Issue 2, 2018. April-May

   

TESTING THE ORGANIC STANDARD: TURNING NATURAL GEORGIAN PRODUCTS INTO BONA FIDE ORGANIC GOODS

There are a lot of people in Georgia who still believe that all locally grown agricultural products are 'natural' and 'organic.' Georgians are proud of their fruits and vegetables, which indeed are aromatic, juicy and have a more intense taste than their Western counterparts. But are they really organic?

Tatjana Montik

If you ask experts like Elene Shatberashvili, they would compare the organic market in Georgia to a newborn baby-the concept is growing, but there are years of development ahead.

Shatberashvili, an advocacy officer working with the local Association Elkana, notes that 'more and more people know that if a product has been produced in Georgia, it does not automatically mean that it is ecological or organic.'

'Bio' Certified

Jochen Jaeger, Jammy Greens

Elkana was established in 1994 in order to provide support to farmers who were interested in organic farming. Elkana's office in Tbilisi's Saburtalo district is attached to a rather remarkable shop, 'Bio Valley', where certified organic and local Georgian products-including wine, honey, tea, cheese, spices, vinegar, juices, flour, and dried fruits-are sold.

Some of the inventory, like organic rye flour, wheat bran, millet and chickpeas, is unusual for Tbilisi-based markets. But not all are certified organic, according to the standard set by the government's 2014 decree on organic farming.

The governmental decree, part of Georgia's efforts to harmonize with European legislation as part of the EU Association Agreement, stipulates that anything marked organic must be certified by an authorized certification body. Currently, the only local certification body that is legally authorized to provide organic certifications in Georgia is Caucascert Ltd., which also holds European Union accreditation.

'This certification is valid in both the European and the Georgian markets. And because Caucascert has accreditation in the EU, it has easier access to other certifications, such as for the USA and for Japan,' Shatberashvili explained.

She added that interest in getting certified is growing.

'We have now more information on food safety; there are more consumer-protection groups that test products, for pesticides and other chemicals, for example. And new people with new ideas keep entering the agricultural sector; there are even foreigners and people from the cities. They all have a different view on how things should be done ... I really believe that in a few years we will have a completely different picture, but at present, there is a big opportunity in the market,' Shatberashvili said.

Exports and Wines

Unfortunately, today 'organic certification is mainly done for exports. Most of the certified grocery producers in Georgia-they number around 50-are wine producers. But there are also herbs, herbal teas, fruit, and forest products, mainly for export. There are some, although very few, certified entities which are oriented toward the local market,' she added.

The popularity of organic production seems to be highest among Georgian winemakers, although not all of them are certified. Nick Garsevanishvili has vineyards close to Akhmeta in the Kakheti region. He and his friend started their business in 2014 'out of pure enthusiasm,' as Garsevanishvili remembers. In the beginning of their winemaking career, Garsevanishvili and his partner found it very difficult to find proper and updated information about organic winemaking. 'We found that a lot of old knowledge was lost during the Soviet period, but new information was not really being passed around. This is why we dream of establishing an educational center for winemakers in order to provide to them all this knowledge,' Garsevanishvili explained. 'First and foremost, we received help from the Bio Agro Company, which provided us with profound advice and expert consultation as well as with all substances we needed for organic wine growing.'

Today, Garsevanishvili's company, Akhmeta Wine House, is producing around 3,000 bottles of traditional organic qvevri wine per vintage. Next year, Garsevanishvili and his partner plan to be certified by the Caucascert, 'as competition on our wine market is increasing daily, with more and more new producers entering it, and our market situation is rather severe, if you take into account the insufficient number of professionally working wine-shops.'

'We hope that if we are allowed to put the organic label on our bottles, we would not need to prove anything to anyone anymore,' he added.

Returning to its Roots

There are some other organic producers working on the local market as certified organic farmers. One of them is a former architect from Germany, Jochen Jaeger. He is the owner of the organic agricultural enterprise Jammy Greens, and he runs his Tbilisi based organic shop Sunflower on in Zandukeli Street. Having started his business eight years ago, Jaeger now is a highly popular organic-foods supplier for big international hotels in Georgia and famous Georgian and gourmet restaurants, as well as for private clients.

