One agricultural commodity is frequently thrown away in Serbia

Sheep wool has untapped potential; Serbian dried plums reach record price; the situation of the pet food market; the carbon footprint of crop production; five billion euros invested in environmental projects - Our weekly briefing on agriculture, food and nature news in Serbia.

A human hand is feeding a sheep fresh grass.

Hundreds of tons of wool discarded annually in Serbia

In the mid-20th century, most rural households in Serbia had small flocks of sheep, with over three million sheep countrywide. The number has decreased to just over 1.7 million, with sheep primarily kept for meat due to its quick profitability, according to the national broadcaster RTS. However, wool is seen as worthless by livestock farmers, presenting economic and environmental issues. Disposing of wool has become a common practice, RTS notes. Regardless of circumstances, sheep must be sheared to survive the summer heat and their thick fleece weighs between two to three kilograms.

Farmers who cannot shear their sheep themselves must pay almost €3 per "haircut" while receiving, at the best, €0.25 per kilogram of wool. Disposing of wool is not straightforward either. It’s lightweight but durable and burns poorly, yet farmers resort to burning, burying or discarding it in public and illegal dumps. Wool takes at least 50 years to decompose in nature, RTS highlights.

Until the 1990s, the wool industry exported 95% of its production. Due to the history of war in the 1990s, the reliance on exports led to the rapid collapse of powerful companies. Dragoslav Kostic, owner of Kosteks, the largest wool spinning mill in the country, suggests one solution for the wool industry's sustainability: government subsidies for wool buyers, similar to measures implemented in Slovenia and planned in Montenegro. He adds that if he could double his capacity, there would be a market for wool products. Serbian wool is highly valued for carpets, primarily exported to India and Turkey. Kosteks purchases a hundred tons of washed wool annually. The best prices for wool in Serbia were between 2015 and 2018, reaching €1 per kilogram. Satisfied with their earnings, buyers sorted and exported it for €1.20. Despite this, hundreds of tons of wool were discarded due to insufficient buying capacity. Last year had the worst balance yet, with experts estimating that 2,000 tons of wool were discarded. This matches the amount purchased, as shearing €1.7 million sheep yields 4,000 tons of wool.

Serbian dried plums reach record price 

Serbia, the third-largest plum producer in the world after China and Romania, has seen a significant increase in demand for its dried plums due to poor harvests in Chile and the USA in recent years, reports Agroeconomist Branislav Gulan stated that due to the global market deficit, Serbian dried plums now have a record price of about three euros per kilogram, which may lead to breaking the export record set around a decade ago.

"In previous years, for instance, in 2015, Serbia exported 11,584 tons of fresh plums to Russia, generating around nine million euros. With a new opportunity for increased dried plum exports, they must be well and properly stored after drying. Producers must pay close attention to moisture and temperature in storage facilities," Gulan emphasized. In Serbia, plums are cultivated on approximately 72,316 hectares, with an average annual production of around 450,000 to 500,000 tons. The highest production occurs in the Mačva, Kolubara, and Šumadija districts. "In recent years, an average of 24,000 tons valued at about €13 million was exported annually to markets in Russia, Austria, Germany, and Croatia. Additionally, around 5,500 tons of dried plums were exported to the Netherlands, France, Croatia, Turkey, and Russia, worth about €20 million," Gulan detailed.

Serbia a regional leader in the production of pet food

In Europe, €10.5 million tons of pet food is sold annually. The number of Serbian pet food producers is increasing since they see their chance in this sector. Dogs and cats from as many as 33 countries eat food produced in Serbian factories. Local company King's choice from eastern Serbia started the production of “dog juices” last year. According to the Trade map agency, in 2022 the total value of exports of dog and cat food from Serbia was €141.5 million, which is 14% more than in 2021. The top three countries to which Serbia exported the most are Italy, Russia and Poland. Compared to the same period last year, the exports increased by 33.6%.

Carbon footprint of crop production six million tons of CO2 annually

Serbia needs to follow ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) practices and regulations, while adapting them to the domestic economy. That was one of the conclusions of the roundtable discussion organized by the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED) with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in Belgrade last month. During the event, Vladislav Cvetkovic, Director of Business Consulting at PwC, presented an Analysis of Carbon Footprint and Sustainability in Primary Crop Production. The research conducted along the entire chain from field to table reveals that this industry emits six million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Of this, 66% comes from primary production, while the processing sector generates 24%.

The importance of transitioning from conventional to regenerative agriculture was highlighted, given that the agricultural sector contributes 7% to Serbia's GDP and accounts for 18% of the country's total annual exports. Rade Mrdak, Assistant Minister of Mining and Energy, noted that the Serbian government's plans, articulated through a series of strategic documents which are currently being prepared, aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 33% compared to 1990 levels in the coming years. These measures aim to facilitate industries' adoption of the CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism) regulations.

More than five billion euros invested in environmental projects

At the conference in Sofia in 2020, Serbia committed to implement the Green Agenda, like other countries in the Western Balkans, i.e. to harmonize environmental regulations with those of the European Union.

The implementation of the Green Agenda is a long-term, complex and expensive process, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection is working to link the Strategy for Environmental Protection with the Green Agenda, in order to adopt a single strategic document with action plans that will rest on the pillars of the Green Agenda.

These are decarbonization, circular economy, fight against pollution, sustainable food production and sustainable rural areas, as well as care for biodiversity. In Serbia, more than five billion euros have been invested so far in wastewater treatment, air quality improvement and other environmental projects, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection says that one of the most complex projects in the implementation of the Green Agenda will be the construction of the regional center for waste management "Kalenic".

Last year’s report by the Coalition 27 (a coalition of civil society organizations in Serbia with the aim of monitoring and contributing to Serbia's alignment with EU environmental and climate change regulations ) highlights the lack of significant progress in implementing environmental and climate change provisions as part of the EU accession process. The report, titled "Green Agenda without an Agenda" covers various environmental aspects, including waste management, water quality, nature protection, noise, climate change, and forestry. The report identifies challenges in Serbia, such as the presence of illegal landfills leading to frequent fires, which result in air and soil pollution and food contamination. It also points to administrative inefficiencies hindering environmental progress and a lack of alignment between local actions and national strategies. Despite the challenges, some positive developments include the adoption of a Water Management Plan and increased investments in nature conservation.