Soybean cultivation in Serbia

With an increased public awareness of the importance of healthy eating following the COVID-19 crisis, rising demand for plant-based diets and the arrival of the European Farm to Fork strategy, soybean is becoming a more and more important crop. Here is an overview of the state of soybean cultivation in one of the largest European soy producer countries, Serbia.

Emerald-green soy plants in a field bask in the afternoon sunlight
©Donau Soja
With the agro landscape in Europe shifting, these verdant green soy fields in Serbia are becoming more and more important.

Serbia is the largest producer of agricultural and food products in the Western Balkans. In the CEFTA region, Serbia provides at least half of the regional production of different agro products. Serbia’s strongest sub-sector is fruit production, but Serbian plantations also make up more than half of the regional output of corn, barley, sugar beet and soybeans. The COVID-19 pandemic raised the public's awareness of the food environments and the uptake of more healthy, plant-rich diets.

The dialogue on livestock farming in the EU is quite vivid and the debate heated up further as a coalition of NGOs urged EU executives to address the issue of reducing meat consumption in the announced Farm to Fork strategy. Plant-based protein became a hot topic not only for vegans but also for anyone whose dietary choices emphasize plant foods over animal food components. Soya will be among the main crops once the plant protein sector develops. As Serbia is, from a European perspective, a large producer of soybeans, intensified discussions regarding European protein production makes it interesting to have an insight in the Serbian soybean production.

Soybean production

The area planted with soybeans in Serbia has increased drastically over the last fifteen years, from 131 thousand hectares in 2005 to 230 thousand in 2019 (source: Statistical Office of Serbia). There is a tendency of more and more land area being dedicated to soybean cultivation which is driven by various factors, but the main reasons are increased market demand and good prices. Although yields are still much dependent on weather conditions, improving farmers’ knowledge about farm management and introducing digitalization as well as the use of precision agriculture on a larger scale, can further contribute to higher production yields. Knowledge exchange could contribute to improving the performance of individual farmers in the production of protein crops, as well as the development of more productive and resilient varieties could strengthen the domestic soybean sector.

Due to excellent weather conditions in 2018, Serbia had a record high soybean production season. According to the official data from Statistical Office of Serbia, in 2018 Serbia had an average yield of 3.3 metric tons per hectare (For comparison, the usual mean is 2.6 t/ha). The total production of soybeans in 2018 reached the capacity of approximately 760,000 tons a figure 50% higher than the 2017 number, when production was significantly damaged due to the extreme drought. According to official statistics, the 2019 season was also good with a total production of 710,000 tons. (see below table). Other information sources,  like the Commodity Exchange from Novi Sad and Donau Soja Organization in Serbia, have published data which even exceed official statistics on production.

Table: Harvested area of major arable crops in the last three years in total hectares. Source: Statistical Office of Serbia
Wheat Barley Maize Oat Rye Rapeseed Sugar beet Sunflower Soybean
2017 556115 84687 1002319 28537 4673 19376 53857 219338 201712
2018 643083 105740 901753 26111 4736 45628 48125 239148 196472
2019 577499 100118 962083 22669 5046 30804 42539 219404 229372
Table: Yields of major arable crops in the last three years in metric tons per hectare. Source: Statistical Office of Serbia
Wheat Barley Maize Oat Rye Rapeseed Sugar beet Sunflower Soybean
2017 4.1 3.3 4.0 2.4 2.4 2.5 46.7 2.5 2.3
2018 4.6 3.9 7.7 2.9 2.8 3.0 48.3 3.1 3.3
2019 4.4 3.7 7.6 2.5 2.6 2.7 54.2 3.3 3.1
A verdant green soy plantation
©Donau Soja
Over the last fifteen years, the total land area covered by soybean plantations in Serbia increased by a hundred thousand hectares, due to high prices on the market and an increasing demand.

