The organic sector in Hungary has expanded rapidly over the last two decades. Between 2001 and 2021, the area under organic farming increased by 271%; by 2021, the area fully converted and under conversion to organic farming has reached 5,9% of the utilized agricultural area (UAA) (FiBL, 2023). The two main land use types in organic agriculture are permanent grasslands (61.2%) and arable land (34.1%) (EUROSTAT, 2023b). The key permanent crops are orchards (apples, cherries, plums), nuts, grapes and berries (Organic Europe, 2023). The organic sector in Hungary is highly export-oriented, with app. 85% of the organic production going into export. Exports are mainly raw materials or products with low added value (Organic Europe, 2023). The domestic organic food market accounts for app. 0.3% of the total retail sales (FiBL, 2023).
KEY DRIVERS AND BARRIERS FOR THE ORGANIC SECTOR DEVELOPMENT
The opportunities offered with EU membership (subsidies and market access) form the basis of organic sector development in Hungary. However, several key barriers persist that hindered the country to make full use of its organic potential: i) the high export orientation of organic production (raw materials), ii) the comparatively high political and financial support for conventional agriculture – in light of iii) high certification costs and relatively low farming income – while iv) consumer awareness and the v) demand side especially inside the country (including for inputs) remain underdeveloped. Additionally, there is vi) lacking coordination and cooperation among key organic (AKIS) actors, and a lacking culture of cooperation in general. Farmer specific issues related to aging (of farmers), and lack of agricultural education add to the list. Despite Biokultúra’s long existence, advocacy of organic farmers is principally rather weak in Hungary, because bottom-up organization and self-representation of organic farmers are largely missing. Interests of (a few powerful) certification bodies predominate.
Even though organic farming institutions date back to the 1990s or even before, the EU accession in 2004 for Hungary, accompanied by the availability of supporting instruments and EU organic market access, pushed the development of the sector. In Hungary, organic farming is well aligned with several agricultural and other public policy objectives, but more or less considered as one of several options. This was also reflected in the level of organic subsidies which has been almost the same as general agri-environmental subsidies, which were more attractive for farmers because of less strict conditions to comply. Currently, the support scheme is described as stable and incentive-based. Motivated by the subsidy payments, there are a range of farmers in Hungary, who convert only parts of their land to organic farming. The goods produced on these areas are marketed conventionally, resulting in a limited availability of organically produced food as well as fertilisers, feed and seeds. The lack of a private label that requires the conversion of the entire farm is seen as an obstacle to the further development. Also, the high certification costs in relation to farming income are seen as a barrier for organic farming development. On the policy level, (human) resources were and are dedicated to the development of organic farming in Hungary, but organic farming is still confronted with mainstream lobbying dominance. This results in a rather weak position of organic farming institutions in the policy arena. Internal conflicts within the organic farming associations hamper the representation of organic farming interests in the policy arena. Mainstream organisations are involved to some extent in research activities on organic farming as well as providing extension and advisory services to organic farmers. Yet, there is a lack of coordinated institutional organisation for education and research in organic farming in Hungary, which is partly compensated by a dedicated research institute in organic farming (ÖMKI). Export of mainly raw material has been the biggest driver for organic farming development, but is also seen as the biggest hindering factor for development of a local market. Overall, communication to consumers has increased but is still considered insufficient.
AKIS in Hungary
Hungarian organic production needs more practice-oriented research, more dissemination work, backed up by local scientific evidence. Efforts should be made to increase consumer awareness and create a stable and growing organic sector and a stronger internal market. Cooperation and better communication between organic actors (producers, traders, umbrella organisations, certifiers and research institutions) is essential. AKIS for organic is in need for more central coordination efforts and dedicated funding.
Policy background of AKIS relevant to the organic sector
The Organic Action Plan (2014-2020) aimed to develop AKIS. The renewed National Action Plan for the Development of Organic Farming (2022) emphasises the need to improve advisory services for organic farming by the Chamber of Agriculture. In line with this policy goal, the Chamber of Agriculture aims to build a specialised advisory network by 2024 and to publish sector-specific technical guidelines for farmers to facilitate a successful conversion to organic farming. A task force on organic R&D was established in early 2023 by the Ministry of Agriculture to improve R&D in organics and to coordinate relevant research of AKIS actors. In the absence of a comprehensive policy strategy, sporadic activities, like project grants (e.g., the MNVH, EIP Agri Operational Groups) support AKIS development. Knowledge creation, research and innovation ÖMKi has a leading role in organic research and knowledge exchange together with few dedicated researchers working at different university departments or public research institutes, and a number of innovative organic farmers. At ÖMKi, co-creation, living Labs and on-farm experiments are in practice in addition to traditionally structured scientific work. Research activities are funded by local and/or international projects, which usually have a duration of 2–5-years. The experts interviewed highlight that small and mediumscale organic farmers are usually more open to research collaboration, while larger producers have the financial means to involve (often foreign) advisors in case they wish to overcome specific technological challenges. Producers of organic plant protection materials (e.g., Biocont Ltd.) also have advisory services and set up on-site trials to measure the effectiveness of their products and to develop them further.
Education and training
Different training programmes are available on organic farming at the different levels of the education system often for free or at low costs. More complex training programmes by for-profit and not-for-profit organisations come with an attendance fee. While there is no ‘formal’ qualification for converting farmers, there are shorter courses on organic farming topics offered outside the formal higher education system. Workshops and training on organic farming are usually organised as part of international research projects. There is one MSc programme on organic farming (at MATE University of Life Sciences). However, no BSc-level programme allows to embark on the matter, while organic farming generally remains underrepresented in a broad portfolio of sustainability-related courses.
Advice and consultancy
The advisory network planned by the Chamber of Agriculture for 2024 should make advisory services available to all farmers. However, there are few staff specialised in organic farming, and relevant professional training to help advisors understand the differences between organic and conventional methods has not been started, which is hampering farmers’ transition. Advice is currently limited to administrative assistance on the application process for organic subsidies. More complex and production-related technical assistance relies mainly on the expertise of international input providers and grain traders. As they are not independent consultants, their activities are not subsidised. Accordingly, farmers tend to turn directly to certification bodies to find out the basic compliance requirements. Although they are not formally independent either, their informal advice meets farmers’ knowledge needs. A few international organic advisors are also active in Hungary at larger scale operations, who can afford the extension service costs.