OYO Cosmetics' Tata Tomadze and Tina Tsiskarishvili

'Our enterprise obtained an organic certification in order to be on the safe side. To me, working in an organic way is not only a philosophical issue, but it is also a kind of a political statement. With it, we would like to stress the necessity to protect our environment. Unfortunately, in Georgia not many people know how to do it,' Jaeger said. 'People are still not aware of the amount of pesticides and other chemicals which are being used in their grocery products. This topic has not yet been raised publicly, and people often lack experience and know-how when they work with their products. People are not being informed, and many tend to think that a lot [of pesticides] helps a lot, which is not true.'

I met Jaeger in his Sunflower shop, near the Rustaveli metro station. In his shop, some of the goods look very appealing: honey, adjika, salt from Svaneti, cider vinegar and wine, as well as farmer's eggs, cheese, fresh bread, and fresh vegetables. However, his shop's product assortment is even much wider. From his three-hectare farm, Jaeger tries to comply with the demands of his sophisticated customers, who ask for products that are not easy to find locally, including different kinds of cherry tomatoes, green basil leaves, thyme, arugula and other kinds of salad, Hokkaido pumpkins, artichokes and microgreens.

Jaeger noted that interest in organic farming is growing among his local colleagues, and now he is working with them to educate them and sell their products in his shop.

Jaeger believes that organic agriculture has huge potential in Georgia. 'Here in Georgia everything is growing very well! And this region, the South Caucasus, is a genetic pool for many plants. Many kinds of plants that we know in Europe originate from here. Take, for example, lamb's lettuce [also known as field salad] or 'Feldsalat' as we call it in Germany. This salad, from the valerian family, is very popular in my country, whereas in Georgia hardly anyone knows it. But its origin is the South Caucasus, where it was growing 6,000 years ago in the vineyards. Then it made its way via Mesopotamia and Egypt to Southern Europe. And only in the last century, it came to Germany. I brought it back to Georgia, and I am proud to promote it here, in its home country.'

Despite all these promising tendencies, it can still be challenging to find the organic products one needs, which is why the owner and chef of three famous Tbilisi gourmet restaurants, Tekuna Gachechiladze, is even thinking about opening her own farm.

'The more you expand in the restaurant business, the more you grow unhappy about the suppliers' products. For me, a good restaurant starts not in my kitchen, but in the ground. And then if you start from zero, you can really get what you need. In my restaurant Kasheria, I already have this kind of farm-to-table concept. There, everything is local,' she said.

But she noted that the issues of purity and consistency linger.

'If it is from the village, you don't know whether it is natural or not. It is not always the same. You have no idea what these people ... put into their land, what kind of chemicals they are putting into their tomatoes. You cannot control it now. You can have a perfect tomato, but it still can be full of pesticides. When you grow your own stuff, you can have a 100 percent guarantee,' Gachechiladze said.

Elkana's advocacy officer Elene Shatberashvili is convinced that a breakthrough in the Georgian organic market is only possible with well-thought investment and hard work.'But the organic sector will not develop separately from the agricultural sector. And we still have a lot of problems in this sector,' she said.

Organic Creams and Therapeutic Oils

The demand for organic products is not limited to food and wine. For example, there are new trends for organically certified pharmaceutical products and cosmetics.

A small, Tbilisi-based family enterprise, Sana Pharmaceutics, has developed a formula for antiseptic organic products based on ethereal oils that it has used since 2012.

Called Molisan, their products include a skin lotion, an elixir for mucous and to help overcome hangovers, and an elixir to treat wounds, tropic ulcers, psoriasis and bedsores, as well as an intimate hygiene solution.

'All our products have been approved in clinical tests in Georgia and they also have a USDA organic certification as well as SDS passport (Safety Data Sheet). We sell them in Georgian pharmacies as well as in Ukraine and Russia,' noted Tata Tomadze, the project director.

'As our clients were so very happy with our products, they kept asking for a cosmetic line based on Molisan. So we decided to invite a Russian specialist, who helped us develop a new cosmetic line, OYO.'

This is the first Georgian organic cosmetic brand, and it includes an entire line of skin-care products: a cleaning gel, a lotion, a tonic with gualuronic acid, and five skin creams.

While Tomadze said that both lines are successful, there is one general problem with the organic market in Georgia.

'The average income of the people is very low, so many people can only afford to spend their money on food and on medicine, and not everyone thinks about organic products.'

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