Fields of Green: The State of Organic Farming in Hungary
An overview of organic agriculture in Hungary today in the face of European green policies.
Last week, the European Commission revealed its Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies, two novel elements of the European Green Deal, the Commission’s overarching policy framework aimed at leading Europe into an era of sustainability through reaching climate neutrality in the EU by 2050. An important component of the biodiversity strategy is the goal to increase the share of organic farming in European agriculture to 25%. In the case of Hungary, organic farming is a forty-year-old tradition which faces unique challenges and opportunities today. Here is our overview of the quick history, policy and legal background and sectoral trends of organic agriculture in Hungary.
The roots of organic agriculture
Organic farming originates in the 20th century as a farming practice in response to rising industrialization that had been dominating agriculture since invention of the steam engine. Starting with the 1930s, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture, primarily plant cultivation and had a major role in combatting world hunger after the Second World War.
In the 20th century, two models started to emerge with the advent of a post-industrial era of farming: Integrated and organic farming. These schools of novel farming practices focused on the environment and ecology.
Between 1940 and 1978, agriculture became more polarized, as the differences between the two major production methods (conventional/industrial and organic farming) became more distinct. Industrial practices followed in the footsteps of the Green Revolution, while the tradition of organic farming followed the principles of agroecology, an alternative to technology-heavy agricultural processes (e.g. chemical fertilizer use, green revolution, biofortification, genetic engineering).
The definition of organic farming, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the following: "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved..."
More generally, organic farming is based on natural ecological processes and is designed to fit well into the functions and life cycle of the local ecosystems.
Organic farming in Hungary: History and policy framework
The organic trend was introduced in the 1980s, the last decade of socialism. The first proponents founded a club dedicated to organic farming in 1983, and in 1987, the first organic foundation was established. Its legal successor, the Hungarian Biokultura Federation is currently a member of IFOAM.
In 1996, the Federation established the first domestic organic farming licensing body, and in 1999, the government passed a decree in line with the contemporary EEC regulations, which established the legal environment of organic farming in Hungary.
From 1988 until 2004 the number of producers and land area dedicated to organic farming almost continuously increased: From 15 producers with 1000 hectares of farmland in 1988 to 1935 producers and 128.576 hectares in 2004, the year of the EU accession.
Between 2004 and 2015, with the exception of a few growth bursts, the growth trend somewhat halted, which is why in 2009, the stagnation of organic farming came into the focus of policy makers, with a special parliament committee report in 2009. In terms of agricultural policy, the support and subsidization of organic agriculture was moved back into agricultural policy with the 2009 Rural Development Program and the National Rural Strategy 2012-2020.
In 2014, a National Action Plan for the Development of Organic Farming for 2014-2020 was introduced. Also, the overarching governmental development program, Széchenyi 2020, which uses EU funds for economic development, includes rural development Program among its ten operative programs, which launched organic production subsidy tenders in 2018.
Following these developments, in the second half of the 2010s decade, the share of organic farming started rising again, and in 2018, there were 3929 producers with a total of 209.382 hectares of land dedicated to organic farming.
Currently, there are two legislative acts that regulate organic farming in Hungary are the following
Hungarian organic farming in figures
In the second half of the decade, the total agricultural land area in the country decreased and then stagnated. In 2018, 5.4 million hectares of land were used in agriculture, which is 57.4% of the land area of Hungary. With the start of the 2010s decade, the land area dedicated to organic farming has started increasing in the country again. The total land use of organic farming reached around 4% in 2018. However, the number of organic producers out of all agricultural entrepreneurs is less than 1%. (In comparison, there were 295 thousand individual organic farmers in the EU in 2016, with 12.1 million ha of farmland).
The structural composition of organic agriculture more or less follows the major global trends. Around 50% of the organic agricultural land area is used as grazing pastures and meadows, 40% goes to crop production, while 5% is dedicated to plantations. Of all the organic agricultural production in Hungary, 16% of the farmland was used to raise cereals in 2017, a figure which has been increasing.
Generally, the high share of grazing pastures and meadows in unsurprising, given the fact that the number of farmers is very low and grazing pastures are some of the least labor-intensive branches of agriculture, while crops and plantations are much more labor-intensive.
The two major pillars in Hungarian agriculture are plant cultivation and animal husbandry. Plant cultivation shows an increasing trend. Crops have been approaching 20% in recent years, while 16% of the area is dedicated to animal feed production and 5-6% to plants for industrial use. Organic plantations have higher added value and over the last decade, their share doubled. These include organic vineyards, berry and nut plantations as well as fruit orchards.
