“Our goal is to raise competitiveness of the Croatian agriculture and related activities, as well as fisheries. To achieve this, we need investments, mergers, innovative products and value-added products. We are constantly working on this and I believe that the results of this work will put our country and agriculture into a better position after 2020 than it is today.
I believe that every single eurocent that we withdrew from European funds intended for agriculture will be utilized by the end of 2020,“says Tomislav Tolušić, Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister, with whom we talked about the results of the Ministry’s work over the past two years, namely since he was appointed minister.
Are you satisfied with the results achieved so far?
I am satisfied, but I am always a bit critical, because I think we can always do better. We have done enough in two years, we adopted umbrella laws aimed at improving the productivity of domestic food production, protected the revenues of family-run agricultural holdings and are more effectively managing land, livestock and fish resources. In the last two years, we have launched millions worth of investments in agriculture and fisheries, we have withdrawn record high funds from the European Union, reduced tendering procedures and their processing time, and executed direct payments to farmers on time. We have reduced VAT on raw materials and seedlings, prevented manipulation with subsidies and agricultural land, were the first in the EU to have adopted the law against unfair trading practices in the supply chain, and provided access to affordable loans with a low interest rate of 0.1% to our dairy sector. We are financing the purchase and breeding of heifers and slowly reinvigorating our cattle breeding sector, which has been decimated due to long periods of negligence.
At the EU level, we have won in our fight against the introduction of fishing quotas and drastic reduction in catch of small blue fish, which makes over 90% of our total fishing. But this is just the beginning; now we need to see how everything works in practice and what needs to be fixed or adapted or where we need to act. My position is that the administration must be in the service of citizens, farmers and fishermen. It must listen, solve problems and be a reliable partner.
Can we talk about long-term assessment of the effects of EU membership on Croatian agriculture and food processing. Have the results so far been positive?
The EU membership and the EU funds have enabled us to strongly encourage the development of agricultural production and local infrastructure in the Croatian rural area in order to make it a desirable place for life and work. Along with a total of 7.9 billion kuna of all kinds of payments we have paid to farmers in the last two years, we have also contracted over 4,500 new investment projects in agriculture. New farms are being built, permanent crops are being sown, and farmers are buying new machinery buy new mechanization after more than 30 years. There are also public irrigation systems, kindergartens, community centres, water supply infrastructure, and unclassified roads. We would not have been able to make such investments, if we were not an EU member and had to depend only on domestic sources of funding. With the money from three EU funds, we are bolstering the competitiveness of our agriculture and manufacturing industry, fisheries and forestry, as well as our field services thanks to modern equipment that increases efficiency and reduces the burden on farmers and fishermen. We are implementing the state-of-the-art crewless aircraft system for fisheries control at the external maritime borders. We have also acquired inspection vehicles and vessels. All of this is done with the EU money. I believe that we are going to utilize every single eurocent until the end of 2020, i.e. until the end of this financial period.
In terms of benefitis for citizens, the EU has the highest food safety and quality standards in the world, and the foods that are below those standards cannot be sold in the EU market at all. The EU protects its producers and consumers. Think back to when roaming charges were abolished and upholding consumer rights in passenger transport. I think that every country can be proud of being part of such a community, but they must never forget their peculiarities, traditions, heritage, history and the needs of their citizens.
How educated are farmers when it comes to withdrawing EU funds?
Education is an integral part of the Republic of Croatia’s Rural Development Programme. Our specialists have been continually organizing free workshops for potential users of EU funds and these workshops take place throughout the country. Judging by the number of properly submitted applications at competitions for EU funds available so far, with over 30 of these competitions launched this year alone, our farmers are doing an excellent job.
What will happen after the introduction of the national honey jar? Is there enough of high quality honey in the Croatian market considering that Croatian honey is very much in demand in the Western European market and is much more expensive there?
