Hungarian cuisine is unthinkable without onions and garlic, and yet, more and more of these vegetables are imported, especially those sold in big hypermarkets. There are multiple reasons for this; the most important being the fragmentation of farmland and the price sensitivity of consumers.
Place of origin: China – this is printed on the small barcoded label attached to the pack containing three heads of garlic. So, now I understand why neither the taste nor the smell resembles the real thing. However, I’m still intrigued by the question of how on earth Hungary ended up having to import garlic, the traditional ingredient of Hungarian cuisine, from China.
The answer to this question is provided by István Hunyadi, managing director of the FruitVeB Hungarian Interprofessional Organization for Fruit and Vegetable, who explains that
it was 20-25 years ago that Hungary last produced enough garlic to meet the domestic demand and also to sell abroad. However, the cultivated area is steadily declining: compared to the 1,350 hectares in 2001, only 800 hectares of garlic were grown last year.
There are several reasons behind this; the fragmentation of Hungarian horticulture definitely plays a role, as the small farms generally use outdated, labour-intensive cultivation methods, which results in low profitability – or to put it simply, garlic production is not profitable. The younger generations do not even bother with it any more, István Hunyadi claims.
garlic can be imported from China at a fraction of the price, despite the fact that it travels huge distances: while Hungarian-grown garlic costs 500-600 forints a kilo, the Chinese import is already available for 100-120 forints.
The latter comes from the Netherlands, from where it is distributed all over Europe, breaking down the prices not only of Hungarian, but also of other large garlic-growing nations like Spain.
However, Spanish garlic producers are in a better position to compete with the cheap Asian products than Hungarians, as they are able to produce this staple ingredient in much larger areas, using modern methods and therefore much more profitably, while the taste, aroma and quality come close to Hungarian garlic, although its price is still lower than that of the Hungarian produce, and most of the customers are still price sensitive, says the managing director of FruitVeB.
At the same time, István Hunyadi notes that the biggest part of garlic used in Hungarian kitchens is still grown locally: on average, 5-6 thousand tons are annually produced in Hungary, compared to the approximately 1 thousand tons imported every year.
The situation is similar in the case of onion, although not in every respect: it is grown in smaller and smaller areas as well, and the amount produced in Hungary is not enough to meet the domestic demand, so we are also in need of import products.
On average, 60 thousand tons of onions are produced in Hungary every year, and another 30 percent of that amount is imported from the Netherlands and North Africa.
The import is necessary mostly because even larger, mechanized plants lack modern storage capacity, so there are certain periods when the supply is enormous, but in other times, especially in winter, there are practically only import products available.
According to István Hunyadi, businesses involved in onion production are less fragmented than in the case of garlic, which is due to the fact that although there are regular tenders for modernizing horticultural plants, for a farmer with three hectares of land it will never pay off to invest millions of forints into buying modern technology, machinery or other equipment, without which it is impossible to produce in an economical way.