Albania: A lesson in localism

  • 06.09.2023
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Heritage Seeds
  • Local Food
  • Adam Alexander

When Albania emerged from Communist rule in 1990, collective farms were dismantled, heralding a move to a market economy. In many regions farmers began planting modern, imported cultivars. However, a tradition of small-scale vegetable production still flourishes. Seed detective Adam Alexander travels to the Korçë region to discover how regenerative horticulture is holding up.

It was a scene I had only ever dreamed about witnessing: an earthy quilted valley, no more than a quarter of a mile wide, filled with a mosaic of vegetables, surrounded by gently rolling hills of small wheat fields ablaze with poppies and cornflowers, the verges dotted with wild acacia – a tempting snack – and everywhere wildflowers and the heady perfume of thyme and oregano. I was just outside the village of Miras, deep in the Korçë District of southeast Albania.

My idea of heaven is the 100 hectares of cultivated ground that provide a livelihood for the 50 plus families who work the land in Miras and who produce more than enough food to feed the entire community of 600 families. I was there with Lavdosh Ferruni, Executive Director of The Organic Agricultural Association of Albania and an activist and passionate advocate for the conservation and celebration of Albanian food culture, and Dr Robert Damo, an agronomist and botanist who heads up the Faculty of Agriculture at the ‘Fan S. Noli’ university in Korçë. Robert has been researching, cataloguing, trialling and maintaining the great diversity of landraces that continue to be grown throughout the area, the last stronghold for locally adapted, genetically and organoleptically unique landraces of garden crops.

Typical horticultural plots outside Miras, Korçë region
Typical horticultural plots outside Miras, Korçë region


The decline of Albanian landraces

The impact of a market economy and depopulation, both as a result of a movement to urban centres, emigration and the general disinclination of young people to work in agriculture, has had a devastating effect on landraces in Albania.

Until 1990, the system of collective farms in a country that had been able to utilise its abundant water to irrigate most farmland, meant Albania was self-sufficient in food. Collective farms grew local varieties and saved the seed of landraces that flourished in the varied growing environments across the country.

The reallocation of collective farms meant that thousands of families were given land to cultivate themselves. Today, the average holding is 1.4 hectares (less than 2 acres), and just over 40% of the population of around 3 million, work in agriculture – Albania’s primary economic sector. The country continues to grow nearly everything it needs, and the public has a preference to eat locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Shaban and Rajmona Zerani planting landrace bean Tenare
Shaban and Rajmona Zerani planting landrace bean Tenare


As in so many other countries I have visited, where agriculture was built on a system of small farms growing local varieties and saving and sharing seed, changes in practice driven by the introduction of modern hybrid cultivars, has resulted in the collapse of varietal diversity. This has happened because once a farmer stops growing and saving seeds of the local varieties and grows only modern cultivars, the traditional varieties are abandoned, disposed of or simply fed to the animals. In just one season unique landraces can be lost for ever. Albania is no different.

Changing practices

In the last 30 years, Albania has moved from growing exclusively local varieties of arable crops, specifically cereals and maize, to importing 80% of its seed. The great diversity of open-pollinated varieties of maize are now lost – bar a handful in mountainous regions. In the 1970s, Albania bred a variety of wheat named after the largest mountain outside Tirana: Dajti. It is highly valued as a bread wheat and remains under widespread cultivation in the mountains. But now, wheat is predominantly grown from imported modern cultivars to satisfy the changing tastes of consumers, who are eating more processed foods. Cereal cultivation is not as profitable as fruit and vegetables and fodder crops are increasingly replacing cereals to support growing demand from consumers for more meat and dairy.

Typical wildflower meadows being grazed in southern Albania
Typical wildflower meadows being grazed in southern Albania


Outside the major cities, fresh fruit and vegetables still make up a significant proportion of the diet, and local varieties continue to retain a foothold, although their future is uncertain. In 1990, 23 vegetable crops, all local varieties and almost exclusively landraces, were grown in the low and coastal regions. Today this has increased to 38 different vegetable crops, but the majority of these are hybrid cultivars. The reasons for Albanian farmers making this switch is understandable – modern cultivars offer greater yields and lower production costs due to scale and better storage. Sadly, growers and distributors are paying less attention to the things that matter to consumers: provenance and taste. Albania is in danger of making the same mistakes as many other countries by neglecting, abandoning even, its indigenous food culture where farmers are treated with the same respect as doctors and teachers.

Greater diversity of output with modern cultivars is good insofar as it helps to reinforce the agricultural economy but when the price is loss of local genetic diversity and the cultural and social links Albanians have with their food, it can spell disaster, risking the security of its food supply; historically, locally adapted crops have ensured resilience and reliable harvests in the face of adverse weather and are on the frontline of providing continuing adaptability with climate change.

