Will Hungary start losing farmland to climate change?

Lower harvest yields; 26% rise in soybean farming; declining cattle slaughter figures; raspberry farming suffers from climate; consumer prices rose from last year; new discovery in aquaculture - Our weekly briefing on agriculture, food and nature news in Hungary

The photo shows a meadow in the evening in summer. The rays of the evening sun are filtering through the leaves of a tree. Various grasses can be seen bowing in the breeze.
Beeld: ©Zoltán Szászi

Hungary might start losing farmland to climate change

Agrárszektor.hu recently reported on climate adaptation in Hungarian agriculture. While a heatwave is expected by the weekend, in Vas County, the flooding of the River Rába is causing damages, with hundreds of residents engaged in raising flood defenses. Attila Csepregi, CEO of the Lajoskomáromi Agrár group has told the portal that the main issue for farming is that today there are 20 more heatwave days in a year than two decades ago. A heatwave day might see as much as 5 to 10 mm of moisture evaporation. This shows a net water loss on a 30 to 50 year timescale. Whilst the overall amount of precipitation is the same,  the years are getting hotter and the rate of evaporation increases.

Diána Üdge-Vorsatz, climate researcher at the Central European University (CEU) told the portal that unfortunately, the limits of climate adaptation are rarely discussed. According to the scientist, there is a real possibility that some areas in Hungary, which are now used in farming, will be unsuitable for agriculture in the future. Even though this scenario is far from assured it should be considered. The process might be mitigated through various methods, such as importing knowledge, good soil management, and engaging in agroforestry.

Soybean farming on the rise

The cultivation area of soybean is increasing in Hungary following the decline of maize cultivation. In 2024, the production area increased by 26%, to 73.8 thousand hectares. Soy cultivation was at its peak in the 2014-2021 EU financial period, the record was 77.5 thousand hectares in 2015. Even though the 2022 European drought proved that it is one of the viable alternatives to maize in arable farming, in 2023 its production area was still only 58 thousand hectares.

First glimpse of harvest: Lower yields to be expected this season

The harvest has started in early winter barley fields and the harvest of winter wheat will also start soon. Experts say that this year, yields will be lower than the annual average, writes the news portal Vg.hu. It is too early to tell harvest yields for barley. However, experimental variety demonstration parcels, which usually yield 8 to 12 tons pers hectare are producing 5 to 6 tons per hectare. According to Tamás Petőházi, president of the National Cereal Producers Alliance (GOSZ), the rains which arrived in the past period “only hindered harvesting for early-ripening cereal crops, but did nothing to improve harvest yields.”

For fall harvest crops like maize, sunflowers and soybeans, however, the rains in May and June were highly beneficial, although the distribution of precipitation was uneven, with rainfall gradually decreasing from west to east.

Cattle slaughter on the decline

The news portal Agrárágazat.hu has reported this week that in Q1, 2024, cattle slaughter figures have continued their decline in Hungary.

Between the beginning of 2023 and November, cattle slaughter had decreased by 17% in the country. In the first quarter of this year, the number of slaughtered animals decreased by 13.5% year-on-year. The total live weight was 9.4 thousand tons, and the carcass weight was 4.8 thousand tons. Both figures are 15% less than last year.

According to the Research Institute for Agricultural Economics (AKI), the livestock population is also decreasing. The total number of cattle was 862 thousand on December 1, 2023. The number had decreased by 23 thousand since December 2022, and by nearly 14 thousand since June 2023. The number of cows was 403 thousand on December 1, 2023, 3.6% less than a year earlier (15 thousand fewer heads).

Raspberry farming declines further, consumer price rises

Raspberry cultivation continued its long descent in Hungary this year as well, reports Agrárszektor.hu.

At the wholesale market, domestic, first-class raspberries are sold for between €7.00 and €7.50 per kilogram, while at Tesco, 125 grams of Moroccan raspberries are on sale for €1.50 – which corresponds to nearly €12.00 per kilogram, reports the portal.

