EastAgri 2014: “Best Food” in Europe and Central Asia

Unleashing the food production potential of Europe and Central Asia, while meeting demand for higher-quality products, is the topic of the EastAgri 2014 Annual Meeting, which began in Belgrade yesterday.

As consumer expectations evolve and international standards rise, it is increasingly important for the region to shift to high-quality food products while maintaining a focus on food security.

The meeting under the title “Best food: How to produce both quality and quantity in Europe and Central Asia” brings together over 120 senior representatives from private sector companies, government officials, international financial institutions (IFIs), development agencies, and donor governments to discuss how to stimulate investment in the agribusiness sector to help meet this dual objective.

Organised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) - with financial support of the World Bank - the two-day meeting began with a high-level plenary of leading agribusiness CEOs, academics and IFIs that discussed “Upgrading quality in the region’s food chains: meeting new domestic consumer demands and export countries’ standards”.

The second day today has four in-depth roundtable sessions that will focus on improving food quality for export markets, financing the modernisation of agribusiness small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), greening agri-food chains and strengthening policies and partnerships for investment.

Demand for quality food has become more sophisticated both in local and export markets. Consumers ask for food that is increasingly distinctive and safe and expect products that respect the environment and rural communities as well as small and traditional producers.

Increased opportunities to deliver quality food allow companies to tap into high-value markets and export traditional products that meet the highest standards. Origin-based labels, such as geographical indications (GIs), are one option to help facilitate this. One session of the meeting discussed developing such private labels as a first step towards introducing product certification. This in turn would stimulate the implementation of improved quality standards.

Greening food chains from primary production to the retail stage can also help differentiate regional products on international markets. With a session on productivity gains, higher resource efficiency and green products, experts identified ways for agribusinesses to limit their impact on the environment and at the same time lower their operational costs.

Incorporating these considerations into food value chains can help mitigate the effects of climate change, one of which is an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters. The recent flooding that ravaged the Balkans showed the devastating effects that this could have on rural populations and agriculture.

The EBRD’s commitment to support green growth investment by including more energy and resource efficiency components in its agribusiness projects contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions.

Delivering “best food” in Europe and Central Asia requires private sector investment as well as regulatory frameworks and policies.

“You can only produce the best food if you partner with the best private sector companies, promote best practices and policies and build strong partnerships with the best counterparts,” said Gilles Mettetal, Director of Agribusiness at the EBRD. “The EastAgri network is all about coordinating and aligning interventions within the agribusiness sector.”

Through the EastAgri network FAO and the EBRD have already fostered successful public-private partnerships in the region. One notable contribution was in the Ukrainian grain sector, where an estimated US$ 1 billion of investment was mobilised thanks to a more coordinated approach. The session on public-private partnerships, led by the Aspen Institute and the World Bank, debated ways of improving food quality and safety standards and of enhancing regulatory frameworks to facilitate access to finance through warehouse receipt and crop receipt systems.

“The national policies should be structured in a way to enable synergies and complementarities between funding sources – be it cooperation between IFIs and commercial banks, and/or public funds coming both from country budgets or EU assistance," remarked Gerard Kiely, Head of the Pre-accession Assistance to Agriculture and Rural Development Unit, DG Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission.

The agribusiness sector plays a key role in the economies of Europe and Central Asia, with SMEs as the main drivers for growth. In light of their proximity to high-value regional markets such as the EU, a session will explore ways to finance the modernisation of SMEs through public funds and private credit to meet higher food quality and safety standards.

The EastAgri meeting facilitates knowledge-sharing in the agribusiness sector. This enables not only lessons learned, but also long-lasting cooperation on improving food quality and quantity in the region.

“The EastAgri 2014 Annual Meeting is an opportunity to look back over the past 12 years as well as to define future goals with concrete results and a clear path forward for the network,” said Emmanuel Hidier, Senior Economist at FAO.

An extension of the EBRD-FAO Framework Agreement will be signed in order to continue the solid partnership in the agribusiness sector between the two institutions.

“It is important to us that we are working in close partnership with different public institutions and the private sector in the agriculture and rural sector development in the region to increase efficiency and to support the sustainable economic development of the countries in the region,” said Vladimir Rakhmanin, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia.

“The EastAgri network is an important platform for the continuation and enhancement of the dialogue among the partners and it will ensure that we are held accountable to meet our goals,” he added.