We will miss a great opportunity, if all we do is smile as it passes us by
We are witnessing a paradigm shift. It has been proven that sustainability can go hand in hand with efficiency. Nowadays, nobody thinks that only farms that use environmentally damaging technologies can be profitable. Organic farming offers environmentally sound alternatives for every branch of agriculture – said Dr. Dóra Drexler. The director of the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (ÖMKi) is convinced that there is a huge development potential in organic farming, which could provide a profitable farming perspective for all.
10% increase every year
– Although it is clearly visible in Western Europe, Hungarian people may still not be able to see how huge a change organic farms becoming more widespread would be. Let me be provocative: Will organic farming become more than just a hobby in Hungary?
– Those that are familiar with the current situation know that organic farming is already a professional branch of agriculture in Hungary. It has been much more than just a hobby or the preserve of the rich for a long time. Since 2016 both the number of organic farms and the area they cover has increased exponentially in Hungary. The area of organic production in Europe is growing by 1 million hectares a year, and the marketing of organic products is also increasing by 10% every year. So just smiling at organic agriculture as it passes us by could mean us missing a great market opportunity.
– Sceptical people, supported by recurrent trends, say that organic staple food production and animal husbandry cannot meet the food needs of the growing population of the Earth.
– But this is simply false: the problem lies within the magnitude of waste and not the amount of food being produced. Too much food is thrown away or wasted even before being put on people’s plates. Also, in the West perhaps we just consume too much, while people in less developed countries don’t have enough to eat. So, it is a question of distribution and efficiency. We could feed the growing population even if every farmer in the world switched to organic. But for this, we would need to stop wasting food and also change our unsustainable consumption habits. Lately, scientific results on this topic have been published by Nature Magazine (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-01410-w.pdf).
Sooner or later we have to face the truth and ask ourselves whether we really need to eat so much meat or continue to waste 40% of what we buy. In other words, it is not the amount of food we produce that causes the problem, but the unsustainable pattern of consumption. I’m afraid that the business interests of the GMO market and the input producers might be behind the arguments saying that organic could not produce enough for everyone.
– Let’s look at a concrete example: Wheat. Is it possible to produce enough good quality wheat profitably under organic conditions?
– The results of the research conducted in the ÖMKi on-farm network show that it is possible. Maybe a farmer can produce 10 tonnes of wheat per hectare using intensive conventional technologies and certain hybrids, but this leads to huge input material costs and severe environmental pollution. On good quality soils even seven tonnes of wheat per hectare can be produced under organic conditions, but with much lower input costs. Of course, proper agricultural technology, organic nutrient supply and good crop rotation need to be applied, but these are not that difficult to learn.
– Is organic farming most successful in arable cultures?
– Yes, in terms of the area of cultivation, arable crop production is the most significant branch of organic farming in Hungary. It is important to know that yields in organic farming reach about 80% of that of conventional production, if you factor crop rotation into the equation. At the same time the cost of input materials is significantly lower, while organic products can be sold at a higher price than conventional ones. This means that profitability is achievable. There are also other benefits of organic farming. It preserves the quality of our soils, it is kinder to the environment and the food it produces is healthier. But it is not breaking the news today since everybody knows that using conventional technologies is not the only way for farms to become efficient. Organic farming offers alternatives for every branch of agriculture in a way that it is more environmentally and economically sustainable. In short, we are witnessing a paradigm shift, as it is being proved that sustainability goes hand in hand with efficiency.
Organic farming can provide real answers
– But if this is the situation, why is organic farming spreading so slowly?
– I would not say that is true. Although there was a slower period between 2004 and 2014, since then we have seen a sharp increase in Hungary. Next year we expect the area of organic production to grow from 200,000 to 300,000. (Editor’s note: Austria currently has the highest ratio of organically cultivated areas, with more than one-fifth (!) of its agricultural land being organic. Sweden and Estonia had 18% organically farmed land last year, while in Hungary it is just over 5%.) Of course, transition takes time. For example, the application of soil friendly technologies, based on the concept of feeding the soil instead of feeding the plants, also requires some learning and new knowledge. A case in point being that conventional no-till technologies are still using glyphosate for weed control today. At the same time, organic technologies for successful weed control are already available, such as the roller-crimper machine developed by the American Rodale Institute, which allows seeds to be sown directly into the mulch of the broken stems of the cover crop, meaning that weed control is feasible on organic land too. But let me emphasize that organic farming does not mean bigot bias. Although no-till technologies are very useful, in some cases ploughing may also be necessary. The beauty of farming lies in the freedom of choice regarding which rational and sustainable operations to perform on our land.
– What are the reactions of the farmers when you visit their farms, or when you present the advantages and the alternatives offered by organic farming during the different events?
