Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Seeds Of Discontent

While many families have been left without an income, harvests are at risk and some local authorities are breaking ranks with Belgrade to impose war-time rationing.
By a journalist

After two months of NATO bombing, the daily struggle of most Serbs to put food on the table has become so severe even the regime media has had to acknowledge it.


A recent issue of the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti focused on the fortunes of the Petrovic family from Lenin Boulevard in New Belgrade. Although all four members work--the father is an engineer, the mother a teacher, and the two children combine studies with menial jobs--they are forced to borrow money towards the end of every month just to meet their food bill.


If the Petrovic's--with their four pay packets--are struggling to make ends meet, conditions for the bulk of the population are even more difficult. The average monthly income for those in work is about 1,000 dinars (100 German Marks), and many families are without a single breadwinner.


With no sign of an early end to NATO's air campaign, many analysts fear that conditions will deteriorate in the coming months to such an extent that hunger could effect vulnerable sections of Serbian society by late autumn.


In an effort to head off food supply problems, authorities in Nis, Serbia's third city, and elsewhere, have introduced rationing--moves which Belgrade deems unnecessary.


"The decision of some towns in Serbia concerning the provision of foodstuffs by means of coupons is illegal and their withdrawal has been ordered," says Serbian Trade Minister Zoran Krstic.


He claims that food supplies are much as before the war and that shortages of sugar, cooking oil, rice and other basic commodities are temporary, caused by unnecessary hoarding.


Whatever the case, shops in much of the country now lack many essential products and the black market is thriving. Moreover, the availability of food will worsen if this year's harvest is poor.


Publicly, government officials remain optimistic. Vojvodina Prime Minister Bosko Perosevic boasts that 97 per cent of arable land in his province, Yugoslavia's breadbasket which produces between 80 and 90 per cent of the country's agricultural products, has been successfully sowed "despite NATO aggression".


"Yields of wheat will reach roughly the same level as the average in recent years," he says. "And the barley yield is expected to be greater than in previous years." With equal optimism, Perosevic also forecasts good harvests for corn, sunflower and sugar beat.


Federal Agriculture Minister Nedeljko Sipovac goes further, insisting, "We have a sure and secured supply for citizens of food, meat, milk and their products, as well as a surplus of these products for export."


Agricultural experts do not share the politicians' optimism. They fear catastrophically low yields in Vojvodina's farms this year. If their prognoses prove accurate, this could seriously threaten the supply of food for the Serbian market.


Even before the NATO bombing campaign, Milorad Rajic, a leading farming expert, had warned that this year's harvest would be poor because of poor preparations for the spring sowing. He says that farmers failed to plough their fields properly in the winter, did not have sufficient money to buy seeds, were unable to acquire sufficient fuel and artificial fertilisers, and did not have adequate machinery and spare parts.


Although Vojvodina's soil is exceptionally fertile, lack of investment during the past decade has caused yields to fall. The average age of tractors, combine harvesters and other farming machines is more than 15 years. Many are no longer operational and only kept for spare parts. Most farmers are so impoverished that they cannot afford to buy necessary parts, let alone new machines.


As a result, Vojvodina now generates just three-and-a-half tonnes of wheat per hectare, compared with more than five tonnes in Hungary, seven in the United Kingdom and eight in the Netherlands.


Ljiljana Vasic, president of the Alliance of Co-operatives of Vojvodina, said on the eve of the sowing that she fears that Serbia will soon have to import not only sugar and cooking oil, but also wheat and corn. She warned that yields of agricultural products in Vojvodina have dropped to 1965 levels.


Since the NATO bombing, farmers have required coupons for fuel. In April, they were entitled to 8 litres of fuel for each hectare; in May only 4 litres. They say that with so little fuel they can hardly reach their farms, let alone work on them.


Wheat harvesting should begin in about a month's time. However, without an end to the war and additional fuel supplies, much of the wheat will likely stay in the fields and rot. Even if conditions do improve and there is a peace agreement, there are not enough working combine harvesters to complete the harvest.


Transporting agricultural products from farms to storage silos and processing plants will also be difficult. In addition to the fuel shortage, farmers have to contend with the destruction to Serbia's infrastructure, damage inflicted on roads, and especially the bridges across the Danube linking Vojvodina with the rest of the country.


Paying for the agricultural products will be a particular problem. The state has failed to pay farmers what it owes them for last year's produce. As a result of the war, this situation can only get worse.


Farmers fear that the state will seize their produce by force just as the communists did that after the Second World War via "obligatory purchases". As evidence, they point to restrictions, which the state has just imposed, on the quantity of wheat that farmers can mill for their own needs. The implication is that any surplus will have to be handed over to the state.


The author is an independent journalist in Novi Sad whose name has been withheld.