The national honey jar is the result of the desire and effort of our beekeepers to position themselves better in the market and to protect their production. We have given them full support and this is an excellent example of getting together and advocating for the general interest. Everybody will benefit from the national honey jar. Beekeepers have a recognizable packaging for their product, consumers can easily find Croatian honey in shops, and the control system is properly networked and aligned. Thanks to a unique number on the honey jar label, every consumer can see the information about the beekeeper that produced the honey and their location. Only the domestic h honey of controlled crigin can bear the Honey from Croatian Apiaries label. As far as quantity is concerned, we are doing everything in our power, together with our beekeepers, to increase honey production because the demand is growing too and domestic honey is becoming more invaluable.
Recently, Croatia hosted the world’s largest gathering of fishermen dedicated to the management of the tuna quotas. What were the conclusions from the meeting?
After eight days of intense work and exhausting negotiations, more than 700 delegates from 45 countries that are part of the ICCAT Commission have adopted the basic international act to manage bluefin tuna stock. Although the scientific community confirmed this year that the stock has recovered and approved more excessive fishing, adopting this act was not an easy task. Regardless of extremely comprehensive management measures and strict control, the fact that tuna stock has recovered after 12 years did not immediately imply a significant liberalization of the management and control system. However, we recognized the peculiarities of tuna fishing and breeding in the Adriatic Sea, and we have more strongly positioned Croatian fisheries on an international level with the special rules now applying to the Adriatic area. Croatia has extended its fishing season, and we are going to increase our fleet capacity by 20% over the next two years. Croatia is at the helm when it comes to responsible marine resource management, and our monitoring, control and supervision system is at a high level and we are going to continue to be responsible for long-term sustainable fishing.
Every year, Croatian fishermen have fishing ban that lasts for a few months. How do they react to it and how does this ban affect the supply of fresh fish in fish shops?
We have decided, together with our fishermen, to implement sustainable fishing, which means the protection of resources, the protection of our small blue fish and the protection of fishermen in a sense that they can earn enough money to have a decent life. In order to reconcile these goals that are, at first glance, mutually exclusive, we have introduced a temporary ban on fishing activities, i.e. using nets to catch sardines during their spawning season. In order to compensate for their loss, we are paying the fishermen a fee that, this year, amounted to 26.4 million kuna. The ban does not apply to vessels that are less than 12 meters long, which means that the fresh Adriatic sardines will be available to the consumers in our country during the Christmas period.
The relevant data shows that fish farming has dropped drastically in the last twenty years. Do you have any plans to restore this sector?
In the entire EU, this sector is rather dependent on third countries because more than 60% of aquaculture products is imported from third countries. We are strategically focusing on the recovery of domestic aquaculture and increasing its production capacity to 24,050 tonnes by 2020. We have also declared aquaculture as a strategic activity in Croatia. Our comparative advantages are favourable environmental conditions, and producing food with high nutritional value compared to competition, due to the specificity of the Adriatic Sea and our continental waters. There is enough money to do this, and thanks to the measures from the Maritime and Fisheries Operational Programme, 1.2 billion kuna worth of projects are being implemented, which is seven times more than two years ago.
What are your plans for 2019?
Next year, we are going to focus on the development of the national strategic plan and the agriculture strategy for the new programming period after 2021. We are planning to improve the irrigation system, build cold storage units and introduce national labeling of fruits and vegetables, so that consumers can easily identify domestic products at any given time. It is also important to consdier the way of organizing production, packaging, distribution with the quality mark and buyout, in quantities that will satisfy primarily public consumption. Through EU funds we will support the primary production and investments in processing plants to create new value-added products. In order to achieve a greater competitiveness of Croatian agriculture and related activities, as well as fisheries, we need investments, joining forces, and having innovative and value-added products. Buying local Croatian products can contribute to the development of our farmers and the preservation of rural areas and our islands. We are constantly working on this and I believe that the results of this work will put our country and agriculture into a better position after 2020 than it is today.