Raspberry farming has dipped under 1000 tons per year in 2022, with climate change playing a big role in making the fruit unsustainable in Hungary. In the 1980s, the fruit was produced over 7 thousand hectares, with 25-30 thousand tons of produce per year.

Aside from climate change, labor shortage as well as increasing production in Poland and Serbia are factors in the decline of the sector in Hungary, commented the FruitVeB fruit and vegetable growers’ alliance to the portal.

Consumer prices increased by 4% in a year

The Central Statistical Office (KSH) has published its latest data on Monday. In May, consumer prices had decreased by 0.1% m-o-m, and increased by 4.0% y-o-y. The price of food increased by 1.0% compared to last May, including sugar by 29.6%, chocolate and cocoa by 9.8%, fruit and vegetable juices by 9.5%, cafeteria products by 8.8%, pork by 8.6%, restaurant meals by 8.1%, and non-alcoholic beverages by 5.6%. The price of eggs decreased by 22.0%, flour by 19.6%, dairy products by 11.6%, pasta by 10.6%, milk and bread by 9.0% each, cheese by 7.4%, and poultry meat by 6.0%, according to KSH’s report.

In one month, compared to April, consumer prices decreased by an average of 0.1%. Food prices increased by an average of 0.1%, within which pasta was 1.6% more expensive, the price of fruit and vegetable juices was 1.3% higher, the price increase was 0.8% for bakery products, cold cuts and sausages 0.7%, and chocolate and cocoa were 0.6% more expensive. Eggs cost 1.8% less, prices decreased for cooking oil by 0.8%, milk 0.7%, and coffee 0.5%.

9 out of 10 Hungarians do not eat enough fruits and vegetables

TradeMagazin.hu reported this week on a representative survey done for the “Sappling Program,” a social outreach program by Stada Hungary. According to the survey, 23% of Hungarians grow vegetables and fruits, either in a garden or in a balcony box. For the majority, seasonality is important, but about 25% of Hungarians buy vegetables and fruits based on what they crave in the moment, or, based on what is cheap. Around 15% only choose seasonal products.

Hungarian consumers most frequently buy fruits and vegetables in grocery stores and at supermarkets (71%). They also buy directly from producers, with 37% purchasing at markets and 6% from producer communities. Most people (35%) choose producers to avoid unnecessary packaging. 34% find producer-sold food to be tastier, and three out of ten enjoy the atmosphere  of the market.

The survey also shows that only half of Hungarians are aware that the World Health Organization recommends consuming at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Even among those who are aware of the WHO’s guidelines, few actually consume the recommended daily amount of vegetables and fruits.

Hungarian-Danish discovery in improving livestock health in aquaculture

Last year, Hungarian agriculture and research news portals reported on a Hungarian-led research project to domesticate the Wels catfish for aquaculture production. Greendex.hu now reports that joint research by scientists at the HUN-REN Veterinary Research Institute (HUN-REN ÁTKI) and the University of Copenhagen led to a breakthrough in the more efficient treatment of gill fluke infestations in commercially grown catfish. Gill flukes, or gill worms (Dactylogyrus) are parasitic worms that prey on fish and cause severe infections of the gills.

The wels catfish can be infected by three closely related gill fluke species (T. vistulensis, T. siluri, and T. magnus). Greendex writes that combatting gill fluke infestations requires new, environmentally conscious, and sustainable methods, which is why the Hungarian researchers, together with their colleagues at the Copenhagen university, have initiated their comprehensive research project, which employs molecular techniques and scanning electron microscopy. The project is supported by the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

Through the better understanding of the pathogen's anatomy, its reproductive characteristics, and the development of the disease, the development of targeted defense mechanisms applicable in fish farms has come within reach, comments Greendex. The project can also shed new light on the invasive efficiency of the various parasites and the extent of their ability to cause tissue damage.