– We are not missionaries wandering around the country, knocking on farmer’s doors. Our strategy is to provide professional and technological knowledge, research results and opportunities to farmers that are thinking about switching to organic, or who are already organic. The most effective cases are when the major actors of a complex product path can be brought together in on-farm research. For example, from the breeders, through the National Food Chain Safety Office and the Hungarian Chamber of Agriculture to the representatives of producers, processors and traders. The exchange of knowledge when the actors can meet one another to share their own experiences and solutions is a very useful kind of practical support, and it also allows joint research to be carried out.
– What can you tell us about organic animal husbandry?
–ÖMKi research primarily focuses on the production of GMO-free Hungarian protein feed materials, guaranteeing local and organic fodder production. Other issues include improving technologies and raising awareness on a variety of aspects of animal welfare. We also want to launch new research on this topic in the future.
– What is hindering the advancement of this process?
– First of all, this is an investment-intensive sector, let just think of building stables for the animals for example. On the other hand, when speaking about meat and animal products, Western European consumers prefer local organic products, which means organic Hungarian animal products are not likely to be exported in large amounts. At the same time, requirements and pressure are continuously increasing from Hungarian consumers for foods made of meat, eggs or milk from free-range animals raised without using GMO fodders or antibiotics. In particular, urban consumers are lobbying for the spread of more natural and sustainable animal husbandry practices. Although this is a long process, the winds of change can be already felt.
– What about horticulture?
– From the various horticultural sectors, organic viticulture has increased to the greatest extent. Although it is not always reflected on the labels on wine bottles, you can see this growth when talking to winemakers. There are many good examples from Tokaj, through Villány and Somló to Sopron. Regarding vegetable production, small-scale gardens are dominant at the moment, and there are only a few larger farms in Hungary. The smaller ones usually develop their own patronage, and transport their goods to delivery points in cities themselves, while larger producers can make deals with supermarkets to take their products. But unfortunately, it is quite common for foreign organic producers to supply Hungarian supermarkets, as the necessary organic vegetable production capacity has not been developed so far in Hungary.
Quality in huge amounts
– Yes, although it is a stereotype, it can be seen that although people think the organic approach is nice, the products look and taste totally different, and cost much more than those produced on an industrial scale.
– I would say that this is the past, since today there are professional technologies available, so not every organic fruit has worms in it! However, it is true that on smaller farms or gardens not every vegetable or piece of fruit is “perfect”. And it is also not feasible to always deliver the huge amount of goods that supermarkets need. Today, due to the development of organic plant protection technologies and the growing assortment of varieties, quality organic horticultural products can be also produced in commercial quantities. Unfortunately, the good quality Hungarian organic products of this sector are usually exported, similarly to those produced by the other branches of organic agriculture. At the same time, imported organic fruit and vegetables can be found in Hungarian supermarkets, which are not always the best quality. We would like to change this.
– How do state organizations approach or support this topic?
– They are definitely supportive. For example, subsidies for organic farming tripled this year within the Rural Development Program (being the part of the Common Agricultural Policy), meaning that three times as many farms can switch to organic production, as the related risks are compensated by the subsidies. It is also beneficial that there are subsidies for maintaining organic farming once farmers decide to produce this way.
– What do you expect after 2020?
– We expect even more subsidies to be available for organic farming. In Europe the expectation of “common weal in return for public funds” is taken seriously, so those that contribute to the fight against climate change and to protecting the environment and health, as well as rural development are more likely to get subsidies in the future. The policy is to follow consumer expectations, and in light of this organic farming will be even more in the spotlight when allocating money among the different objectives to be supported.
Dr. Dóra Drexler – coming from a medical family – started her career as a landscape architect at the former University of Horticulture in Budapest. She got her doctoral degree at the Department of Landscape Ecology of the Technical University of Munich. In addition, she became a Doctor of Plant Health in 2017. She has been the director of the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture since it was founded in 2011. She has two children with her husband.
With cooperation for organic farming
ÖMKi is working on research-innovation that lead to results that can be put into practice. This way it is helping to guarantee the sustainable development of agriculture and food production in Hungary. To this end the organization develops professional networks in cooperation with Hungarian and foreign research institutes and farmers, carries out research and information activities, and provides technical advice. Its oldest project entitled “On-farm research network” won the Agricultural Development Prize at the 78th National Agriculture and Food Exhibition and Fair (OMÉK) and also the E.on Energy Globe Award in 2018, and it is the only Hungarian research project being carried out in close cooperation with farmers by applying a practical approach to sustainable agriculture. The on-farm research method covers simple experiments conducted in real life situations adapted to production objectives defined by the farmers. The subjects of the experiments have been elaborated together by ÖMKi and the participating farms since 2012. The organization’s work has also been acknowledged by the Association of Environmental Enterprises through the charter called “For the protection of the environment” in 2019.
The original article is available in Hungarian here:
MezőHír – August 2019