Agro-ecological Knowledge Hub




Case study dilemma and research questions

The Hungarian case study aims to explore transition strategies which address barriers and drivers of soil conservation farming. Of the more than 5 million ha agricultural land in Hungary approximately 81% are used as arable land. Agro-ecological conditions for crop production in Hungary are generally considered to be good and market oriented arable farming systems are dominant.

The key sustainability issue in the Hungarian case study is soil quality and health. Arable farmers increasingly experience extreme weather events that either cause water erosion or lack of water in the production period. Adapting soil conservation practices is considered to be the first step in market oriented arable farming systems towards an agro-ecological transition. With the Multi-Actor Platform transition strategies were co-constructed that provide pathways for implementing soil conservation practices.

The case study dilemma is how to integrate agro-ecological practices on arable land in highly market-oriented arable farming systems to maintain and improve soil quality without significant negative impacts on the economic viability of farms?

Research questions:

  • How can barriers and drivers of a transition towards sustainable AEFS be addressed in the specific case study context ?
  • What are the socio-economic and environmental implications of the transition to agro-ecological farming?
  • Why were innovative strategies and incentives successful (or unsuccessful) in enhancing the joint provision of private and public goods of AEFS in a specific case study context?
  • How to  secure economic and social sustainability at a farm level through having a viable production of private and public goods (without being overly dependent on public funds)?

Key characteristics and sustainability issues of the farming system

  • Sustainability issue: Pressure on natural resource: soil quality and its ecological sustainability, social and economic trade-offs 
  • Case study theme focus: national, farm level investigations in Belső Somogy
  • Farm production type: arable systems, specialist crop production, market-oriented farming
  • Agro-ecological practices include extensive margins, nutrient management, reduced/no tillage, conservation management of soils
  • Level of Cooperation: Some farmers cooperate with industrial input supplier in environmental management (demonstrations: soil conservation, field margins management). Sub-regional self-organizing cooperation for agri production and selling.

New ways to water management and tillage practices are being sought by a number of individual farmers to meet the challenge of climate change damages to production in mid-sized arable farms (R). The main commodities are grain-protein-oil crops (RU) produced for the world market, processing is not present (T) and currently does not have an impact for the sustainability of the system. The key actors are innovative farmers (A) who decided to apply alternative soil cultivation strategies in order to combat extreme weather events and reduce costs to increase the economic efficiency of production. These farmers share experiences while due to the deviation of their practices generate potential conflicts with conventional farmers (I). However, at a national level there is still very low level of information exchange and low social capital. Policies do not target specifically soil conservation adaptation (G).

Key actors involved

  • Authorities and Administration – representatives from local, regional and national governments, policy-makers, regulatory and managing authorities, regional enterprise and planning authorities and technical staff
  • National Rural Development Agency, local governments, NébiH: National Food Security Authority 
  • Farmers/Agri-food value chain – Public-private businesses and (representatives of) farmers and agri-food value chain actors 
  • Farmers union (NAK: National Agricultural Chamber), Input manufacturers/suppliers, Integrators, Agricultural machinery manufacturers/suppliers
  • NGOs, civic society organisations, local community representatives – These groups will be invited to participate in knowledge sharing activities, and identify opportunities for UNISECO to address local issues, and co-construct local implementation.
  • Biokultúra Association, Magyar Természetvédők Országos Szövegsége (Friends of the Earth Hungary), HU Association of Permaculture (Magyar Permakultúra Egyesület, MAPER),  Regenerative Agriculture (TMMG Talaj Megújító Mezőgazdaság), Birdlife Hungary (MME)
  • Science and innovation – Szent István University, RISSAC: Academy’s Research Inst. Of Soil Sci., National Agricultural Research and Innovation Centre (NAIK) 
  • Consumers – to discuss how the outcomes are relevant to the everyday lives of people – no processing in farms, no direct connection of farmers with consumers. – TVE: Association of Conscious Consumers

Agro-ecological practices and sustainability trade-offs

Envisaged transition stages in soil conservation farming include:

