat, poultry, milk products and vegetables.” The same with the online shop Ferma: fresh farm products are delivered three-times a week to Moscow.

Both companies claim that their products are fresh and healthy to maximum levels, but when we asked them about GMOs, their answers remain evasive. “You know GMOs are like nanotechnologies, it’s a media-centered topic, but actually even in pelmeni (Russian dumplings) you can find GMOs…” declared Maxim Livsi, creator of Ferma, in an interview with The Voice of Russia.

Actually, these new ecological stores promote values such as local production, family, self-reliance and personal relationships. On the website of Lavkalavka, you can find a picture and a short story about a farmer and the farm where your vegetables have been grown. As Boris Akimov described: “The difference between our products, and the ones of other organic shops, lies in the fact that we know where our products have been produced. Our clients know the farmer and the place where the food products have been grown. It is even possible to go and meet with the farmer who made these products; or to chat with our farmers online.”

Actually as long as there is no official system for organic certification in Russia, marketing may attempt to compensate. However, in November the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation (Minselkhoz) plans to pass a bill "On the production of ecological (organic) agricultural products” according to which organic products will receive state labeling.

Russian farmers expect that this law will make their products more competitive on the international market. At the same time it should help consumers to buy more precisely what they want and maybe to pay for their food at a fairer price.

At the moment, organic food is quite expensive. It costs 20 to 400 percent more than its conventional equivalents. For example: at Lavkalavka a liter of milk costs 140 rubles (4.5 US $), at Ferma 100 rubles (3.2 US $) and at an ordinary shop 40 rubles (1.2 US $). That is to say that at these organic grocery stores, a liter of milk is two or three times more expensive.

Representatives of these stores have good arguments to explain this difference in price. Boris Akimov told us that prices of Lavkalavka’s products are higher for two reasons: “We cooperate with farmers who work under high-quality standards and our products are extremely fresh; this requires a complex logistics system which has to be paid for.”

If healthy food is organic, it will attract rich people and high taxes. The only solution for urban Russian seems to be to carry on the ‘weekend-at-the-dacha tradition’, in other words, to stay close to the countryside, where they are just a few steps away from their own gardens.

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