Summer developments in Serbia’s agri sectors

Subsidy fraud; African Swine Fever; border control issues; harvest news; update on the Serbian agriculture budget

Serbian countryside
Beeld: ©Valentin Salja

Fraudulent applications for subsidies for as many as half a million of hectares

At a press conference held at the beginning of August, the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stated that by cross-checking the data from the E-Agrar platform and satellite pictures, the authorities determined false submissions for national agricultural subsidies for as much as half a million hectares of uncultivated land, accounting for subsidies worth about €80 million.

“We checked all requests since we have €150 million for subsidies only for arable crops, and we saw that half a million hectares were reported as false applications,” stated President Vucic. He added that there were more than 20.000 farmers who submitted false applications. He explained that field crops such as corn, wheat, oilseed rapes and the like, were reported for the state subsidies although the footage shows that there is a dense forest and that no one has ever planted or sown anything on those parcels. The President emphasized this is the reason some farmers protested against E-Agrar platform because everything can be checked easily. He announced that the government would invest €80 million in agricultural subsidies and increase them for farmers who “work honestly”.

After cross-checking the data, Ms. Jelena Tanaskovic, Minister of Agriculture, stated at a press conference held on August 25th that out of 101 agricultural plots that were checked, irregularities were observed in 99 cases. Speaking about false applications for subsidies per hectare, she stated that out of those 99 plots, 81 were completely non-agricultural plots because nothing has been produced on them, while the irregularity of the other 18 plots was reflected in the fact that the farmers planted one crop and reported another. “Our idea is to separate the real farmers from those who took the money and are not actually engaged in agriculture. Now we are checking the animal register. That is the reason why the subsidies for animal-breeders are late because the Ministry is checking that register, i.e. checking every submitted request,” explained the Minister on Pink TV.

Speaking about the sanctions due to discovered irregularities, she stated that those who reported one crop while planting another would not be punished, but would only receive a warning to properly state in the register what they are actually growing. “Those who falsified reports, as far as we are concerned, will receive passive status for three years and then they will not be able to engage in agriculture, and the competent authorities will act further in accordance with the law and depending on what kind of offense was committed,” Tanaskovic pointed out.

At the Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management of Serbia, Mr. Bogicevic, Assistant Minister for Rural Development, stated that small farmers who incorrectly registered seed crops for subsidies per hectare would not be punished, but those who reported corn on plots under the forest would be fined. Mr. Aleksandar Bogicevic has said that farmers would have until the end of the year to correct data on crops.

The President of the Parliamentary committee for agriculture, Mr. Marjan Risticevic, criticized the Ministry of Agriculture for not providing the requested explanations as to how it is possible that irregularities were found on half a million hectares in 20.000 households, which would mean that everyone reported 25 hectares, and the subsidies per hectare are paid for a maximum of 20 hectares.

African Swine Fever outbreak reported

This year the African Swine Fever (ASF) viral disease has been identified in several countries in the Western Balkans, including Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Most confirmed cases have been reported in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the last week of August, the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) of Serbia, Mr. Milos Petrovic, announced that since the beginning of the African swine fever epidemic, 2.357 pigs have died and 31.417 have been euthanized. The infection has been detected in 38 municipalities within 14 districts in Serbia. In addition, 352 wild boars have tested positive in 25 municipalities this year.. To date, 322,995 pigs have been examined as part of disease control in Serbia.

CVO Mr. Petrovic said that 2.028 households were allowed to slaughter 5.511 healthy pigs for their own consumption and that 194 households were allowed to deliver 23.370 pigs to the slaughterhouses.

He added that extensive efforts of all government officials were undertaken to prevent further spread of the virus. Ministry of Agriculture has announced strict monitoring of pork trade across the country to prevent further spread of the virus. He also highlighted that certain farmers were engaged in illegal practices, such as transporting pigs via alternative routes, which contributed to the spread of the infection. The Ministry offers compensation to farmers for euthanized animals, based on the market value on the day of euthanasia. The Ministry is repeatedly calling for compliance with guidelines and measures set by the state.

The Secretary of the Livestock Association of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS), Nenad Budimovic, stated for the national broadcaster TV-RTS that a great struggle is ahead to maintain pig production and that the question is what will happen to the price of pork meat. He underlined that the African swine fever virus affected a large number of municipalities and districts in Serbia and pointed out that the carriers of diseases are humans (with no health consequences), but also rodents, which is why pest control is very important. However, for the last 30 years no systematic pest control has been carried out in the country, and the question is whether now is the right moment to do it, Budimovic assessed.

“There were problems in the production of pork even before the appearance of the African swine fever disease. Serbia started  this year with about 2.670.000 pigs, which is over 200.000 less than in 2022,” said Budimovic, adding that domestic production can satisfy about 87% of the needs. In the first seven months of this year, 18.000 tons of pork and 176.900 piglets were imported into Serbia. The value of imported pork is around €60 million, and that of piglets is around €20 million.

