Free food plan emerged in early 2010

THE GOVERNMENT’S plan to distribute free flour and pasta to the needy has created a melee of differing opinions on the food assistance scheme as well as the state of Slovakia’s agriculture sector.

THE GOVERNMENT’S plan to distribute free flour and pasta to the needy has created a melee of differing opinions on the food assistance scheme as well as the state of Slovakia’s agriculture sector.

While the opposition Smer party’s shadow agriculture minister, Stanislav Becík, called the plan the “Somalia way” which Slovakia should not follow, his successor, Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon, responded that it is part of a wider EU scheme and that it was actually Robert Fico’s government that originally decided, early last year, to use state grain reserves to supply free food in 2011.

The plan is not a systemic measure to address the impact of food-price inflation on the population, Agriculture Ministry spokesman Juraj Kadáš stressed in comments to The Slovak Spectator.

Instead, the distribution of free food to the neediest people began as a European Union project, launched as an urgent measure during the harsh winter of 1986-1987 when surpluses of agricultural products were given to charities in EU member states for distribution to those who needed them, according to an official release by the European Commission.

The application to include Slovakia in the programme was filed by the ministry's previous leaders last year and the programme will be implemented now, according to Kadáš.

“In fact it was the former management of the Agriculture Ministry and the government led by Fico who in January 2010 decided that Slovakia would use 45,000 tonnes of grain from interventional stocks in 2011 for humanitarian help,” Kadáš said, adding that the government did not expect “even in its worst dream” to be criticised by a left-wing politician – a reference to Fico – for seeking ways to improve the lives of people in need.

There are about 370,000 people in Slovakia who could benefit from the assistance. They are socially the most vulnerable groups, orphanages, nurseries and nursing homes, social services homes as well as people living under the subsistence level, said Kadáš.

“The conditions are defined by the European Union and the union itself will be watching over [us to see that we are] meeting these conditions,” Kadáš said. “We restate that the whole process is sheltered, financed and administered by the European Union, Slovakia will not pay a single cent for this assistance.”

The food will be provided to charity organisations by grain processors who win a public tender, he added.

Milan Semančík, the chairman of the Slovak Chamber of Food and Agriculture, told The Slovak Spectator that the whole issue has been politicised even though it is part of a programme that was used across the European Union even before Slovakia joined.

“Certainly, this is not a systemic step in terms of solving the key problems of our agro-food complex, nor the price of food in stores,” Semančík said. “But then none of the one-time measures, including the EU programme, are intended to be such. Nevertheless, the international community has relatively rich experience with it, while it is a first for Slovakia in its modern history.”

Smer rings agro-alarm

As well as attacking the plan, Becík, who became well-known after travelling parts of Slovakia in a horse-drawn carriage while minister, also said that the situation in Slovakia’s agricultural sector is “catastrophic”.

He pointed out that at a time when food prices were rising sharply, direct payments to agriculture were being reduced by €40 million, although he did not explain why this should be regarded as incongruous. Becík also said that Slovakia imports too much food and the country should follow a path of greater self-sufficiency, while accusing the government of treating agriculture “like a step-child”.

Smer has panned the government’s plan to distribute flour and pasta and said that it would address the issue of high food prices by cutting VAT from 20 to 19 percent and by increasing direct payments to farmers.

“Slovakia must return to the idea of food security,” said Smer leader Robert Fico, as quoted by SITA newswire. He did not explain how such a policy would be implemented, given the EU’s strict rules to protect free trade, or how it might benefit consumers.

Fico insisted that the current government is not interested in agriculture.

“We think that the government of Iveta Radičová fundamentally contributes to what is happening around food prices since it lacks any agricultural policies,” said Fico. “It considers agriculture a redundant sector which has been reflected in specific decisions which have been taken against farmers.”

The ministry responded to Smer’s criticism by pointing out that under the four-year Fico government four nominees, including Becík himself, came and went from the post of agriculture minister.

The ministry dismissed criticism of its performance and attached a list of the results it said it has achieved in just seven months. These included a systemic change to restitution claims; electronic procurement within the state management of forestry, which according to the ministry has eliminated corrupt behaviour; the expected renewal of the accreditation of the Agricultural Payment Agency; as well as steps taken to strengthen domestic production.

The challenges

As for the tasks that the agricultural sector and the government faces, Semančík said that the ultimate goal should be the stabilisation of the whole sector, especially livestock production, which has sunk into such decline that, he said, the numbers of pigs farmed has dropped to approximately the level last seen during the Second World War. He said farming of other livestock is not much better.

Along with synchronising conditions with the joint agricultural policies of the EU it also is necessary to improve the business environment for farmers, said Semančík: “First of all this means thoroughly harmonising Slovak legislation with European norms in every instance where our regulations exceed the requirements of the union.”

Semančík also said that it is necessary to rebalance relations and profits in the whole food distribution system where, according to him, retail chains have an unambiguously dominant position at the expense of farmers and food producers.

Semančík said this should mean “focus[ing] on increasing the sale of selected Slovak-made quality agricultural products, including increasing the effectiveness of the system of Brand of Quality of Slovakia, as well as the development of projects for regional food, which has considerably suffered from the global approach of retail systems.”

As for the eventual impact of joint EU agricultural policies on the end-prices of food in Slovakia and the competitiveness of Slovak food products, Semančík says that these joint policies have significantly contributed to the decline in Slovak agriculture since 2004. Through discrimination against new member states, including Slovakia, in subsidies the EU has contributed to worsening their competitiveness as well as the whole manoeuvring space on the joint market.

“We warned about it during the pre-entry period, when we unambiguously said that in association with European integration we did not fear foreign competition but unequal conditions for business,” Semančík said, adding that the result was an “almost unbelievable drop in Slovakia’s food self-sufficiency, to the level of 47 percent”.

Agro policies

Minister Simon has held several bilateral meetings with colleagues from Poland, Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic. According to Kadáš, an important step towards improving the joint agricultural policy was the signing last year of the Bratislava Declaration, which was signed by six of the new EU members.

“It is necessary to seek ways so that joint agriculture policies are reformed in a fair manner and seek ways to redistribute finances for the farmers of the new EU members more objectively,” said Kadáš. “By the entry of the eastern European countries to the EU, the old member states gained for little money a large market and thus it is necessary that the states of the EU 15 support the joint position of the new EU members.”

Minister Simon suggested that the policies of the European agricultural sector must be market-oriented and competitive and that it is necessary to preserve its budget at the current level within the financial framework of the EU, said Kadáš.

In early February, Simon met German Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner and agreed to shape a joint German-Slovak working committee to harmonise the opinions of particular parties on reform of joint agricultural policies.

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