Transitions in the agro-food domain in the Netherlands and Hungary

In the PATHWAYS project, empirical transition pathways have been compared to ideal-type transition pathways. All analyses use the multi-level perspective (MLP) to explain similarities and differences between the different countries. One of the domains considered is agro-food, with empirical transition pathways from the Netherlands and Hungary.

The Domain report 4: The agro-food domain in the Netherlands and Hungary has been prepared by Joyce Zwartkruis, Henk Westhoek, Marcel Kok (PBL, Netherlands), and Bálint Balázs (ESSRG, Hungary). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.

The report aims to compare the observed transition pathways in the agro-food domain in the Netherlands and Hungary and addresses the questions: ‘What are the main differences and similarities between the developments in the Dutch and Hungarian agro-food domain?’ and ‘How can we explain these differences and similarities between developments in the Dutch and Hungarian agro-food domain?’ A selection of niche innovations in the domain have been investigated, along with their alignment with broader regime developments and the likelihood of imminent breakthrough.

Niche innovations

Table 1 shows the niche innovations investigated. Although they do not represent all developments in the domain, they do provide insight in the potential pathways towards a sustainable and low carbon society. Selection is made based on potential impact on GHG emissions, land use and biodiversity, as well as their significance in the country of investigation.

Niche innovations and their internal momentum, alignment with broader regime developments and likelihood of breakthrough (strong=+, medium=+/-, low= -, very low= --)

Table 1. Niche innovations and their internal momentum, alignment with broader regime developments and likelihood of breakthrough (strong=+, medium=+/-, low= -, very low= –).

In general the niche innovations in the agro-food domain demonstrate a low to medium momentum and the likelihood of breaking through is in general limited. Most of the niche innovations are considered to be consistent with Pathway B, meaning that they are broader regime transformations. The niche innovations in Hungary have a lower momentum. That is mainly because the initiatives are preoccupied by maintaining financial sustainability and focus on an economically viable pathway. However, recently the attention for environmental issues in Hungary is growing as well.

The regimes investigated are presented in Table 2. The cracks and tensions in the meat regime in Hungary have mainly to do with economic issues of pork farmers. In the Netherlands the cracks and tensions in the meat regime are mainly caused by NGOs raising attention for animal welfare and consuming less meat. The sector itself is however also aware of their environmental impact in relation to their ‘license to produce’, what makes that sustainability is on the agenda as well. In the retail regime the cracks and tensions in Hungary are weak and in the Netherlands weak to moderate. The main reason is that food prices are still very important in Hungary, while in the Netherlands other issues are getting more important as well.

Assessment of stability of regimes in the agro-food domain.

Table 2. Assessment of stability of regimes in the agro-food domain.

In the PATHWAYS project, changes are indicated as either “pathway type A” (technical component substitution) or “pathway type B” (broader regime transformation). The niche innovations that are studied in both countries are following a pathway B: causing changes in multiple dimensions and focus not so much on technological change. This does not mean that there is no technological change in the agro-food domain, but this is mainly in the form of innovations within current regimes. Examples of these are higher feed efficiencies in the meat regime and higher milk production per cow in the dairy regime. This is consistent with the finding that the nature of the challenge towards a more sustainable agro-food domain is different from sectors in which fossil fuels play currently a large role (such as transport and housing): future food production will still require the use of land, water, minerals; and will continue to have an impact on biodiversity. Furthermore transitions in the agro-food domain seem to follow a stepwise process.

The differences and similarities between the countries can be explained by the following points:

  • Societal issues: in Hungary food prices are an important issue. One of the policy goals is to realise cheap food that is available for everyone. In the Netherlands there is more societal debate on consuming less meat, initialised by NGOs.
  • Export vs import: Hungary was traditionally export oriented, but since entering the EU Hungary’s trade balance in agri-food products with the EU-15 is negative, despite the country’s agro-ecological potential and traditional role as a food producer. Part of this is explained by weaknesses in Hungarian agri-food export competitiveness, as the 14 sector failed to adapt to changes in demand in its reconfigured export markets. The Netherlands is completely the opposite as it is one of the countries with the largest agro-food export world wide. On the other side, 60% of farm production in Hungary was for self-consumption. That is completely opposite of the Netherlands in which a large part of the production is exported.
  • Government environment: after the political transitions of 1989 the market of Hungary became dominated by foreign owned companies. Given the lack of adequate representation in this period of the public interest, many of the measures are now considered symptomatic of ‘wild capitalism’.
  • Focus of policy: In Hungary sustainability is, however, only indirectly targeted. It is not one of the main goals of policymaking. Hungary was more influenced by the economic crisis and as the income is lower, prices play a bigger role compared to the Netherlands, what can influence the chance of niches to break through. In the Netherlands, the agriculture sector has to comply with regulation on various issues, and especially for the livestock sector, the private sector has developed an ambitious plan. With regard to food consumption, some sustainability issues are targeted, however there are hardly goals or indicators set.
  • Government involvement: in the Netherlands the government involvement is relatively low compared to Hungary. The Hungarian government is more directing and often actively intervening (for example with VAT measures on meat) compared to the Netherlands where the government is subsidising some innovative developments.
  • Geographical context: The geographical location of the Netherlands and the amount of water in the land make that fish is an important aspect of the agro-food domain as well; while in Hungary there is hardly a fish sector. Furthermore, fish consumption is much higher in the Netherlands compared to Hungary.

Overall, it can be concluded that the while there are important challenges in the agrofood domain, the main progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve biodiversity in the coming 10-20 years is not expected to come from the breakthrough of niche innovations. The best chance for direct progress to reduce the pressure of the food system on the environment will be in the form of regime innovation (advancements in current agricultural systems). This will require a combination of technological innovation, regulation (either by the public sector or by private actors) and awareness-raising among all actors in the food chain.

The Domain report 4: The agro-food domain in the Netherlands and Hungary has been prepared by Joyce Zwartkruis, Henk Westhoek, Marcel Kok (PBL, Netherlands), and Bálint Balázs (ESSRG, Hungary). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.


PATHWAYS project logoThis article is an output of the EU-funded PATHWAYS project.

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