It is mostly mountainous, with lowlands in the north and in the southeast. The climate is mostly temperate, with small areas of cold type in the centre and in the southwest of the country; and dry type in the northeast, near the Black Sea coast. In general, there are cold damp winters and hot dry summers.
Arable land and permanent crops cover 4.5 million ha, of which 0.8 million ha is under irrigation. Permanent pastures cover 1.8 million ha, with 3.9 million ha under forests. Major crops include grains, oilseeds, vegetables, fruit and tobacco.
Food import has increased, including for products previously produced in the country. Agricultural exports are less than one-third of their value in 1990.
Bulgaria has applied for membership of the EU, and has an association agreement (Accession Partnership). This requires considerable changes for harmonization with the Communitys policies and regulations. In 1998, 82% of the agricultural land had been restored to the owners or their heirs (70% of their claims). Export bans and levies on exports of cereal products and vegetable oils were removed; similarly, controls on domestic farm-gate prices were removed. Bulgaria is a member of CEFTA and EPPO.
In 1995 amendments were made to the Law on Protection of Agricultural Producers. rescinding most of the existing legislation, but regulations governing the State Agricultural Fund's provision for direct subsidies and credit concessions were retained. Farmers remain exempt from profit tax and are not obliged to pay VAT on equipment purchase, but only part of them can buy the needed inputs, due to high cost. Compared to the needs of farmers in general, available credit is too little. This situation, accompanied by the continued uncertainty over land rights, has led in some areas to land degradation, with many farmers failing to rotate their crops. Bulgaria's traditional exports (wine, cheese, tobacco) suffered particularly from lower foreign demand, but the overall decline was somewhat compensated for by the increase of new exports (wheat, fruits).
In spite of privatization there have been obstacles to the development of an effective land market. There is a considerable difference between the northeast area, where large farms have been created, and the western part, which is more mountainous and with small-sized farms that have difficulty purchasing the necessary certified seed, fertilizers and pesticides. The trend towards increased private ownership is being consolidated with the termination of previous-owner claims.
After the state farming sector became negligible, land use became characterized by a dual farming structure, with private farms (mostly small scale) and large cooperatives. The former face difficulties caused by their small size (i.e. no economies of scale and high unit costs); the latter by managerial problems. Farmers are not obliged to pay VAT for the purchase of equipment. The State Agricultural Fund may provide collateral to enable farmers to obtain credit. Warehouse receipts from grain storage can also be used as collateral.
The agro-food industry has been privatized more quickly than the land, but it is not yet working at full capacity, such as the canning industry. In some areas, the irrigation network was damaged by the delay of reform implementation.
Availability of agricultural inputs
Investments and credit have been limited and the cost of fertilizers and pesticides remain high and beyond the economic reach of farmers, which is creating in some areas some ecological problems: abandonment of lands, or partial or extensive crop cultivation.
A new law on seeds and planting material is in process. The last law On the protection of new plant varieties and animal races, dates from 4 October 1996. Bulgaria has had a good tradition in breeding and certified seed production, which was totally centralized after the classical schema of eastern European countries: official tests of new varieties, official approval, and seed production in a centrally-planned way in all state and cooperative farms.
The new law has re-organized the previous system. The new Executive Agency for Variety Testing, Field Inspection and Seed Control has three main departments and a total staff of 438 persons working throughout the country, including 12 trial stations. Certified seed is used up to nearly 25%, with big differences between crops. In maize, in sunflower and in tomato, the F1 hybrids predominate; in potato, the basic seed is imported from Netherlands, etc. The foreign and national private sector participation in seed production and marketing is increasing.
Bulgaria is a member of the UPOV convention of 1991, and is admitted by OECD to register cultivars. A net of high-level breeding institutes - responsible for creating nearly 500 varieties in different field crops, vegetables and fruit trees (now in difficulties) - has meant that nationally-bred varieties still dominate. In the Maritsa Vegetable Crops Research Institute alone, over 260 varieties have been bred since 1930. Other breeding institutes of high repute are the Institute of Sadovo and the Institute of Wheat and Sunflower Research 'Dobrudja.'
