It wasn’t particularly easy to find vegetarian cooking in Hungary when I was there in 1990. This was the land of goulash and chicken paprikas, after all. And forget about organic produce. In those days, even in the United States, organic agriculture and organic products were a decidedly niche market. When the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements met for their 1990 conference in Hungary, it was the first time they served organic food as part of their gathering – such was the difficulty of sourcing the ingredients in those days. This was before the transformation of consumer attitudes toward food that accompanied the growth of huge organic farms – what Michael Pollin once called the organic-industrial complex. This in turn produced the economies of scale that allowed for the sale of organic produce in supermarkets and the use of organic ingredients in fast food chains like Chipotle.
So when I met Ferenc Fruhwald in 1990, he was way ahead of the curve. He had founded Biokultura in 1983 to advance the cause of organic farming. It was a relatively small group of like-minded gardeners and others, anyone in fact who “had the same idea that it was stupid to poison our food,” Fruhwald told me when we met again in Budapest last May.
In 1990, Biokultura and other groups that favored organic agriculture were looking at what seemed like a golden opportunity. The new Hungarian government wanted to transform the socialist-era agriculture into something new. The organic movement offered something appropriately transformative, though Fruhwald worried at the time that the government misunderstood organic farming as simply “residue-free” rather than an entirely new agriculture process.
Fruhwald went into business at this time selling organic products. “I made the biggest business deal in my life in 1991 when I negotiated a contract with a state apple orchard,” he remembered. “It was 80-90 hectares and perfectly managed, and the management decided to go organic. It was very easy. On the organizational structure, we had to agree with the top managers on what needed to be done. They got a certificate, and they told the people in the orchard to do this and that. And it worked perfectly. They harvested so many apples that I could sell 20 trucks of apples, 20 tons each.”
This turned out to be just an interlude, however, between the political changes of 1990 and the privatization that came in 1992-3. The big state farms were broken up. “Just a year later,” Fruhwald continued, “the farm was privatized and split into 180 different orchards. The individual owners decided what to do on their own, and there was no cooperation. It was a good example of how this could have been transformed in a different way.”
I expected to hear a happy ending after these various travails. Surely Hungarians must have come around to the importance of organic farming and organic produce. The preferences of individual Hungarians, however, were beside the point. What mattered was government policy. “During the last 20 years, governments came and went, and nothing really happened with organic,” Fruhwald reported. “It wasn’t interesting for any of the governments, because the political line is always in the hands of the big stakeholders who can influence state policy. In friendly conversation, the officials say they support you. But when it comes to the lawmaking process, nothing happens.”
The lack of government interest could even be felt at the ground level – at the vegetarian café where we were meeting for the interview. “If you go to a restaurant, almost nothing is organic,” Fruhwald told me. “The grocery connected to this cafe is a good example. Originally it was organic. Now they put up a little sign that the produce is ‘controlled.’ It’s just a fake, a way to make the public believe in something without providing any proof.”
In the end it came down to money. Organic produce cost more, and people were having difficulty making ends meet. The only way to break out of the downward spiral – fewer consumers means higher prices means even fewer consumers – was for the government to step in. “The promotion of organics should come from the state,” Fruhwald concluded. “And the state should simply support the idea — that organic is healthier.”
I was happy, absolutely. I was in here in Budapest, listening to the radio and watching the TV, gathering all the information about the changes. It was a good time.
Did you ever think you’d see such a development in your lifetime?
Never in my life. I thought that I would die under the control of the Communists.
Even here in Hungary?
Yes. However, by the end of the 1980s, the dictatorship was a little bit softer. But still, it was still a dictatorship.
Tell me how you got involved in environmental issues.
It was in an absolutely practical way. I had a garden that had been out of use for a long time. The trees were dying, fallen down. I had to start everything again from the beginning. At the same time, my mother bought a very interesting book by a German author for my father. The title was, if I translate it well, Gardening and Land Use without Chemicals. When I realized that the author was 81 years old, I thought that a man of his age would never lie. I tried the techniques and they worked.
Then I met with a guy who at the same time had started a series in a weekly gardening magazine under the title Organic Gardening. His relatives lived in Belgium, and they told him about this new trend of organic gardening. He wrote articles in the magazine and the readers replied with articles of their own about their experiences. I thought, “Why wait for the correspondence? Why not bring the people together to exchange their ideas and experiences?” That was the birth of Biokultura. The members of our group were not only gardeners. There were doctors, physicists, manual laborers. A lot of people had the same idea that it was stupid to poison our food.
It was a revolutionary new method for socialist agriculture, but it had a political meaning as well. Not so long after there were some protests against the dam on the Danube. We joined and together participated in the same events. It was a nice beginning for the movement.
Tell me about your garden. Was this a private plot like the ones that many people had in Budapest?