GMO-Free country

Serbia is a country free from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). It adopted a GMO Act in 2009. This law strictly forbids the import, production or commercial growing of GM crops. The Law also bans import of GMO related products like soybean meal produced from GM crops, which contributes to higher local feed prices. At the same time, there is no allowed system in place for non-GMO certification and labelling of local non-GMO products in Serbia, thus not making the difference visible between local produced non GMO food products and imported, significant quantities of meat, milk and other animal based products coming from GM fed animals. There is also no official system which would add value to the local production and distinguish from imported GM produced products. This makes local animal keepers which are using local non-GM feed less competitive on the market.

The GMO Law is not in conformity with the EU regulations nor with the rules of the World Trade Organization. In order to become a member of these two organizations, Serbia will need to adjust the current law. There were attempts to amend the Law in order to comply with the EU and WTO  standards, but strong political and public resistance made it impossible, Serbian consumers have a negative attitude towards biotech crops.

Markets

The main export markets of Serbian soybean are the EU countries and the Russian Federation. Serbian exporters can secure a premium for their commodity and are quite competitive on the international market due to the fact that Serbia is a GMO-free country. Upon request, exporters can receive an official statement from the Ministry of Agriculture guaranteeing that the “Law on GMO” is fully implemented (“Mišljenje o primeni propisa u oblasti zaštite bilja”). Such document is securing a more competitive international position proving that Serbian commodity is GMO-free. Besides the export markets, there is also a substantial local market for soybean producers: processors and oil mills, animal feed processors, integrators such as livestock and poultry farmers and processors of the soy products for human consumption and soybean added value products.

Close up photo of soybeans ripening on the plant
©Donau Soja
As weather is becoming more unpredictable and unforgiving, more research is needed in the sector in order to produce more resilient varieties. Adoption of precision agriculture methods could help farmers as well.

Research Institutes

There are two main scientific institutes in Serbia engaged in conducting research and developing new domestic varieties of field crops. The institutes have a 70% of market share when it comes to the use of their soya cultivars. Soya varieties of the these research institutes are very well adjusted to the climate conditions in Serbia thus their varieties are predominant in the local soya cultivation. Nevertheless more research is needed to breed more productive and resilient varieties. Several project activities with international partners are at the moment implemented and executed (Horizon 2020; FP7 project ; IPA projects etc.) aimed at increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of protein crop, forage legumes and soybeans.

Sector representation

Despite a substantial area of soybean cultivation, a relevant and representative National Producer’s Organization and/or Association of Producers is still missing in Serbia. The most prominent and representative soya organization in Serbia is “The Donau Soja Organisation”. This is an international non-profit association based in Vienna, but with a Regional center in Novi Sad. It promotes sustainable non-GM soybean cultivation in Europe and places a set of standards on the market (Donau Soja, Europe Soya and Non-GM Standards for the Danube Region) which are adding value to European soybeans. The Regional Center in Novi Sad cooperates with 3,660 farmers, 19 collectors and around 60 cooperatives in Serbia.

From their Serbian counterparts they have 138,400 mt of Donau Soja and Europe Soya certified soyabean available from the harvest 2019.

Picture: Volumes of Donau Soja/Europe Soya certified soybean production
©Donau Soja
Volumes of Donau Soja/Europe Soya certified soybean production, source: www.donausoja.org

According to Ms Marija Kalentić, Executive Director of Donau Soja and Regional Director for Central & Eastern Europe, the main challenge for further improvement and support of domestic soya production is allowing Non-GM certification on domestic market. Non-GM certification and labeling could contribute to local agriculture and rural development through protection of local non-GM farmers and feed industry by creating non-GM market and better prices for farmers. Such certification would boost local economy development through creation of short, high quality value chains (integrated local soya processing on farms and non-GM livestock production). Also they are adding value to local agriculture and food sector (to provide possibilities to the local non-GM livestock farmers, feed and food industry to differentiate from cheaper import of meat, milk products, mostly GM fed) and make the market for consumers transparent and give them the possibility to choose non-GM quality.

Postponed Global Forum on the future of Soya planed for September in Novi Sad, Serbia

The Donau Soja Association planned to organize the sixth Donau Soja Congress "Global Forum on The Future of Soya" in Novi Sad, Serbia, on September 10th 2020.  Due to current Covid-19 situation the event will be postponed.

For more information, check out this information brochure by Donau Soja.