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2 Aug, 2010 03:27

Hungarian farmers can’t duck EU constraints

The rich and fertile lands of Hungary have long made it an enviable source for food production.

But farmers there say that they've slowly being starved of business since joining the EU.

At one of the biggest bird farms in Hungary, more than 10,000 geese and ducks bring quite a profit for the owner, Ferenc Varga. Liver, goose down and duck eggs are in high demand. He says his land is perfect for this kind of business.

“Unlike countries in Western Europe and the US, we in Hungary keep our birds in open spaces,” Varga told RT. “The climate and environment allows that. That’s why they develop well and produce ecologically pure meat and eggs.”

Less than a decade ago, Hungarian ducks were sold across Western Europe and the CIS. But now the owner of this farm has to seek other markets – including China and Japan – as it has become very hard for him to sell on his own continent.

He says that ever since his country became a member of the EU, he had to reduce his stock almost two-fold.

“We lost the Russian market – our main buyer – in favor of the EU market. But it turned out that Europe, apart from France, wasn’t interested in our products. This seriously affected the demand and farm owners had to secure their stock, because according to new regulations keeping it was too costly.”

Before the collapse of the socialist regime in 1990, Hungary was one of Europe’s breadbaskets. Its agricultural sector was a strong part of the economy and countries of the post-Soviet space actively imported Hungarian products. In 2004 the country was accepted into the EU, but instead of greener pastures which EU membership promised, Hungarian farming suffered a serious blow.

“The EU didn’t want to improve the situation in the Hungarian market,” said Gyula Thurmer from Hungary’s Labor Communist party. “They really wanted to get the Hungarian market. And they have done it. They don’t need our production, they produce enough butter, meat and wine. They want the Hungarian people to buy their products. But it is bad for us, because it is like being a colony.”

Brussels has a special program to develop regional agriculture which promises a greater income for farmers but which experts say has brought little results. Local producers have been losing more than a third of their revenue every year since 2004 compared to the 1990s. And now even their own market is practically closed to them.

“Foreign supermarkets flooded the Hungarian market with cheap goods, which are being far better promoted than domestic products,” claimed Atilla Rojash, chairman of Hungary’s agricultural association. “And according to EU regulations, we cannot urge these supermarkets to sell only our products. The only thing we have managed to do to avoid a complete destruction of the local market is to push through a legislation which obliges these shops to have at least 30 percent of domestic production on their shelves.”

Hungary has a moratorium on purchases of farmland by foreigners. Farmers say this is the only thing which keeps their agricultural sector from being completely overrun. The ban expires in April next year and it’s unclear whether the EU will allow Budapest to extend it.