Due to the fact that the number of sows in Europe was reduced by about half a million in just one year, the price of pork rose from €2.3 to €3.3 per kilogram and that price increase could spill over into Serbia as well, warned Budimirovic.

He pointed out that since the 1980s, the pig stock in Serbia has decreased by 40%, even though the country has good conditions for breeding, such as a sufficient number of farms, slaughterhouses and feed. “The problem is that this production is carried out by small scale farmers (about 200.000) in an outdated way,” stated Budimovic.

Serbian peaches returned from Croatian border due to banned pesticide 

In August, a shipment of peaches from Serbia was barred entry at the Croatian border due to high level of pesticides. “The Border Phytosanitary Inspection of the Republic of Serbia took a sample of the controversial shipment for analysis and the public will be informed of the results,” the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Water Management announced. The website of the European Commission states that a high level of the pesticide chlorpyrifos was found at the Croatian border in a shipment of peaches that arrived from Serbia, so the cargo was returned..

Although the precise risk was not specified, it was reported that the cargo from Serbia was “potentially risky.” Since the beginning of the year, similar products from Serbia have been returned to the country several times. As the media reported, on July 7 peaches produced in Serbia were returned from the border with Slovenia, and it was then determined that they contained the mentioned pesticide chlorpyrifos. At the beginning of this month, a high level of carcinogenic acrylamide in chips was found at the Croatian border.

Ms. Violeta Josifova, Director of Development Department of BioGenesis company operating is in sales and production of biological preparations, stated for daily Danas that the Minister of Agriculture, Ms. Jelena Tanaskovic allowed the intervention import and use of the banned active substance chlorpyrifos into the country, which had not been used in Serbia for a long time.

According to Josifova, the imported pesticide ended up in the fruit growing sector, although it was not intended for that, which may result in a ban on the entire export of fruits and vegetables from Serbia. Josifova said that she addressed both the Ministry and the Minister herself several times with the aim of warning about the harmful consequences of the import of illegal active substances and environmental waste, but these letters were ignored by the authorities. “Serbia has become a dumping ground for unused stockpiles from the EU. Multinational companies brought everything they can no longer sell on the EU market to Serbia because they are allowed uncontrolled import,” Josifova said. She added that another mistake was made with registration of the import of copper-based pesticides, for the purposes of sugar beet production, despite the fact that this is not allowed anywhere in the world. “Thus, between 20.000 and 30.000 hectares of fertile arable land are devastated every year,” Josifova explained. She stated that all apples, which were returned from export, were returned because of chlorpyrifos.

Serbia has enough wheat for export             

Serbia will have sufficient quantities of wheat for local needs and export this year. The grain exporters expect a solid income. There were around 700.000 hectares under wheat, as many as in the past years, and the harvest amounted close to 3.2 million tons. Out of these quantities, around 1.5 million tons are sufficient for local consumption, around 1.2 million tons are meant for export and the rest is meant for the national commodity reserves.

Mr. Milan Prostran, agro-economist, says that the majority of the wheat is exported to countries in the region. The plan is to also reach consumers in the Middle East and the Far East countries, and primarily in North Africa. "The Serbian ambition is to have at least about a million tons exported by the Danube through Romanian Port of Constanta and to have it exported to some more distant countries by reloading onto large ships, trans-oceanic ones. Serbia has been negotiating with Egypt about wheat export. Considering that China is renting ports in Greece, that’s where an arrangement could be made, so exporting to China is quite realistic in the future," Prostran explained.

Budget for agriculture to be proportional to share in Serbia’s GDP

Serbia's agricultural sector must become a strategically important branch of the economy instead of being faced with ever-increasing problems, and the farmers are barely making ends meet, stated Mr. Srdjan Mitrasinovic, President of the Executive Committee of the “Zajedno” – green-left political party in Serbia.

The budget for agriculture for the following year must, as the party announced, be proportional to the gross domestic product (GDP) generated from agriculture in the current or previous year. “If agriculture participates with 7% to the GDP, the budget for agriculture for the next year should be the same percentage in the republic's budget. Now the budget for agriculture is about 5% of the total budget, while the EU allocates as much as 36% of the total budget for agriculture,” said Mitrasinovic.

He added that such a budget could help farmers survive and preserve villages. Investments in the development of agriculture, as stated, would also pay off for the government through an increase in the turnover of agricultural products, employment of additional labor, and payment of taxes. He reiterates that domestic food production benefits the entire society. “Investment in domestic production, along with import and export control, can lead to greater control over food prices, which is not the case now,” Mitrasinovic said. The Zajedno party proposed to raise the amount of subsidies that farmers receive – €200 per hectare for plant production, €250 for fruit & vegetable production, and €200 for fertilizers and seed material. Fuel for agricultural field activities should be, as stated, without excise duty and value-added tax, about €0,72 per liter, the premium for milk should be €0,01 per liter, and every village must have an available agronomist and veterinarian.