Yes, but those are in the downtown and also in the suburban areas or the hilly areas of Buda, where people have smaller or bigger gardens. My garden was 1000 square meters, and it was located where we lived at that time. We lived 20 kilometers outside of Budapest. It was a mid-sized village where it was not unusual for people to have 1000 square meter gardens.
What did you grow?
Only a part was used for fruit and vegetables. The rest was for flowers, evergreens, and different things. We had two kids at that time — so we could feed them with that food. I went to the village network at that time, and they offered to buy my organic carrots at the same price as the conventional ones. They were completely uneducated this way. That was in 1981-2. The organic carrots were not as beautiful. They were crooked, had flecks on them.
What was your occupation then?
At that time I worked in the media as an advertising manager for a high fidelity magazine — very far from this field of organic agriculture. My original occupation was foreign trade economics. I trained for that, and for a little while I worked in this field. Then I went into the media. The advantage of this situation was that I had a lot of free time. I was paid on commission for advertisements. I finished my annual year of work at the end of March, and then I had a lot of free time and enough energy to organize this other work.
At the time when you created Biokultura, the knowledge of organic farming was very low.
At what point did it become more widely known?
Over the years. Between 1983 and 1990, there was a straight development. We saw an increase in membership, and our influence became a little wider in the media, in the newspapers, on television. There was a trend to write about organic farming in the newspapers. After 1990, it stagnated. After the soft revolution or political changes took place, people were ready for another kind of action. The changes were done, and they were no longer politically motivated. They looked for new jobs to make more money. Society began to speed up. The new changes came — computers and so on. The supermarkets were offering a much richer variety of food.
When did people start buying organics?
I started the first organic shop in Budapest in 1992. But it was a very small shop with very little turnover. Somehow we survived.
Does it still survive?
No, I stopped in 2000. In the meantime, I opened another shop in a very nice area of Budapest, a rich area, and it was the only one in the vicinity. The shop was running quite well. But when many malls were erected around it, the volume of sales fell.
The biggest problem for the organic movement was that it was very strongly related in people’s minds to an alternative way of life: alternative food trends like vegetarianism or alternative medicine, and some strange ideas also had an influence. We are still suffering from this problem. Many people can’t distinguish between organic food and the raw food movement or vegetarianism or the paleo diet of only fruit and meat. The other big problem is that people are only concerned about their own health. It’s a selfish way of behaving. They’re not much interested in what is going on around the world or the future of agriculture. Eating organic food is just a selfish way not to get cancer.
They want to live longer – but in a polluted world.
That’s on the consumption side. What about on the production side? Was there any interest in turning the old collective farms into organic farming?
I was president of Biokultura until 1991, and then I resigned because I was completely overloaded with organizing the world conference of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements). I resigned and started a business career. Many of our friends who belonged to the different organic agriculture movements in different countries also turned to the business side. We trusted each other — and it looked like a good way to get ahead.
The privatization here stated a little later in 1992-3. I made the biggest business deal in my life in 1991 when I negotiated a contract with a state apple orchard. It was 80-90 hectares and perfectly managed, and the management decided to go organic. It was very easy. On the organizational structure, we had to agree with the top managers on what needed to be done. They got a certificate, and they told the people in the orchard to do this and that. And it worked perfectly. They harvested so many apples that I could sell 20 trucks of apples, 20 tons each. Just a year later, however, the farm was privatized and split into 180 different orchards. The individual owners decided what to do on their own, and there was no cooperation. It was a good example of how this could have been transformed in a different way.
I contacted some other producers in what were still state farms in the Hortobagy, the national park. There was 4000 hectares with many different kinds of crops — maize, wheat, sunflower seeds, all stock exchange products. The business was running quite well then. But it declined when we joined the European Union, and everyone had the right to trade their own products. In the meantime, the next generation grew up. Farmers’ sons finished university and learned foreign languages so that they could start their own way. My chances diminished. That’s life. Now, I’m strictly speaking retired. I’m 63, getting some support from the state.
What’s the state of the organic farming now?
I’m not happy about the situation. During the last 20 years, governments came and went, and nothing really happened with organic. It wasn’t interesting for any of the governments, because the political line is always in the hands of the big stakeholders who can influence state policy. In friendly conversation, the officials say they support you. But when it comes to the lawmaking process, nothing happens.
Have any farmers decided to switch to organic so that they have a market advantage?
Yes, mostly. That’s a problem. I trace it back to the Communist time. The original way of thinking, of which all religions were part, showed some responsibility to the globe. And that disappeared. A selfish approach took its place. If there’s state support for organic agriculture, then people will do it. But if the state support is reduced, then they think about stopping organic.
There are challenges when you switch to organic — you have to leave your land fallow for some years during the switchover. So, it requires a commitment.