Transforming the food system

To spend time in Albania’s capital, Tirana, sussing out the markets and seemingly endless number of greengrocers – every street has at least one – is to find oneself in a city of a million people where 80% of all fresh produce is grown within a few kilometres of the centre. Although processed foods are gaining ground, urban Albanians remain deeply connected to the land. They nearly all have immediate family who continue to farm and there is a tradition of buying food from friends and farmers in one’s home village. But most of the produce on sale, although grown locally, is now from imported hybrid seed. There are no official statistics, but Lavdosh told me that empirical evidence suggests well over 90% of all fresh food goes directly from farmer to consumer, but wholesalers and middlemen are playing an increasingly larger role in distribution as the urban population increases. I came away from Tirana asking myself, if a city of this size can feed itself primarily from local produce including meat, dairy and eggs, why can’t other cities do the same? Despite huge transformation over the last 30 years and threats to its future, Albania’s food economy is still a living demonstration of localisation in action.

Plants for sale in Tirana market
Plants for sale in Tirana market


In Korçë and its surrounding villages, change is happening much more slowly, thank goodness. There, the greengrocers sold only locally grown goods. I was particularly interested to see which landraces were being maintained and how they underpinned the region’s food culture. I am a great lover of beans and wherever I dined I just had to eat the local delicacy: lima beans with tomatoes, a dish where the beans have the lightest of sauces brushed over them. I suspected that the ‘lima’ bean on offer was almost certainly a type of runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), because in neighbouring Greece a prized local variety of white seeded runner bean called ‘gigantes’ is intrinsic to Greek cuisine.

The fields of Miras have been continuously farmed since Roman times and there is archaeological evidence of agriculture dating back 4,500 years. There is a very long tradition of saving seed and selecting for favourable traits throughout Albania, but the Korçë district is the last stronghold. The loss of locally adapted landraces with enduring historical and cultural significance varies from village to village. In some cases, there has been a 75-80% loss in the last thirty years. In other localities, at least half the genetic diversity has been lost in the same timeframe. The biggest loss has been with maize, mostly replaced with modern hybrid cultivars.

Yet, unique and important varieties survive. The Albanians like their popcorn, and two wonderful landraces that can be grown without irrigation are the much prized, Korçë black popcorn and Moscow red popcorn, also known as hooked red popcorn. A sweetcorn that also grows without irrigation and named after the lake to the north of Korçë, is Prespë. Bean landraces continue to flourish as do capsicums, tomatoes, leeks, onions and squash, with lettuce, orache (Atriplex hortensis), and white cabbage less common. Albania is also home to an enormous diversity of local varieties of apples, pears, stone fruit and grapes – it has the oldest tradition of viticulture in Europe and the wines are a revelation!

Saving a seed and a culture

Onions and leeks being grown out for seed
Onions and leeks being grown out for seed


The reality is that the decline in these precious landraces will, over the medium to long term, have a hugely negative impact on localised self-sufficient food systems. It is the genetic diversity of these landraces that ensures farmers retain control over their unique genetic resources and are able, through selection, to continuously reinforce food security and resilience. Crucially too, these landraces are a vital tool for plant breeders developing and improving cultivars in our changing and ever more extreme climate. I believe there is an urgent need within Albania to focus on participatory breeding with farmers to improve seed quality and strengthen traits that can flourish in our changing climate. Academic and cultural links between European educational and agricultural research institutions would be hugely beneficial, not only to Albania but to all those who come to work and learn there. Restoring plant breeding and seed production should be more than an aspiration. The alternative – depending on genetically narrow and supposedly ‘one size fits all’ hybrid cultivars bred and controlled by agri-business to feed us – doesn’t, in my view, bear thinking about.

Despite the decline in traditional, sustainable and regenerative farming across Albania, there are signs of new shoots. Tourism will be a key economic driver and agri-tourism is seen as a vital tool in restoring economic fortunes in the deeply rural areas, encouraging a new generation of more entrepreneurial young farmers. Celebrating Albania’s remarkable food culture, promoting and expanding its deep history of herbal medicine, and its incredible diversity of flora – Albania is home to 4,000 currently identified flora, 1,500 of which are found in the Korçë District alone – will have a transformative effect. Albanians only need to look at the damaging impact of industrial farming around the world for affirmation of why its own food and farming system needs to be nourished. We have much to learn from Albania about the challenges and benefits of securing and maintaining a thriving local food system.


Photos courtesy of Adam Alexander.

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