Eating Healthy in Hungary

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."

The Interview

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.