Despite the high efficiency of breeding, especially in a country like Bulgaria, the staff of the breeding institutes has halved and the work too, due to financial difficulties. Breeding work is jeopardized also by the existence of an 'informal' seed sector, which sometimes puts on the market institute-bred varieties, but at lower prices.
The breeding institutes are not privatized, but financed partially by state and partially by their work. The breeding work continues, based on new programmes and some interesting varieties have been bred, some of which have been sought by other breeding centres abroad due to specific characteristics (particular resistance, commercial and biochemical content, male sterility, incompatibility, etc.), as in the case of tobacco, sunflower and tomato, that have also attracted the interest of western breeders.
Variety evaluation, registration and release
The Executive Agency for Variety Testing, Field Inspection and Seed Control is responsible for variety evaluation in official trials in different regions. After the evaluation of results by different specialized Expert Commissions, proposals are made to the Ministry of Agriculture, which approves and enters them in the official list and in the Register Book, to be published then in the official catalogue.
The same rules apply also to foreign varieties. In the case of F1 maize bred by USA companies, official trials are not considered necessary as Bulgarian conditions are similar to those of the USA corn belt.
The seed is produced initially by breeding institutes (pre-basic and basic seed, parental lines) and then multiplied by authorized companies or farmers under agreement or licence agreements. The seed plots are constantly inspected and evaluated by the particular department of the Executive Agency for Variety Testing, Field Inspection and Seed Control.
Seed testing, certification and control
Bulgaria participates in four OECD schemes for variety seed certification (Herbage and Oil seeds, Cereals, Beet, Maize and Sorghum). The Executive Agency for Variety Testing, Field Inspection and Seed Control organizes the seed analyses and certification for all seeds and planting materials. ISTA methodology, along with National Standards of Quality, are applied according to crop group. Seed certificates are issued on the base of the laboratory tests. Continuous controls are applied also in the market. Private companies or laboratories are not authorized to perform seed tests and analyses, or to issue certificates. The import of seeds or planting materials is done under the Agencys authorization and control.
Seed processing, storage, marketing and distribution
Seed processing and storage are generally performed by producers. A large number of former state-owned seed stations in different region are now privatized. All seed must be certified before being put on the market or exported. There is adequate storage capacity and facilities for long-term seed storage.
The breeding institutes and the Executive Agency for Seeds organize qualification courses for seed multiplication and also for seed inspection and analysis.
The breeding institutes and the trade seed companies organize special meetings to present new plant varieties, mainly before harvest. The regional officers of the Agency also organize such seminars in official field trials.
Application of plant biotechnology
The most advanced centre applying biotechnology methods is the National Centre for Agriculture Research, in Sofia, where new plants with disease or stress resistance, genetic or biochemical markers, etc., are obtained. The new plants are then introduced into breeding programmes of various breeding centres in Bulgaria or abroad, and the royalties then divided between the same institutes. Genetically modified plants are also tested. The institute has a good training capacity and organizes national and international courses; its staff was reduced by 10%; but now 50% more researchers are needed. Recently, for its contribution, the institute was given the title Institute par excellence by the European Community (along with other institutes in Hungary, Poland, Estonia and Cyprus).
At the same time, not all capacity is being used. Thus, the in vitro laboratory for potato in the Maritsa institute is working at only 10% capacity, blocking the programme of multiplication of virus-free potatoes in appropriate areas. As a result, all seed potato is imported. In Bulgaria there are highly qualified researchers who in many cases do not have access to the necessary laboratory facilities.
Plant genetic resources
The National Gene Bank is situated at the Institute of Plant Introduction and Genetic Resources K. Malkov, Sadovo, with 167 species and some 27 000 accessions. The present conservation conditions are good, but there is not much security for the future.
A special National Biodiversity Conservation Plan, supported by UNDP and harmonized with European Legislation for Nature Protection, which is the first of its kind for countries in transition, is being applied, where a large range of donations from different countries and international organizations are programmed.