Organic food in Moscow: what is is and where you find it.
First off, what is organic food? Here is my definition — organic food is a type of food grown in a natural way, not using genetical modifications, fertilizers, chemicals, hormones or other methods to artificially speed up growth or to enhance taste and other qualities.
Almost all of the food produced in Russia or sold in stores and “farmer’s” markets is not organic.
Russia has no standards, no certification on organic food. Therefore when you see labels like “organic”, “farm produced” it’s just marketing (reads “lie”).
There is no one single place to buy all organic. Where you can spot “organic” or “natural” food in Moscow?
“Farmer’s” markets. Almost all of sellers on farmers markets are just re-sellers, merchants. They have nothing to do with producing of what they sell. They are not real farmers. They buy products from variety of sources: wholesale warehouses, small and large farms and retail them on those markets. You never know exactly where the product comes from, how it was produced and to what degree it is “natural” or “organic”. Very few products sold on “farmer’s” markets can be truly called “organic”.
To understand what to buy, you have to be a food expert yourself. Try everything, talk to sellers, question them on the origin of products and how the product was made or grown. Learn how to identify organic food. All the sellers speak only Russian and will lie to you, so be suspicious and picky. Look where other people line to buy specific products. Research, try, check, compare, ask recommendations from people you can trust.
As a side note, all the food sold in “farmer’s markets” is safe to consume. All the markets control safety very strictly. Thus if what you buy is not 100% organic, but at least it is in compliance with safety regulations, quite strict in Russia.
Street “farmer’s markets” on summer weekends. Again, there is no real farmers on those markets. In summer farmers have no time to stand under those tents in Moscow, they have to take care of the crop. People selling on those markets are re-sellers, buying products from wholesalers and retailing them. Origin of food can be import or local (meaning produced in Russia), can be organic, but most likely it is not. If you ask about where the food comes from, they will lie to you in most cases. The only way to find out is to request quality certificate on a specific product they sell. They must have those certificates, but reluctant to show them. Again, safety is strictly controlled and not an issue, even if those “farmer’s” tomatoes you buy is an imported product from, say, Morocco.
“Organic” and “natural food” shops (including internet shops). Some shops name themselves organic and they claim to have their own selection and certification processes. They take responsibility to ensure all of their products are of organic origin. Again, no one can really verify those statements. It is up to you whether you believe them. In my experience those natural food stores are double fold. On one hand I see they stock products (especially fruits and vegetables) of the same origin and quality sold by large retailers. Those organic shops definitely do stock lots of import from different parts of the world and I doubt they have checked all of the food suppliers for “organic” compliance. On the other hand, they sell food that is (at least according to labels) has more healthy and more natural ingredients compared to regular grocery store food. Examples are: sausages and burgers made of meat; no-yeast, no-sugar bread; real milk that actually spoils in a few days, real smoked fish, urbech, unusual types of vegetables like kale and so on. With internet shops you have to be even more cautious, because you only see pictures and some information. “What you see is what you get” is not necessarily the case.
Organic farms. There are few businesses in Moscow area and more in neighboring areas claiming their production to be organic. All of them are smaller types of businesses scattered everywhere. Their volume of produce is not enough to satisfy demands of large retail networks. Some of them have direct sales (website and delivery), some supply their produce to shops in Moscow. To find their organic produce you need to understand exactly which farm produces what, where and how you can get their products. To find such farms, ask recommendations, do internet research, look for events where real farmers come to sell and advertise their products. Those events are advertised in social networks — all in Russian.
Apply common sense in your pursuits of organic or just quality food in Moscow.
Consider prices. Real organic food takes more time and effort to produce and that is always reflected in a price. If someone sells product labelled “organic” or “natural” at a price comparable with retail prices, it’s a fake.
Try products from different places. If you find a place that is good for you in terms of price and quality, keep buying from there. Seller will remember you, and if you can exchange some phrases with them in Russian, sort of relationships will start to build. Ones they recognize you as a regular customer, you will get real information on their products and they will give trustworthy recommendations. This is proven by experience. Every seller is interested in keeping regular customers, so being honest, not cheating on weights becomes a thing for them.
Consider seasonality. Real fruits and vegetables are always seasonal. When it’s winter, produce does not grow organically. It has to be imported or grown in greenhouses. There is limited number of crops you can have in greenhouses unless you use modern agricultural technologies and those almost always involve fertilizers. You need to understand what comes when — naturally.
For example, in May, early June, tomatoes start to come from Azerbaijan. Not sure if they are fully organic, but they are real tasty and of a good quality. In June we get strawberries, grown in Moscow area, they are sold in limited season mostly from specialized tents on streets. Cherries grown in Russia are not that tasty, but those from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan (pricey) and Moldavia are excellent. Peaches are all imported and almost never good. July and August is a season for Russian grown tomatoes and cucumbers. End of August and September are for watermelons, grown in Russian South. The list is endless, examples here for you to have an idea of how it works.
Non-organic food is not necessarily bad. Although some fertilizers can be used in conventional agricultural businesses, they are not that harmful. Of course, this is questionable, but considering effort needed to locate, identify and buy real organic food, just quality but not 100% organic food can be an option to consider. Especially seasonal, local produce can be of a very good quality, albeit their non-organic origin.
Final thoughts on organic food in Moscow. In absence of “organic” standards, limited availability, lack of honesty from sellers, the only real reliable source of food is — dacha. If you have time, willing to put effort in growing your own produce — rent or buy dacha. Along with fresh, guaranteed natural food it will bring you many more delights, spring through late fall.