  • I. Efficiency increase:      reduced till: Ploughing before some crops but substituting ploughing with other methods (e.g: subsoiling before winter wheat)
  • II. Input substitution:      no-plough (no soil inversion): Complete substitution of ploughing by other methods (e.g: subsoiling before winter wheat) but still cultivating the entire soil (surface)
  • III. System redesign:        regenerative agriculture with no till: Total exclusion of soil cultivation by using direct seeding machines and various other practices (e.g. cover crops, crop diversification, promoting soil biota)

Soil conservation practices are complex systems that can be taken up gradually and the various forms can co-exist within a farm in transition. Policy measures are necessary to compensate for the risks associated. Individual practices alone cannot be assessed in terms of their (economic, environmental) efficiency therefore the above mentioned transition stages refer to a set of complex practices that needs to be adjusted and applied to the given context and physical endowments of a farm.

Regenerative agriculture, as additional measure, were suggested by one participant as the ultimate form of soil conservation agriculture. In this case the no-till practice is part of a complex technology of regenerative agriculture to make it as environment friendly as possible. Although the no-till technology means the complete opt out of tilling, but it is complemented with other practices in the regenerative agriculture technology, such as cover crops, manuring, stubble grazing, crop rotation, supply of micro nutrients, etc.

Soil conservation farming practices appear to be viable - in a subsidy-free environment - among market conditions alone. The technology exists and there is money to implement this technology - of course, the latter is true mainly for capital-intensive entrepreneurs. Perhaps the most important experience gained from the case studies is that if an environmental intervention - in our case soil-conservation farming - can produce market benefits, then farmers are indeed very keen and willing to apply it. They have a particular indirect environmental awareness, undoubtedly driven by the realization of economic benefits from environmental interventions. As a result, they continue to be profit oriented, but they recognized that a targeted handling of the environment could positively affect their profits. In our opinion, this attitude of farmers can be considered as the main driver in the spread of soil conservation farming.

Key barriers of implementation agro-ecological practices

The following key driver and barriers were identified that needed to be addressed in the transition strategies co-constructed with farmers and other key actors in the Multi-Actor Platform:

  • Biophysical: Changes in environmental and climate conditions (e.g. soil erosion, extreme weather events and droughts) drive the awareness of innovative farmers of the need to change management practices.
  • Social – cognitive: traditions and customs of arable farming, most farmers regard ploughing as an essential and inherent part of soil cultivation
  • Social – normative: culture of individualism after the collapse of the socialist regime (with inefficient cooperations) leads to low social capital
  • Technological / knowledge: access to independent advice on benefits of soil conservation practices
  • Economic:
    • Technologies and machinery require big investments which are not available to smaller farms
    • Lack of added value for goods for production systems with soil conservation farming practices
  • Policy-related: soil as natural resource with underrepresented social/institutional value, lack of national strategy and lack of special focus on soil in the subsidy system, i.e. inconsistency of support schemes with regard to soil conservation

Key actions to overcome barriers

There are several domains where changes can be initiated to foster soil conservation farming in Hungary. In the following we grouped the recommendations by these domains.

Fostering shift in mindsets, improving know-how

  • improving know-how level, raising awareness among farmers and knowledge exchange
    • real-life demonstration farms, real-scale experiments and solutions, variety testings and unbiased recommendations, prove economic feasibility
  • better provision of independent information, data and advice to farmers soil information system

Research and advisory development supporting the transition

  • creating an independent professional and practical network to promote good soil condition
  • establishing extension services supported by academia,
  • practice-oriented advisory coupled with research (practical knowledge base for farmers, soil data and practical soil indicators for farmers, economic returns of soil conservation farming practices)
  • multidisciplinary studies about the economic feasibility of conservation agriculture practices to providing convincing evidence for farmers to adopt
  • support for agricultural education and research that enables independent results (not biased by agro-industry value chains)
  • Enhanced role of the Chamber of Agriculture as a coordination centre for independent advisory services

Capacity building

  • modernising teaching and practical curricula to entail latest innovations and digitalisation of the agricultural sector (e.g. precision agriculture)
  • supporting for agricultural education at all levels: secondary agronomic schools, vocational training, further training, adult education to enable proper level of demonstration and training.