Meanwhile, in organic animal husbandry there is a decreasing trend. There are 175 535 livestock animals currently. The majority of this is poultry (139 406) while the share of cattle is also high (24 650). While over the past decade, the amount of animals raised in organic animal husbandry increased by 40% in total numbers, almost all branches are stagnating or shrinking, and only the organic poultry sector is expanding, with a skyrocketing 80% increase, which distorts aggregate figures.
Issues and trends
The organic agricultural sector faces multiple challenges today. Although organic farming is on the rise again with rising figures, there are areas with structural weaknesses which need to be addressed.
The growth of the sector in Hungary in the 2010s decade has not been proportionat. Much of the are used in organic agriculture is grazing pastures, while the number of grazing animals decreased, also decreasing the value produced in the organic sector. Meanwhile, it is also not labor-intensive branch which means that the organic sector cannot currently meaningfully contribute to the sustainability and employment ratio of rural areas. Due to these factors, plant cultivation outweighs animal husbandry, which, depending on the perspective, can be a positive or a negative development.
In plant cultivation, the share of cereals in crops is dominating (21%). This is due to the fact that the cultivation and harvesting technologies and logistics of cereals in the organic sector is the same as in classical agriculture, and the shift to organic does not require major investments into new machinery, while the existing knowledge pool in agriculture is sufficient for the transition.
Meanwhile, in horticulture, the situation is different. The total share of vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts and grapes is only a few percent, which is in large part due to the fact that they require more manual labor, and more specialized technologies in plant protection and cultivation methods and have more intrinsic risk than classical horticulture.
In the processing segment, there is a massive shortage of capacity in the domestic organic sector, which leads to a distortion in the market structure and the favoring of low added value products. There is also a lack of supplementary organizational infrastructure in the sector (e.g. farmer collectives, processing cooperation). More integration could also help circumvent the issue of a massive lack of capital in the sector.
Aside from processing and organizational shortcoming, the capacity for storage and logistics in the organic sector is also low.
Last but not least, the amount of investment into R&D in the sector is very low – However, a positive development was the establishment of the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in 2011.
There are also challenges and opportunities on the demand side. The domestic market is small but steadily growing, the share of spending on organic food in total annual spending in the population was 0.3% in 2016. Moreover, most of the consumers who seek out organic products are located in Budapest and its surrounding metropolitan area which makes the market concentrated. One area of potential further growth is the rise in the number of specialized “bio stores” and organic marketplaces in urban Hungary, which follows the trend of increasing awareness on the part of consumers.
Another potential area of development could be e-commerce: The COVID-19 crisis showed that a considerable portion of Hungarian consumers trust online shopping. E-commerce is an opportunity for organic producers to reach their target consumers more easily while also circumventing some of the logistical and storage issues they face today.
A possible avenue of expansion is the increase of the share of organic horticulture – fruits and vegetables, which are higher added value products than crops and which can directly reach the urban consumers via specialized stores, marketplaces and online grocery shops via e-commerce.
Organic farming is a nearly forty-year old tradition in Hungary. It started as an obscure trend in the 1980s and has been growing in size and impact since. Although there was a period of stagnation between 2004 and 2009 with a hiatus in governmental policy coverage for the growth of organic farming, from 2009 on, the trend has started to increase again. Today, there are 3929 producers conducting pursuing organic agricultural practice over 209.382 hectares of land. With this, the share of organic farms within the total agricultural land area is 4% in Hungary, which is still behind the European average of 6.7%, but considerably higher than the global average of 1.2%.
While organic plant production in Hungary is expanding in figures, animal husbandry is decreasing. This is a structural issue since more than 50% of the land dedicated to organic production is used as grazing pastures and meadows in animal husbandry. In the organic plant cultivation sector, the share of crops is increasing and is currently around 20%, which is in large part due to the fact that the transition to organic is relatively straightforward in cereal production. On the other hand, organic horticulture is harder to maintain, it has more risks, and is more demanding in terms of technology, labor intensity and procedures than its counterpart, classical horticulture.
The sector also faces challenges. There are lacks in capacity in logistics, processing, there is a lack of capital and organizational integration which would be needed to adapt to the market. In this regard, focusing on the organic stores and market places as well as e-commerce is an avenue worth exploring in Hungarian organic agriculture. Since organic animal husbandry is somewhat shrinking and the growing domestic awareness and demand for organic food is centered around urban bio groceries and marketplaces, an area worth developing is organic horticulture, fruit and vegetable development.
As societal pressure for sustainable solutions is increasing globally, organic farming will be both a challenge and an opportunity in the future in Hungarian agriculture.
Agriculture data, Hungarian Central Statistical Office.
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From Farm to Fork, European Commission
Széchenyi 2020 project, Hungarian Government Subsidy site.
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Cover photo: Galette; Apples by Mike Chaput, via Flickr.
"Wheat" by AgriLife Today via Flickr.
Szürkemarha by Dora Pete via Flickr.