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In times of global crisis, the development of sustainable food systems is more important than ever

Lessons from the 33rd BIOFACH international organic fair

At the world's leading organic fair, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (ÖMKi) organized the East-Central Europe section for the tenth time. Hungary is recognized as the regional standard-bearer at this event, which is the world’s largest organic agriculture fair, and as part of the event, high-level political representatives hold a discussion each year on the current state of organic agriculture in Central and Eastern European countries. At the 33rd BIOFACH international trade fair for organic food and organic goods, which was held this year in Nuremberg, the main topic was climate change, while at the forum organized by ÖMKi, experts primarily discussed how the war in Ukraine is affecting the agricultural policy of the East-Central European region.

The 33rd BIOFACH, the largest European fair for organic products, was held between 25–28 July 2022 and included actors involved in the sector from all over the world, from researchers to stakeholders in the organic food chain to high-level EU policymakers. Last year, the exhibition and associated congress were organized in an online eSPECIAL format due to the pandemic, so after a hiatus of two years, the opportunity to once again present organic products and exchange ideas in a large-scale exhibition and conference space that allows for personal meetings was highly anticipated.

As part of the congress, ÖMKi for the tenth time organized a specialist policy discussion. This year the title was: ‘Organic Targets in the Shadow of War: How does the military conflict affect Agricultural Policies of the Central Eastern European Region?’ In addition to Hungarian speakers, representatives from Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Albania also spoke. The starting point for deliberations was the EU's Organic Action Plan, which sets ambitious goals to be achieved by 2030. What common objectives can be found in the CAP strategic plans of Central and Eastern European countries? How are these policies affected by the Russian-Ukrainian war, and how do the related policies of neighbouring non-EU countries interact with them? At this high-level policy meeting, the region's decision-makers gave their responses. Hungary was represented by Dr. Anikó Juhász, Deputy State Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Representatives from left to right: Albania, Hungary, Serbia, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Dr. Dóra Drexler.

The Ukrainian and East-Central European situation

In Ukraine, as a result of the war, estimates suggest that at least a fifth of all agricultural land has fallen out of cultivation, and due to the decrease in population demand, Ukrainian companies see export as their main priority. According to a July 2022 survey, 68% of organic producers are fully or partially operational, while 23% have restarted operations or are planning to resume operations after repairing the damage. With international help, an extraordinary organic support initiative has been launched, which first supports the producers – the key actors in the organic sector – who have been affected by the invasion, and also strengthens the capacities of the organic sector by developing the organic market in Ukraine. In view of the war, the European Union has abolished import duties and quotas for Ukrainian products and has suspended further official controls on Ukrainian organic products in order to facilitate the circulation of goods.

Turning to the Central and Eastern European region, in the Czech Republic, the areas under organic cultivation are constantly increasing, and according to their organic action plan for the 2021–2027 period, they want to increase the area under organic cultivation from the current 15% to 22%, which includes increasing the share of arable land, and also increasing the amount of organic food used in public catering to 5%. In the medium term, increasing the economic viability of farmers is the most important goal. Recently, as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the availability of protein feeds and cereals has significantly decreased, as Ukraine was also the largest supplier of organic feeds (cereal and protein feeds) on the Czech market.

In Albania, agriculture makes up 19% of the country's GDP, and 36% of Albanian workers are employed in the agricultural sector. Small farms typically predominate: 300,000 small farms cultivate an average of 1.2 hectares of land each. The number of certified organic producers and exporters is still very small, so they face significant challenges in the development of regulatory, support and research and development systems. At the same time, with the growth of tourism, they see significant potential in the domestic market for organic products.

Currently, only 1% of total agricultural land in Serbia has been converted to organic production (of which 33% is fruit orchards, 26% grain, 18% fodder, and 12% industrial crops). However, the total area under organic cultivation has increased by 12% since 2021, and the number of organic producers currently stands at 6,408. Support for organic cultivation is significantly higher than for conventional production, in terms of both crop cultivation and livestock husbandry, and producers receive support to cover the additional costs incurred during the oversight and certification processes. Currently, the main objective in Serbia is to harmonize existing national regulations with the new EU directives and, in addition to exports, to develop the domestic market.