Yes. It’s different in Germany or Austria or Holland. The farmers feel a responsibility there, and they do it for that reason. And there’s not much difference in terms of what they earn. In our case, the organic farmer earns double. There’s a huge demand for organic in EU, so they are mostly supplying the EU market rather than the local market, where it’s harder to sell thousands of pounds of produce. So, the first motivation is income.
Do you know what percentage of agricultural production is organic in Hungary?
3-4 percent. And 50-60 percent of the certified land is meadow or fallow.
That’s one nice thing about EU regulations: you can get subsidies for leaving land fallow, which help farmers and helps the environment. You’ve tried to persuade the government here to provide incentives to farmers to switch to organic and the government hasn’t done so?
Not just us but various NGOs like Greenpeace and the Working Group against Air Pollution. We have a lot of unemployment in Hungary — not as much as in Spain, of course, but still a lot. Most of these people are uneducated and can’t do skilled work. Weeding at organic farms would be good work for them — in the fresh air, in the sunshine. Still, it’s not happening.
Didn’t the Fidesz government recently merge the agriculture and environment ministries?
It’s not agriculture. It’s rural development. And now everything is under that umbrella — water management, agriculture, and so on. That should help too. And I was so happy when this new government came into force because the state secretary responsible for agriculture was a very good environmentalist, Jozsef Angyan, and so was the minister responsible for water management, Zoltan Illes. They were prominent figures in the environmental movement. But they still didn’t have enough power to push things forward. The stars will not align themselves again in such a way to put two such people into government. Angjan resigned. Illes is still in position, but organic agriculture is not his direct responsibility. The large moneymakers have more power.
What do you think the general knowledge today about organic food?
If you go to a restaurant, almost nothing is organic. The grocery connected to this cafe is a good example. Originally it was organic. Now they put up a little sign that the produce is “controlled.”
What does that mean?
I don’t know. It’s just a fake, a way to make the public believe in something without providing any proof.
Why doesn’t a restaurant like this serve organic?
The price. Everyone is afraid of making enough for a living. If they increase the price, the sales will go down. If the turnover is lower, they can’t pay the rent.
But if they don’t buy more organic food, the price of organics will remain high. It’s a vicious circle.
The promotion of organics should come from the state. And the state should simply support the idea — that organic is healthier. You can find articles in the Western newspapers that there are no health benefits from eating organic. But as I used to say in my lectures, it’s so obvious that if we don’t poison something it will be healthier.
Now I’m more radical — I’d like to see results as quickly as possible. It’s been 30 years since we started Biokultura, and nothing has improved. The organic question is much better developed in the Czech Republic.
Have foreign multinationals come in to farm Hungarian land?
There’s a moratorium until the end of next year, but there have been a lot of tricks. Some Austrian and Dutch farmers negotiated some hidden contracts. They bought the land illegally from the farmer and made a contract to use the land after the moratorium expires. Now some of the Hungarian owners want to void these contracts. Most of the people were short of money and sold the land for a tenth of its value. That’s why the foreigners came here, to get cheap land. It’s a difficult legal process to invalidate these contracts, but it’s important to do this for the future. In 10 or 20 or 50 years, food and water will be strategic weapons.
The moratorium was introduced as part of the privatization of land?
Yes. When land was privatized, people got a ticket based on the size of the plot. Then they could buy back the land with the ticket. But it would not necessarily be the same land. There was also some criticism of this procedure because some people bought up the tickets and concentrated the land in their own hands. And some people were happy to get anything for their ticket.
In some of the countries I’ve travelled in, the farming villages have disappeared. The inhabitants have gone to cities or other countries. Has that happened here in Hungary?
Not so much. Here, the peasants are still working the land. The gardeners who have 1000 square meters or a couple hectares, they don’t even grow their own food. They still buy their food in the shops. They just produce some evergreens.
Are there any accomplishments from the time of Biokultura that you are proud of?
There was change in Biokultura as well in other movements. The next generation is more practical. They are not volunteers or idealists. They ask: how much time it will take and how much money will they make.
For us it was easy. We were all against the Communists, and our very existence irritated the leadership. It was easy because we had one enemy. It was easier to shake hands with our partners: we cooperated because we were all on one side of the conflict. It would be good to find some essential values that could bring us together again.
Is there anything that you could have done differently so that the situation would be different today?
Maybe. The Czech Republic is a good example. They had two vice ministers who came out of the organic movement. That didn’t happen in Hungary, and will never happen. Maybe that’s the difference between the two nations. Maybe we should have tried to get more power at the higher political level. But we were so green, so naive.
Green in both senses.
We didn’t want to get involved in politics.
Have you personally changed your philosophy in any way over the last 23 years?
Not so much. Maybe as I’m older, I’m not so aggressive as I was before. I can better understand the different interests, influences, and motivations than I could at that time. The last 30 years has taught me to be a bit more patient.
You said earlier that you’d become more radical and you wanted to see changes more rapidly.
