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Unlocking Serbia’s vegetable export potential: Challenges, opportunities and the path forward

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Serbia’s vegetable production spans approximately 87,000 hectares, with last year’s exports reaching 126,616 tons valued at 134.6 million euros. Notably, frozen sweet corn, peas, and peppers, as well as fresh and processed cucumbers, were the primary exports. Despite this, Serbia continues to import potatoes, tomatoes, and beans, spending 185.8 million euros on vegetable imports. Experts believe there’s room to boost exports, especially in processed vegetables, by restructuring production, adopting advanced cultivation and processing technologies, and refining incentives for intensive agriculture.

Serbia’s vegetable exports have seen a yearly growth of 3 to 5 percent, with Germany, Italy, and Russia being major customers, along with regional countries like Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. To further enhance exports, particularly of processed vegetables, experts recommend addressing challenges in organizational structures, technology adoption, and farm incentives.

Global challenges, including the pandemic and geopolitical crises, have led to increased energy prices, impacting agriculture. While European countries faced supply challenges, Serbia’s advantage lies in family farms, favorable climate, and proximity to key markets. However, obstacles include weak producer organization and insufficient integration into European food supply chains.

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The “Big Small Economy” project funded by USAID aims to assist small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers in efficient, organized production, facilitating access to new markets. The focus is on encouraging exports, particularly of frozen vegetables, dried vegetables, and innovative products like dehydrated and freeze-dried vegetables.

Experts suggest that Serbia, as a major cucumber exporter, can further increase the value of its products through processing, such as fermentation. The outdated processing technology in Serbia emphasizes intensive heat treatment, while modern trends lean towards minimal thermal processing to retain natural characteristics, meeting EU consumer preferences.

Regionalization of vegetable production is crucial, considering the diverse conditions across Serbia. Different regions are suitable for specific crops, such as Vojvodina for sweet corn and legumes, the Morava River valley and southeastern Serbia for greenhouse production of cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and cabbage, and mountains and plateaus for high-quality potatoes.

Despite producing an average of 1.4 million tons of vegetables annually, Serbia faces a trade deficit, earning 134.6 million euros from exports but spending 185.8 million euros on imports. To unlock the export potential, Serbia needs to overcome challenges such as outdated technologies, transportation inefficiencies, and issues with standardization and certification. Additionally, offering a diverse assortment tailored to consumer preferences is crucial for higher yields and increased market placement.

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