Treasure Around Us: Agricultural and Cultural Biodiversity in the Balkans

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Velika Plana, a small town in central Serbia is a meeting place of several different natural environments : the second largest river (after Danube) in Serbia – Velika Morava – and its fertile valley ; the hills of Šumadija, which are the starting point of the mountainous part of the Balkan peninsula ; and the final edges of the Panonian plain. In the larger scale, the Balkan region itself is a melting pot of different geographical structures, and also very diverse historically and culturally. Having a rather diverse environment but also cultural influences is what makes our geographical area a biodiversity hotspot. In the Balkan region we find many indigenous and endemic species, many of which are beneficial for the humans, whether edible or medicinal.

In Serbia, on one hand, there is no clear strategy in practice on a country level for biodiversity preservation.  In connection with agricultural biodiversity in particular, the government used to give certain subsidies for farmers rearing autochthonous races, but each year it is under question if and how much these farmers will get as a subsidy. On the other hand, there are many collective initiatives for advocating for importance of agricultural biodiversity. In Convivium Velika Plana, together with Superior seeds and YPARD, we are shaping our own strategy for preservation of agricultural biodiversity from our region and beyond.

Convivium Velika Plana is following the Slow Food principles of biodiversity preservation through the use of rare and less productive cultivars or races. The guiding principle is that if there is interest for people to have something on their plate, there will be interest for chefs to prepare it and interest for farmers to grow it. It is very common in practice that exactly these less productive and very often not easily propagated cultivars or races are the raw material for tastier food, and this is how we are winning over the consumers.

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In our Convivium, most of the producers are involved in the transformation of fruit and vegetables, or beekeeping. We are always encouraging the producers to consult traditional recipes when making the products, and to consider using cultivars that are typical for the region, with intense taste, even though sometimes harder to work with. In their experience, for example, the best ajvar (pepper cream made from roasted peppers that have to be peeled, and minced and additionally cooked in oil and salt) is made from the type of pepper that is hardest to peel.

The importance of bees and beekeepers is a hot topic globally. In the context of Serbia, beekeepers are facing many challenges! With lots of natural of linden, acacia, meadows, and fruit or sunflower cultivation, our beekeepers are producing honey of excellent quality. But the real problem comes with the market, especially when it comes to export. It is the exporters who are the middlemen, the ones who are truly enjoying the added value of this exquisite product, in high demand abroad. Our Convivium, and Slow Food in general, is empowering the beekeepers to act collectively, market their product in niche markets, emphasizing its role in the specific biodiverse context of the territory.

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Another important collaboration Convivium Velika Plana has for tackling the biodiversity preservation challenge is with Superior Seeds. Professor Ivo Djinović, is the leading plant breeder of the company, who has valorized local vegetable biodiversity, creating new cultivars and hybrids, particularly of tomato and pepper, always preserving the typical taste of the Balkan Peninsula. Together with Ivana Radić, a young agricultural economist, representative of Serbia in YPARD (another partner of GFAR) who has interest in the marketing side of typical food products, they started a project in 2013 aimed at “preserving Balkan tastes”.  By collecting buds of autochthonous varieties of fruits, mainly pear, plum and apple, and grafting them in a collection orchard, they have developed a gene base for preservation, but also for use in hybridization in the future. Professor Ivo himself has another collection, of about 1000 cultivars of vegetables, replanted every year in his experimental fields.

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To illustrate the importance of autochthonous biodiversity in Serbia to the citizens of our local community in Velika Plana, we organized an exhibition “Old and Forgotten Fruits of Serbia” in collaboration with the Natural science museum of Belgrade. The pictures and stories visitors had a chance to see are showing the real richness of our country.

As Slow Food in general, we in the Convivium want to promote the authenticity of our territory. All of us in the Balkans, and we in Velika Plana in particular, are surrounded by a richness of species, cultivars and races.  Thanks to our diverse culture and gastronomical influences from Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and French cuisines, and to our traditional hospitality, we offer exquisitely tasty food to anyone who comes around. We see the chance for development here! Serbia doesn’t have to dream of developing industry in order to augment the GDP and quality of life of its citizens. We just have to look around us, pick some pears, put a lovely smile on our face and offer some pear brandy and a tomato salad, while telling stories of our rich culture and history.

PARTNER SPOTLIGHT logoThis blog post by Ivana Radić, one of the leaders of Slow Food Convivium Velika Plana, was written on the occasion of the event “Dani polja Superiora Terra Madre Morava 2017”. It is part of our Partner Spotlight this week on Convivium Velika Plana. Held in Velika Plana, Serbia, on 29th July 2017, Terra Madre Morava 2017 was a conference about opportunities for youth in the rural context co-organized by YPARD Serbia and Convivium Velika Plana, and hosted by Superior Seeds company, all partners in GFAR. Among the contributors were small-scale producers, representatives from CSOs, private sector, Slow Food Convivium and PresidiumRegional Development Agency for Braničevo and Podunavlje region and the Slow Food coordinator for Balkans and Turkey. Read more about the event herehere and here. 

GFAR Secretariat is turning the spotlight on the work and collective actions of Partners in GFARwho share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. Not a GFAR partner yet? Join now!

Photo credits: Convivium Velika Plana


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