'Serbia is self-sufficient when it comes to food production'
Serbia has been a candidate for accession to the EU since 2012 and had to form a new policy on agriculture. There are many efforts to meet the European standards, and to harmonise legislation. It is a bit like a 'moving target', claims agricultural advisor Mila Mirkovic, working at the Netherlands Embassy in Belgrade. This article is part of a series on the Agricultural Advisors who play a key role in the Netherlands Agricultural Network (LAN) worldwide.
After the Balkan war ended in 2000, there were democratic changes and the Serbian people were happy to move forward, tells Mila Mirkovic. Serbia has been an accession candidate to the EU since 2012, so the country had to adjust to the EU Agricultural Policy. “There are many efforts to meet the European standards and to harmonise legislation. The process is complicated, because it is a bit like a 'moving target': European standards and legislation are developing and changing.”
Mila is part of the Budapest based agricultural team (LAN-team) with a stand-alone office in Belgrade, Serbia. Koen van Ginneken is the Agricultural Counsellor at the Netherlands Embassy in Budapest, serving the region Hungary, Serbia, Austria, and Montenegro. The rest of the Budapest team are Agricultural Advisor Tamás Harangozó and Policy Officer for Agriculture, Zoltán Szászi.
Connected to nature and animals
Mila was raised in Belgrade with three older brothers. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a professor. During her youth, Mila had no direct connection to agriculture. “Nevertheless, I always felt connected to nature and animals. I decided to study veterinary medicine and graduated in 1995.”
She worked as a researcher at a Virology Institute, then for a German trading company, and after democratic changes in Serbia, she decided to apply for a function at the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture. “My task was to improve knowledge in the agricultural sector, by training farmers and supporting local initiatives. Working for the Ministry was an eye opener. It showed me how the agricultural world functions and I saw the importance of regulating the playing field. Later, I headed the Department of International Cooperation and had contact with many international organisations.”
Mila lives and works in Belgrade. She is married and a mother of two children (19 and 14). Some years ago, she became a long-distance runner. “I started running before work to clear my mind and to reduce stress. I gradually improved and in 2018 I ran my first marathon, the authentic classic marathon from Marathon to Athens. That was an amazing experience.”
In 2003 you started as an Agricultural Advisor at the Netherlands Embassy in Belgrade. Why did you leave the Ministry of Agriculture?
“I saw an advertisement because the Netherlands Embassy started an agricultural post in Serbia. In my previous job, I enjoyed the international setting and cooperation with countries like Italy, Germany and the United States. There were changes in the Serbian administration and there was a development to bring countries together. The Dutch policy on agriculture is ambitious, so I applied. It proved to be the right decision.”
Talking about your job makes your eyes sparkle. What makes it so attractive?
“My tasks and the job’s dynamics. I like to connect people and companies. An important task is market access for Dutch companies, to help them make the first moves in Serbia. Part of the job is organising activities and events like missions, seminars, and trainings. I follow the Serbian agricultural policies and report about them. I can connect the dots. So, when I go out in the field and see the impact of my desk work, that makes me very happy.”
'The soft fruit sector is the most developed exporting sector in Serbia and is doing very well'
Do you have an example of connecting the dots between the Netherlands and Serbia?
“Two years ago, we organised a small conference on greening cities at the request of Dutch partners. That culminated in the PIB project ‘Serbia Green Cities.’ Through this partnership, the vast Dutch expertise on how green cities improve the environment, ensure rich biodiversity and water storage, reduce air pollution, and dampen noise was shared with the Serbian counterparts. The overall aim for the Dutch government, companies, and educational institutions, is to form strong relations with the respective Serbian institutions and leave a legacy by impacting Serbian. At the end of April, Dutch urban greening companies, that were represented through the public-private partnership project PIB Green Cities Serbia, organized the 900m2 Orange/Green Pavilion at the Belgrade Building Expo 2022. For the first time in its 46-year history, urban greening was represented at this Expo. Such results satisfy to me.”
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What are the important current developments in the Serbian agricultural field?
“The soft fruit sector is the most developed exporting sector and is doing very well. Another PIB project 'Dutch solutions for the Serbian Soft Fruit Sector' gathered Dutch companies that would like to contribute to further development of this sector in Serbia with new planting varieties, new knowledge and new grooving techniques. Some Dutch companies moved their production to Serbia and that can help Serbian companies meet the European standards for their exporting products.
In the northern part of Serbia, the conditions are favourable for growing grains. Serbia is self-sufficient when it comes to food production, but it is getting increasingly important to increase grain growing area, because prices are rapidly increasing.
For dairy, we initiate many contacts with Dutch partners on sustainable dairy production. In poultry, we want to adapt the Dutch way of organising the chain between production and sales. In general, the main issue is to meet the European standards on production and food safety.”
What about the issues of climate change and sustainability?
“Climate change is visible in Serbia as well. We have more dry seasons, with extreme rainfall and floods. Dutch companies can help to make crops more resilient to climate change. Wageningen University & Research is working together with a 'Biosense Institute' from Novi Sad to investigate which tools can be used to minimise the effects. Examples are precision agriculture and digital tools for weather forecasts. I must admit that the Serbian government is not overly ambitious in this matter. But we are slowly moving forwards.”
Agricultural Fair Novi Sad with Orange pavilion
The Novi Sad agricultural fair is the oldest and most important fair in the Western Balkan region and sees its 89th edition this year from May 21-27. It brings together top players in agricultural production, the wider agribusiness, machinery from the region, as well as regional decision-makers in the field of agriculture.
Like during previous years, the LAN team in Belgrade will host an Orange Pavilion, where 10 companies ranging from animal feed, fruit planting material, irrigation, potato seeds will be represented. Furthermore, the LAN team will organise multiple side events. There will be a seminar on protein sources in animal feed and the Embassy will host a networking dinner where Dutch entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to connect with both private and public counterparts from the region. Read more through this link about the Novi Sad agricultural fair.
What was the influence of COVID-19 on your work?
“In fact, it brought me and the team in Budapest closer together. Working from the stand-alone office in Belgrade, increased use of IT-technology improved the communications in our team dynamics. It feels like there is no distance now. We also do more updates on the website and of course had more online events.
On a national scale, we saw people were more interested in healthy food. For instance, the sales and exports of berries skyrocketed. The prices of cereals increased as well. Basically, food prices increased, but so did the prices of inputs like seed, fertilisers and chemicals.”
Did the war in Ukraine increase that effect, like in other countries?
“Indeed, it did. The statistics show that food prices increased by about 30% year-to-year, due to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. This year, the sowing of agricultural crops such as corn, sunflower and soybeans in Serbia is about 45% more expensive than last year.
The war in Ukraine made the purchase and pricing of raw materials for the food industry in Serbia more difficult. The price of transport to Russia has gone up by 100%. That makes doing business with Russia more difficult. The trade with Russia is still going on, but on a lower level.”