Brussels, 12 Jun 2006
If not mitigated, changes to the traditional farming practices of former Eastern bloc states, such as Hungary, can harm biodiversity, according to US and European researchers involved in a collaborative investigation of crop diversity in changing economic times.
Hungary's family-run farms support vast crop and livestock biodiversity. But according to the findings of an EU-funded study published this year, this biodiversity is under threat as so-called 'home gardeners' strive to meet the challenges of a competitive market economy.
Owing to the use of ancestral crop varieties, traditional farming techniques and the relative absence of machinery or materials purchased from outside the home, these micro-farms boast a rich biodiversity. A variety of crop species, livestock races and soil micro-organisms can be found, according to the study. Some genetic stocks even date back to the Bronze Age.
The home gardens protect not only biodiversity but other aspects of the Hungarian lifestyle, as well. About a fifth of Hungarians produce agricultural goods for home consumption and to supplement their income in the face of unstable market prices. The stock of knowledge and species may prove useful for plant breeding and scientific research, say the researchers, and help to safeguard traditional cooking and cultural habits in the country.
Preserving genetic heritage The study was conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in Rome, St. Stephen's University in Godollo, Hungary, and the Agrobotany Institute in Tapioszele, Hungary. Its findings are available in various forms, including a new book entitled Valuing crop biodiversity: on-farm genetic resources and economic change, edited by Melinda Smale of both the IFPRI and IPGRI.
The book outlines the best approaches for assessing the value of biodiversity and designing conservation programmes in transitional countries, but it also provides insights on the benefits, in particular, of Hungarian home gardens. But like the biodiversity it protects, this unique farming culture is under threat.
"When small farmers in less developed areas grow rare crop varieties," says Smale, "they are preserving a global genetic heritage that has developed over centuries of agriculture. This heritage is potentially useful in breeding by scientists and farmers to meet the needs of consumers as tastes and growing environments change. Ultimately, these natural resources benefit not only those who manage them but future generations."
The team found that most Hungarian home gardeners learned their farming techniques from their parents, but as this older generation die, their traditions are at risk of dying with them. Hungary is keen to prevent this, however. The Ministry for Agriculture and Regional Development and the Ministry for Environment both aim to preserve agriculture biodiversity and multifunctional farming through subsidies, technical support and other types of assistance.
In addition to these findings on Hungarian biodiversity, the publication also features detailed cases studies of eight other nations, including Italy, India, Ethiopia and Uganda. Biodiversity is also the theme of this year's Green Week celebrations organised by the European Commission to highlight key environmental issues affecting Europe and the rest of the world.