By Donella Meadows
–September 6, 1990–
Seven hundred people are crowded into the central hall of the Budapest University of Economics (called until a few months ago the Karl Marx University of Economics). Just outside flows the Danube, brown and slightly toxic. The hall throbs with human energy, though it’s hard for anyone to take a breath. The air is hot, heavy, yellow-brown, and slightly toxic.
It is the opening of the biannual meeting of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the first ever held in East Europe. The program is crammed with topics typical of IFOAM meetings. The Influence of Fertilizer on the Quality of Potatoes. Flea Beetle Control with Herbal Mixtures. The Management of Laying Hens on Ecological Farms in Germany.
The schedule also bursts with topics completely new and until recently unimaginable. Post-Socialist Land Use in East Germany. The Future of Organic Farming in Hungary. Czechoslovakian Alternative Agriculture.
The bronze statue of Karl Marx looks out upon a hall that has recently resonated with speeches by George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. Today old Karl watches a representative from the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences call for “new thinking, new culture, new technology to replace chemically dangerous agriculture.” A Lithuanian drapes a ribbon of honor from his semi-nation over the shoulder of the Hungarian conference organizer. Csaba Csaki the rector of Budapest University states that what is happening in East Europe is “not reform, but a complete dismantling and reconstruction.”
Professor Michael Succow from East Germany summarizes the record of the past 45 years. Sixty percent of the forests in his nation are sick. Half the fresh water bodies are dead, he says, and one-third of the plant and animal species are endangered. More than a million people are drinking water polluted by nitrogen fertilizers. Over six million breathe unsafe air. Forty percent of the arable land is badly degraded; over a million acres are contaminated by toxic heavy metals. The most unspoiled areas are the once heavily defended no-man’s lands at the borders, which will now be turned into nature parks.
East Germany has been using twice as many farmworkers per acre as West Germany and getting two-thirds the agricultural yields at twice the cost. Says Succow, “We have to learn farming all over again.”
In the buzzing workshops of the IFOAM meeting East Europeans sit down with organic farmers from the West and do just that. There is no doubt in this gathering that organic agriculture is the right solution. A year ago it could not be openly discussed in many of these nations; now there is a tremendous hurry to get it into motion.
The most urgent issue is land ownership. Richard Bartak, who two months ago became Czechoslovakia’s Vice-Secretary of Privatization and Alternative Agriculture, agonizes over what that should mean. Should the land be given to the coops who now are working it? Or put up for auction to the highest bidder? Should the state return the land to those who owned it in 1947 after land reform limited holdings to 240 acres? Or to those who owned it in 1945 at the end of the war? Or in 1942 just before land was taken from the Jews? Or just after the first World War? There is no stopping point in the history of Central Europe that does not release an upwelling of pain and grievance.
What is the best scale for agriculture? Everyone thinks it is far below the current megafarms of seven to ten thousand acres and stables of 200,000 pigs or 50,000 cows. “Industrialized animal production units are ineffective, unecological, immoral, and socially reprehensible,” says Michael Succow. But only a few East Europeans realize that capitalism can lead to megafarms too. “Freedom means an unlimited ability to own property,” says Richard Bartak, minutes after he has outlined the dangers of large-scale agriculture. The Westerners wince. He doesn’t notice the contradiction.
After ownership comes the job of creating new systems for capital and inputs, research and extension, marketing and transport. “Not having a market is the only thing worse than having a market,” says Csaba Csaki. Hungary is eagerly planning a superhighway to the Austrian border, to carry truckloads of Hungarian produce to the West. No one considers that there are surplus commodities produced far more efficiently on the other side of that border, ready to be trucked East.
Technology will be the easy part of the transition, everyone expects. People at this conference run successful organic farms on six continents and are ready to share their expertise. A group of Russian farm managers huddle around a table with American advisers, writing a proposal for the conversion of six cooperative farms into demonstration sites for “biofarming.”
Entrepreneurship is not lacking. In the halls are sincere but unpolished commercial displays of Czech grain cakes, like our rice cakes, but made of organic wheat and rye; of Hungarian sun-dried tomatoes and peppers; of herbal powders; of tissue-cultured virus-free potato sets. An old man and his wife supplement their socialist pension by shuffling around taking pictures of conferees and selling them for 50 forints each (just less than a dollar).
Much of the insistent energy of this meeting comes from the excitement of sudden freedom. Lurking not far underneath is another driving factor: incipient terror. The social order is shaken to its roots and under no obvious control. Most of the people here are courageous and upbeat, but not all.
On a notice board is posted a small sign: “20 organic farmers from Czechoslovakia look for jobs and accommodations in a Western country.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990