Focus on Belarus

by Erica Shaffer
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Belarus, which became independent from the former Soviet Union on Aug. 25, 1991, has, in many ways, preserved a centrally planned system. Agriculture and food production remain overwhelmingly under state control. The country’s grain sector is big enough to satisfy its needs but not big enough to export.

The International Grains Council (IGC) puts total Belarus grain production in 2008 at 7.7 million tonnes, compared with the 2007 figure of 6.3 million. Total coarse grain production in 2008 was 6.41 million tonnes, including 2 million of barley, 550,000 of maize, 900,000 of oats, 1.6 million of rye, and 1.36 million described as other. Coarse grain exports were 30,000 tonnes (all barley), with imports of 200,000 tonnes, including 30,000 of barley and 170,000 of maize.

Belarus exports no wheat, although it did export 57,000 tonnes of flour during 2008, according to official figures. Wheat imports in 2008 were 300,000 tonnes. The figure changes from year to year. In 2006-07 imports were 413,000 tonnes, including 245,000 tonnes from Kazakhstan, 8,000 from the European Union (E.U.), 150,000 from Russia and 9,000 from Ukraine. 2005-06 wheat imports were 236,000 tonnes, with 141,000 coming from the E.U., 30,000 from Kazakhstan and 62,000 from Ukraine.

Official sources in Belarus put the tot tottal harvvest of grains and legumes at 9.5 million tonnes in 2008, beating the 1987 record of 7. 8 mi llion to nnes, ac cording to th e news agency APK Inform, which quoted Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Food Vasiliy Pavlovskiy as saying tthat 2008 was the most favorable year for agricultural development in Belarus history.

The crop of grains and legumes in clean weight totaled 9.01 million tonnes compared with 7.21 million in 2007. It meant that Belarus could satisfy domestic demand for feed grain with no imports. However, 80,000 tonnes of high gluten wheat have been imported for flour milling.

In February, the government took advantage of Belarus’ new found self-sufficiency to impose import licensing for wheat, meslin, barley, maize and several types of feed.

The country has ambitious plans to increase the size of the sector. Semen Shapiro, minister of Agriculture and Food, said recently that in 2010 Belarus plans to harvest nearly 9.5 to 10 million tonnes of grain. He also said that in 2009 Belarus plans to build 88 new grain cleaning and drying complexes.

According to Shapiro, the agroindustrial complex of Belarus met its targets in 2008. The production increase in plant growing totaled 20.2% compared to the 2007 index. He said the grain crop totaled 9.5 million tonnes and the rapeseed harvest totaled 630,000 tonnes.

Further growth is planned. According to a recent report by APK Inform, in 2015 Belarus plans to produce 12 million tonnes of grain. It cited Semen Shapiro as saying that the agriculture ministry and the National Academy of Sciences were working on a plan for national development in the agro-industrial sector for 2011 to 2015 with that aim in mind. The plan includes a yield target of five tonnes per hectare.

The Belarus ministry of agriculture has a separate department of cereal products, which covers flour and milling as well as feed production and the production of bread and pasta. It monitors grain quality and organizes the procurement of grain for human consumption. According to APK Inform, it owns 16 flour production enterprises, which produced 447,600 tonnes of flour in the first eight months of 2008, an increase of 9% compared with the same period in 2007.

That eight-month total included 266,100 tonnes of wheat flour, up 17.2%, and 176,300 tonnes of rye flour, up 0.1%. Oat flour production rose by 58.9% to 747 tonnes. Barley flour production rose to 670 tonnes, 20 times the previous level, while the production of flour from buckwheat more than doubled to 21 tonnes. The bakery department owns 16 flour production enterprises.

IGC figures show wheat flour production falling from over 1.1 million tonnes a year in the late 1990s to 560,000 tonnes by 2006.

AGRICULTURE DOMINATED BY THE STATE

Belarus has been characterized as a slow reformer of its agricultural structures. All agricultural land is state owned, with only household plots in private hands. According to a discussion paper on land reform in the former Soviet Union by Zvi Lerman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published last year, 80% to 90% of agricultural land is still controlled by large former collectives.

According to AgroWeb Belarus, of a total arable area of 5.5 million hectares in 2007, 4.6 million was farmed by agricultural organizations, with 86,100 hectares farmed by peasant farmers.

At the beginning of 2006, there were in Belarus 1,720 agricultural organizations, 2,204 peasant farms and 1.1 million "personal subsidiary plots." Employment in agriculture was 457,000 or 10.5% of the economically active population.

More than 70% of the country’s food is processed by enterprises belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The state food industry organization, Belgospishcheprom, controls about 20% of food production and about 10% is produced by foreign and joint companies and enterprises of Belkoopsoyuz, the Belarusian Union of Consumer Cooperative Societies.

In 2006, according to Agro Web, the Belarus food industry produced 639,000 tonnes of bakery products, a figure which has fallen steadily in the years since 2000 when it was 866,000 tonnes. The industry produced 43,700 tonnes of vegetable oil in 2006, compared with 16,900 in 2000.

Consumption per head of bakery products was 195 kilograms (kg) in 2005, compared with 110 in 2000 and a ministry of agriculture standard of 98 kg. Vegetable oil consumption in 2005 was 14.5 kg compared with 8.7 in 2000 and the ministry’s standard of 11.7.

The government statistical yearbook, ‘Belarus in Figures,’ put sales of bread products, in flour equivalent, at 675,000 tonnes in 2008. In 2000 it was 1.175 million.

Its figure for total production of grains and legumes, given as weight after processing, was 9.015 million tonnes. That figure has been rising steadily. It was 4.856 million in 2000.

PLANS TO GROW SOYBEANS

According to an announcement on the website of President Alexander Lukashenko, made after a visit to a farming company last May, Belarus is planning to produce soybeans. Agriculture Minister Semen Shapiro said that 6,000 hectares of farmland would be planted with soy for the first time.

"Thus, this year around 10% of the soybeans consumed in Belarus will be produced domestically," the announcement said. "Since protein-containing fodders are becoming increasingly expensive in the world, we need to cultivate such crops ourselves," said Lukashenko. "Next year the protein problem in the cattle breeding industry should be resolved completely."

At the moment, Belarus buys 750,000 tonnes of soybean flakes each year at a cost of $350 million.

UNION WITH RUSSIA

Belarus is close to Russia diplomatically as well as geographically, and the two countries have agreed to unite, although progress on putting the union into practice has been slow since it was agreed on April 2, 1996.

At the end of 2008, Russia and Belarus agreed a framework for farm policy in the Union State, as it is known. The deal included plans to harmonize veterinary inspections as well as cooperation on the production of farm machinery, according to the Belarusian Telegraph Agency.

"We’ve reached an agreement that the agricultural machines manufactured in our countries are common machines because they are made using Belarusian and Russian components, said Shapiro. "Our cooperation will develop in the future and we will produce Belarusian and Russian machines with better consumer qualities. They will be much cheaper than imported ones."

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at: chris.lyddon@ntlworld.com.

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