Romania tops EU honey market but it’s a bitter-sweet affair
A new report from the European Commission shows that Romania has increased its honey production enough to become the European Union’s largest producer of the sweet stuff.
In 2015 Romania produced 35,000 tonnes of honey, compared to 20,000 in 2014. The second and third largest EU producers are Spain and Hungary, which yielded 32,200 and 30,700 respectively. Various factors may have led to Romania’s impressive growth.
As well as having favorable geographic conditions — and a rural population making up almost half of its 19 million total population — the Eastern European country boasts impressive biodiversity which is good for bees and pollination. Furthermore, EU subsidies which co-finances national apiculture (beekeeping) programmes at a 50% rate — may also have encouraged the sector’s growth. The EU funds are allocated according to the number of beehives a country has on its territory: Romania has the third largest amount in the EU behind Spain and France. The EU bloc has around 16 million beehives in total.
In the first quarter of 2016, Romania registered a 14% increase in honey production compared to 2015, pointing to further market growth. However, Romania’s affair as the busiest bee in the EU may be short-lived.
Last summer, a combination of excessive rainfall and bad weather reportedly affected bee families and honey production, and drove Romanian beekeepers to call on the agricultural ministry for help, in what they called at the time a “desperate situation”. They added that 2016 could be “disastrous”, one of the worst in the last 30 years for Romanian beekeepers.
Further EU subsidies, however, may relieve similar pitfalls in the future. For the 2017-2019 period, Romania has been allocated just over 10% of the available $77 million in apiculture funds — the third largest amount in the EU. In addition to financial support, and after calibrating local practices with EU standards, the EU has generally led to greater economic opportunities for Romanian beekeepers who can sell their wares to a broader market. Even foreign investors have got involved in Romania’s honey business.
“We buy honey from specific local beekeepers,” says Jim Turnbull, a Scottish producer who makes a range of foodstuffs in Saschiz, a Transylvanian village. “Before we buy the honey we have to test it…as we claim that it’s wildflower meadow honey or acacia honey, so we have to verify the pollen counts…we have access to wonderful ingredients here, we’re all about producing stuff that has taste,”
Wildflower meadows, once widespread throughout Europe, are still plentiful in rural Transylvania where Turnbull reaps his honey. It’s a landscape marked with pastel-colored Saxon houses and punctuated with horse-drawn carts, migrating multicoloured beehives and spears of fortified medieval churches. Since 2010, Turnbull has been trading his wares under the brand name Pivnita Bunicii, or Grandma’s Cellar. The majority of his business is with key Romanian supermarkets, but he’s also won contracts supplying honey to London’s Fortnum & Mason, a high-end retailer.
For Turnbull, however, while Romania’s landscape offers picturesque views and vast commercial opportunities, he points out another potential sticking point for his company’s growth: Britain’s decision to leave the EU. “Who knows what the future is going to bring us in terms of difficulties in crossing borders – I have all sorts of fears for the future.” he says.
Romania exports over half of its total honey production, with around 80% going to Germany, followed by Spain, and the Nordic countries. But despite Romania now being the EU’s largest honey producer, the country’s own consumption suggests it doesn’t have the sweetest tooth: it’s at the bottom of the EU table.
There are numerous challenges ahead for EU beekeepers: strong competition from non-EU countries, such as China and Ukraine, offering cheaper imports, and the loss of bee colonies due to diseases and deteriorating food sources. Whether Romania can retain its title as the EU’s largest honey producer, may be dictated by a changing market and a changing climate.
The crucial element will be whether its beekeepers are provided with enough of the right resources to respond to whatever comes next.