A strong turnaround in subsidies and their manifold increase is now yielding tangible results in terms of excellent exports, opening new markets and returning to rural areas young people who have access to knowledge and use new technologies
Serbia achieved record exports of agricultural products in 2020, worth 4.1 billion dollars. That is a significantly better result than previous years, when that figure fluctuated at a level of approximately 2.8 billion dollars. Although major leaps like this are very often a product of specific opportunities, Agriculture Minister Branislav Nedimović believes that this is a result that came as a product of public policies changes in this sector, primarily in the domain of subsidies, encouraging procurements of modern machinery and returning to rural areas young people who have access to knowledge and enthusiasm to start producing more added value.
This is also the result of the policy of entering new markets, primarily those of China, India and the Middle East, which are highly solvent markets that are interested in both agricultural products and the products of our food industry.
You’ve said that agriculture was the “golden boy” of Serbian exports in 2020. What do the initial estimates of the state of crop yields and market demand for 2021 tell you?
Absolutely. Agriculture was one of the main pillars of Serbian GDP in 2020. Although it is too early to give a forecast for the entire year, at this moment everything is within the framework of good expectations, whether that relates to wheat or other crops. Snow and frost have had perhaps minor consequences for some early fruit varieties, but absolutely everything else is in good condition.
How much did the fall in demand for tourism influence results in agriculture, considering that the tourism industry is a large buyer of goods from the agriculture sector?
This is perhaps the biggest problem for Serbian food, for which tourism represents an important platform, whether we’re talking about tomatoes, potatoes or meat and the dairy sector, cheeses… The state has responded to this with different aid packages several times. We last year paid more than two billion dinars directly onto the accounts of farmers, after which we embarked on the interventive purchasing of beef, with about two million euros set aside for that purpose. And intervention on the pork market is also currently underway, which is why we are withdrawing 15,000 fatteners that indirectly led to a leap in the price of pork and thus provided essential support to pig breeders. I think this sends a clear message that the state has not and will not abandon anybody to fend for themselves in the most difficult times.
Thanks to this and the conditions that we secured in order for production to run smoothly, we even succeeded in breaking records for exports last year, which we didn’t achieve even under normal conditions.
The state has not and will not abandon anybody to fend for themselves in the most difficult times. Thanks to this and the conditions that we secured in order for production to run smoothly, we even succeeded in breaking records for exports that we didn’t achieve even under normal conditions
Are you satisfied with the state aid measures in this sector; where were those measures essential?
I know only that we invested every atom of our strength and the resources we had to help farmers. When it comes to the sectors that were hit the hardest, they were certainly those that depend on tourism and hospitality. Crises of gargantuan proportions, such as the current one caused by the pandemic, have flooded much stronger economies than ours. We are still doing excellently for now, and I believe that’s why we have strong reasons for optimism in the period ahead. I would therefore repeat that vaccination, where we are recording incredible results and slowly stabilising the situation, is the only way to accelerate our departure from the crisis and return to the economy the kind of strong impulse it had just a year and a half ago.
Serbia exported agricultural and food products worth a total of 4.2 billion dollars in 2020, which is double the total achieved five years ago. What has contributed to that when it comes to government policies?
Definitely investment support. It was four years ago that we made a strong turnaround in terms of subsidies, providing manifold increases in the total amount of subsidies for investments in agriculture.
This has resulted in the start of the renewing of machinery, tractors and everything that significantly reduces production costs and increases capacity through renewal. A fact that’s no less important is that we’ve opened new markets, thus bringing new customers to the Serbian farmer. Only everything mentioned in a package makes sense and represents the only correct route to the growth of exports and agriculture generally.
To what extent can digitalisation help in your part of the job, and where are the Ministry’s efforts directed in this segment?