Presentation of Dr. Anikó Juhász

Besides the energy crisis, the biggest problem in Hungary is drought

In Hungary, as part of the new organic support program launched on 1 January 2022, a total of 290 million euros is available to organic farmers from EU and Hungarian sources. At the same time, a total of 5,300 producers will benefit from the organic support programs running between 2019-2023, over an area of ​​251,000 hectares. The entire domestic organic area is even larger, and if new 2022 entrants are included, it is almost certain to already be around 350,000 hectares.

About 60% of Hungary's organic areas are grasslands, while 35% are made up of arable land and 5% are orchards. The make-up of areas to be subsidised from 2022 on differs in this regard: of land brought into the new program, 50% is arable, 10% is made up of orchards and vineyards, and only 40% is pasture. It also follows that the newly subsidized organic producers will create products with higher added value.

At the meeting, the experts agreed that the support system has a decisive role to play in the domestic expansion of organic areas, but this alone is not sufficient for success. Since organic farming is a knowledge-intensive part of the agricultural sector, training, consulting, and innovation systems have a particularly important role to play in long-term sustainability. To achieve these goals, the Ministry plans to establish a separate Green Support Centre in the new CAP cycle. The task of the Centre will be to provide professional advice, training, and knowledge transfer, and to promote digitalization within the Agricultural Knowledge Transfer and Innovation System (ATIR) to promote sustainable farming methods.

The National Action Plan for the Development of Organic Farming Strategic Document c set the goal of increasing the areas under organic farming in Hungary from 300,000 hectares to 500,000 hectares – 10% of all agricultural land – by 2027. The experts agreed that this target can be achieved with the available subsidies and planned knowledge transfer, but at the same time, dynamic market development is also needed. An aggravating circumstance is the energy crisis which also threatens Hungary. As a consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the organic sector is also significantly affected by increases in fuel and gas prices.

‘Despite the difficulties, the current crisis situation can still strengthen the development of organic farming, since the resilience of organic farming, i.e. its flexible resilience, is much greater than that of farming based on chemical input materials’, stressed Dr. Dóra Drexler, the Director of ÖMKi, is also Vice President of IFOAM Organics Europe (the European Association of Organic Farmers). ‘Organic cultivation methods are less dependent on external factors such as the rising price of fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and due to shorter supply chains, organic agriculture is less exposed to the hectic nature of the global market.’

However, in addition to the energy crisis, this year Hungarian agriculture is also being hit by an unprecedented drought. Deputy State Secretary Dr. Anikó Juhász said the following: ‘Hungary is largely a grain-producing country, and we produce at least twice as much grain as we consume. This year, however, estimates suggest that we can consider ourselves fortunate if we get enough grain for our own consumption and for keeping livestock.’ Since the end of June, claims for drought-related damage have been steadily increasing, and farmers are submitting requests for drought damage mitigation covering approximately 100,000 hectares per week. Drought damage of this scale is unprecedented in the Great Plain. The situation in the wider region is also worrying since due to the Russo-Ukrainian war, countries in Europe and around the world have started buying up grain and other crops.

The organizers of the professional forum and Biofach agreed that the relaxing of environmental protection and sustainability regulations would not be an appropriate response to the loss of crops caused by climate change and the wartime challenges to the global food supply. Dr. Dóra Drexler, as executive president of the East-Central European section, called on decision-makers to keep sustainability goals in mind, since their importance is independent of the war. This year's drought damage also shows that the need to increase the flexible resilience and sustainability of agriculture is greater than ever.

More information and background material:

World of Organic Agriculture 2021 - the latest global organic farming statistics

The advantages of organic farming, based on scientific reports: ‘It is important to note that the productivity of organic farming is particularly remarkable in extreme climatic conditions, such as droughts and floods – which unfortunately are becoming more frequent – during which organic farming performs about 30% better than traditional farming.’

Participant presentations:

Dr. Anikó Juhász (Hungary)

Andrii Remizov (Ukraine)

Jelena Milic (Serbia)

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