8 December 1995

CONSERVATION NOT FORGOTTEN

You might think that the rush to increase output would have excluded all thoughts of conservation and environment. Not so, reports Tim Relf from a visit to Hungary

HUNGARIAN agriculture stands at a crossroads. Behind it lies the legacy of communism; ahead is accession to the EU, and all the challenges and changes membership will bring.

One could be excused for thinking that environmental and conservation issues will be sidelined as the drive towards modernisation and improvement unfolds. The pressures from the market-place will certainly be huge. But environmental awareness has also grown quickly, partly driven by western European influences.

Under the Communist regime, agriculture was hugely inefficient – but hugely subsidised. When the subsidies were withdrawn, production collapsed, input prices rose and demand plummeted as traditional eastern markets were lost. At the same time, farmers were hampered by a lack of capital, structural problems throughout the food chain and by difficulties in resolving property rights.

One man who is well aware of the problems is Jozsef Nagy, managing director of the National Association of Hungarian Farmers Societies. He believes education and training are vital if progress is to be made. "Farmers traditionally knew very little about book-keeping or banks and finance," he says.

But at the heart of the problem is something more fundamental than a shortfall of knowledge. "For the past 50 years, farmers havent had to take decisions," says Dr Nagy. "They have been told what to do, and when to do it."

Such past reminders contrast starkly with the tranquility of the Hungarian countryside itself. Visit the 36,000ha (89,000-acre) Kiskunsag National Park, for example, and it is easy to forget the changes under way.

Passing through large parts of the park, one is reminded of East Anglia. It is a large, open landscape. Much of the land is salt-affected grassland, although maize and arable crops are also widely grown. With annual rainfall about 500mm (20in), winter wheat yields about 3t/ha (1.2t/acre) here.

Wheat is popular with conservationists as well as farmers. "It forms an integral part of a habitat favoured by the globally-threatened great bustard," points out the RSPBs senior policy officer Jim Dixon, who has been investigating the agri-environmental relationship in central and east European countries.

Like her western counterparts, park officer Judit Kelemen is well aware that reconciling different objectives can sometimes be difficult. "Farmers want to invest," she says, "and this sometimes conflicts with the objectives of low input farming." Her comments could just as easily have come from the Lake District or the Somerset levels.

Also confident of the role of western-style management in Hungary is Brown & Cos Eastern European manager Henry Wilkes.

"Hungarian soils are fertile and have a large productive potential," he says. "Whats lacking is the modern management systems and equipment," he says. "Theres a great need, for example, for cost-benefit analysis on inputs."

There is also a lack of affordable credit, partly because the lack of an established land market means raising collateral can be difficult.

Moreover, production has traditionally been devoid of the profit motive, so a culture change is needed, too.

The situation is improving, believes Mr Wilkes, with foreign investment in the agri-business sector growing and marketing opportunities getting brighter. "But theres a long, long way still to go."

At Godollo University of Agricultural Sciences, 15 miles from Budapest, meanwhile, there is considerable optimism among the 10,000 students.

Eighteen-year-old Balazs Poloskei, for example, is in the first year of a five-year degree course in agriculture. He says: "Students dont object to joining the EU. We are certainly not afraid of it."

In fact Godollo has a lot of overseas students. Exchange programmes are run with 66 other universities in 27 countries. Walk around the campus and you bump into biologists from France and mechanical engineers from Syria.

As Hungarys largest agricultural university, Godollo recently took an important step in the agri-environment debate by introducing its first rural environmental course. Students of this subject cover the same basic sciences as those reading agriculture, before specialising in environmental topics. The inextricable link is thus reinforced at an early age.

Back at Kiskunsag, meanwhile, Mrs Kelemen draws encouragement from the growing awareness of the need to reconcile agricultural and environmental needs in a mutually satisfactory way.

It seems that the Hungarians have, to some extent, learnt from the experiences of countries like the UK. "We have a lot of nature in Hungary," says Mrs Kelemen. "After all, we havent lost as much as you have in the west."

RSPBs Jim Dixon, meanwhile, also speaks of the wide biodiversity to be found in many of these central and eastern European countries. "But the environmental problems which have occurred there should not be forgotten either," he adds.

He sees the present time as a unique opportunity to build policies of environmental protection into farm development policy, creating a "whole-farm" approach. "Agriculture must go forward, but in a sustainable way," he says.

Controlled grazing of Kiskunsag by cattle and sheep is a vital part of sward management and many problems in the past have been due to undergrazing. Overall, there are 420,000 dairy cows across the whole of Hungary.

Joining the EU will allow Hungarys farmers to benefit from Western technology and management skills, believes dairy farmer Mr Zrinyi.

Visitors undertaking a traditional horse and carriage tour of Kiskunsag will find fields of maize and alfalfa a common sight.

Brown and Cos Simon Mountjoy and Tom White examine the land. Much of the soil has potential.