Digitalisation is increasingly entering agriculture. Its significance can be seen at every stage. From sowing to harvest, from rearing to milking. Today, when the workforce in rural areas is dwindling, digitalisation is perhaps one of the magic wands that you can use to solve all the consequences of the lack of people, but also knowhow. It was a few years ago that we recognised it as being a very present and an increasingly important model of production, which is why our measures also encompassed support for the procurement of equipment that changes the rural workforce and uses the most accurate data to ensure the most efficient production possible. Whether this relates to irrigating and fertilising plants through applications and special sensors or, for example, procuring robots for milking cows and milk vending machines that have proven to be an excellent substitute for street sales of milk, as a far more secure and profitable form for farmers.
Our traditional markets are those of CEFTA and EU member states. How much have we managed to open up to other markets in the meantime, and what is sold on those markets most successfully?
We certainly have. New markets are exactly what I’ve insisted on since entering the ministry. We have opened the market of the People’s Republic of China for beef and lamb, milk and wine, Egypt for cereals, which is the country that’s the largest importer of them while the market of the Middle East, which is currently one of the highest paying markets in the world, now imports our meat, apples etc. As I repeat persistently, even if we had yields equivalent to all the countries of the world combined, that would mean nothing to us if we didn’t have a place to sell them at a good price… Quite simply, that is the condition of all conditions.
One of the issues to which we often return is harmonisation with EU regulations when it comes to the acknowledging of laboratory results from the EU, the declaration of the country of origin and similar challenges in the regulating of trade in food products. How is the removal of obstacles to EU integration in this domain progressing?
We are very satisfied with the process of harmonisation with the EU acquis. It could of course be better, but if you take into consideration all the circumstances and challenges imposed on us, whether that means the pandemic or some other factors, I think that good steps forward are still being taken. We have rounded off the complete system of laboratories for testing the quality of food with the most modern equipment, and regulations have also been seriously harmonised in that area. We will soon also receive the Law on the Market of Agricultural Products, which is completely aligned with European practises, so there is certainly no reason for greater dissatisfaction.
If there’s anything that provides hope, then it is the growing receptiveness of young people for new investments in agriculture, in the countryside and life there… This represents a clear signal that we’ve made good moves that we are already elaborating on with new measures
The inventory has been postponed, so we don’t have the latest data on our farmers. Do you nonetheless see progress in connection with some problems noticed previously, such as tiny holdings, the age of heads of households and similar problems? In short, to what extent are young farmers finding a place for themselves in Serbia, particularly those interested in applying for European funds, deploying modern working methods and utilising the findings of science?
The story of the “ageing” of rural areas is relevant all over the world. And it is also a serious challenge for highly developed countries. Unfortunately, this hasn’t bypassed Serbia either, but if there’s anything that provides hope, then it is the growing receptiveness of young people for new investments in agriculture, in the countryside and life there. It was only three years ago that we announced the first start-up call for young people, worth 1.5 million dinars, which around 600 interested people responded to, and now we will provide payments to approximately 3,000 young farmers from just the most recent competition. So, a fivefold increase. This is a serious advance, and although it won’t solve all problems related to the survival of villages, it represents a clear signal that we’ve made good moves that we are already elaborating on with new measures. A fact that’s perhaps even more important is that they exclusively use modern technologies and apply the most modern knowhow, which provides much greater certainty for their survival in agriculture.
How much is BioSense, along with the start-ups gathered around it, engaged in the modernisation of our agriculture; and how do you collaborate with them?
We have been partners with BioSense from the very beginning. This is an institution with exceptional potential that the Ministry and the Government have provided with significant supported in every sense, and which has shown that it can stand side by side with world platforms of that type. Although it is already recording top results, this is certainly a story that has yet to achieve serious momentum in Serbia.
Today, when the workforce in the rural areas is dwindling, digitalisation is perhaps one of the magic wands that you can use to solve all the consequences of the lack of people, but also knowhow.
We’ve opened new markets, such as those of China and Egypt, thereby bringing buyers to the Serbian farmer.
We are very satisfied with the process of harmonisation with the EU acquis. Everything happening on this front in this area tells us that good steps forward are being taken.