Improving policies for enhancing transition and uptake of soil conservation farming practices

  • strategy specifically related to fostering soil conservation farming.
  • Specific support for soil conservation practices
    • Eco-schemes may support 1) crop diversification and rotation (beyond GAEC 8) with the inclusion of species that are particularly beneficial, 2) maintain/shift to less water demanding crops/variety (or rootstock) in water stressed areas 3) maintenance of zero-tillage,
    • new types of service contracts that either favour environmental results over management prescriptions giving farmers freedom to implement multi-year site-specific farming practices (e.g. management commitments to increase soil water retention capacity, management commitment for intercropping, sequential cropping, management commitments for anti-erosion landscape features, or collective actions at landscape level (e.g. collective actions for land use planning based on land suitability maps).
    • adjusted greening measures to disable the misuse of cover crops,
    • improving the Farm modernization and investment measure to enable purchasing of specific agricultural machinery and tools related to conservation agriculture,
      • bank, insurance companies to elaborate capital schemes for such investments.

In the light of the Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy of the EU the environmental and climatic expectations are expected to increase in the next cycle of the CAP, therefore the topic of soil conservation farming is justified to be a priority and requires to get prepared for the development of appropriate interventions in the national CAP Strategic Plan. In this process, it is essential to raise environmental awareness among national stakeholders the environmental impact of CAP implementation programs is strongly dependent on current policy decisions throughout their implementation.

Changes needed at the food system level

  • initiating market instruments
    • carbon quota: compensating farmers for CO2 sequestration in soil,
    • soil conservation label – price premium.
  • general information campaign for public awareness raising about soil as natural resource,
    • environmental education in schools about the importance and multifunctionality of soils,
    • Consumer education by government and NGOs for shortening supply chain,
    • demanding consumers are more conscious about the choice of healthy food and not biased by commercial ads and the lock-in of cheap food.
  • Fostering cooperation
    • Between farmers (knowledge exchange e.g. at field days, participatory research),
    • Between all stakeholders by setting up national platform for soil conservation farming to:
      • clarify the definitions in soil conservation farming, define technological recommendations, parameters, and indicators,
      • narrow the science-policy-practice nexus by setting research agenda based on needs from practice and policy,
      • act as a board of representation of actors for policy consultations,
      • provide information and help raising public awareness.

Key lessons learnt

  • Adopting soil conservation farming practices are considered as a first step for market oriented arable farming systems towards transition to agro-ecological farming systems. Farmers, however, need knowledge and advisory support to accompany them along the systemic change, as well as scientific evidence to underpin the economic viability of such practices.
  • Many actors in the agri-food system are relevant to assist farmers to bring the widespread adoption of soil conservation farming practices to a success.
  • Innovative design changes to existing rural development measures have the potential to successfully promote transitions to soil conservation farming if accompanied by measures of research and advisory development, raising public awareness and demand for crops produced this way.


Visit the webpage of the final stakeholder conference of the HU case study:
"Conference on the future of soil conservation farming in Hungary", 2 March 2021.




UNISECO HU case study summary: Initiating transition with soil conservation practices

UNISECO HU case study presentation at the project final conference

Soil conservation farming practices 1: Cover crops and leaving mulch on the surface

Soil conservation farming practices 2: The basics of cost-effective organic nutrient management

Soil conservation farming practices 3: Replacing tillage equipment for minimal soil disturbance

Soil conservation farming practices 4: Habitat creation and maintenance to preserve biodiversity and wildlife

Further materials in Hungarian:

Gyakorlati ajánlások

Szakpolitikai ajánlás

Hazai esettanulmány munkaközi anyagok és előadások

Projekt áttekintés

Related newsitems