Yes, but in time I’ve realized that it doesn’t work.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look at Hungary from 1989 until today and everything that has changed or not changed over that period of time, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 1 most satisfied?
We expected many more changes. And not as much has changed. So, I’d say 6.
6 is still positive.
Well, things have changed, but not much has changed in the individual motivations and activities.
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
I would give a higher number. About 8. If you asked me 20 years earlier, it would be a 10!
When you look into the near future and evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Really? Everything you’ve told me has been rather pessimistic.
About organics. Life is more than organics.
What makes you optimistic?
Freedom is freedom. From 23 years ago, it can’t be compared. We can travel where we want. If we work hard, we can earn money. If I can live for the next 10 or 15 years the same way that I do now, I will be happy.
The whole European situation is terrible. The EU has some very deep problems that nobody expected 23 years ago. And no one knows the way out. Now Hungary has started an approach that has generated a lot of conflicts around the region, and we will not see the end of it. I’m positive and optimistic because the previous way didn’t lead anywhere. I’m just happy not to be in the same situation as Greece or Cyprus. The power of money is too strong. The power of heart and of brains should be more important than the power of money. Everyone these days is just talking about growth. But as I used to say, the only thing in nature that keeps growing and growing is cancer.
Budapest, May 8, 2013
Ferenc Fruwald has been working on the issue of organic farming for the better part of the last decade. He founded Biokultura in 1983 with a group of people as a club initially for people who did not want to use chemicals in their gardening. Because it was not easy at the time to do anything political, they decided they would concentrate on organic farming and make their group legal. Different types of people gathered around the group: vegetarians, adherents of different philosophies and diverse ethical viewpoints. At first, there were no more than 100 or so but the numbers gradually increased.
In 1986, Fruwald visited West Germany to talk to the gurus of the organic movement there. The West Germans were quite helpful and sent much material. Most importantly, perhaps, they suggested that Biokultura join IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. By 1987, for the International Agricultural Fair in Budapest, Biokultura was ready to make a demonstration organic garden which turned out to be quite popular. In 1990, Biokultura will host the IFOAM conference in Budapest and prepare for the Organic Day at the Agricultural fair as well. (Ironically, this will be the first IFOAM conference where organic food will be served at meals. And this in a country where organic food is so difficult to find!)
Today, Biokultura engages in two main activities: information flow (organizing conferences, training courses), and the inspection and certification of organic agricultural production. This latter is presently done in cooperation with a Dutch foundation (SEC) but next year, Biokultura will do its own certification. This means that the organization makes contracts with farmers, monitors production throughout the entire growing season (2-3 inspections per year according to IFOAM standards). There are contracts with 40 farmers and Fruwald hopes that Biokultura will become entirely self-sustaining through the money brought in through inspection fees. All of the organic food is then sold to Holland. None of it remains in Hungary. Why? Because there’s no domestic market. Which irritates Fruwald: after all, the health of the average Hungarian is deteriorating and Hungary is exporting all of its healthy vegetables and fruit. But, Fruwald points out, the producers are gradually being persuaded to farm organically because it means higher wages through exports. Eventually the European market will be flooded and these producers will have to create a market within Hungary. Further assistance might be provided by the government should it decide to ban the use of chemicals in farming.
Nevertheless, Fruwald worries about threats from the outside: “biocolonialism.” He points to German and Dutch firms in Central America and Africa, firms which are by no means environmentally conscious. Hungary might attract similar companies for similar reasons. Also a possible threat might come from various agrobusinesses which will concentrate on high profits and large acreage: neither of which are necessarily conducive to organic farming.
Another danger comes from the government. For years, the government considered Biokultura a “silly” organization. Now, however, it thinks it can transform Hungarian agriculture “organically” without any experience whatsoever. For instance, the government thinks that organic food is simply “residue-free.” Rather, Fruwald points out, organic farming is a process: an environmentally safe way of farming, not simply residue-free products. He gives the example of Balbona, the largest state farm, producer of most of McDonald’s ingredients and most of fodder as well. The manager of the farm, so-called “Green Baron” Poposci, is newly arrived from the Politburo. In one of his first statements, Poposci declared that the farm would become organic. Given its size, Fruwald noted, such a transformation was quite impossible.
Nor would Fruwald argue that 100% of Hungarian agriculture should be organic–some state farms function more effectively as large units. He wrote recently to the old government suggesting that pesticides be assessed a “green fee.” The government responded that pesticides are a normal component of agriculture and a one per cent rise in fertilizer and pesticide prices would translate into a general rise in the price of food. Not long after, of course, the government raised food prices by 50 per cent. Fruwald has drafted a similar letter to the new government, “but I don’t believe that too many things are going to change.”
He realizes that at the moment it is too difficult for Hungarians to pay more for organic food but he would like eventually to see coops develop which would lower the costs of organic food.