It is a low-lying, landlocked country with marshy lowlands (in large part drained for agriculture) and many small lakes. The main river is the Dnieper. The climate is transitional between continental and maritime.
Arable land occupies more than half of the area, of which 60% is used for livestock (cattle and pigs) and the rest being used for cultivation of potatoes, grain, sugar beet and flax.
Despite the introduction of market socialism, little has changed in practice since the Soviet period. According to the official government economic programme, projected targets have been achieved in all domains of the economy except agriculture. State-controlled agriculture, slow implementation of the privatization programme, deep recession, spiralling inflation and devaluation, as well as lack of credit and acute shortage of foreign currency, contributed to create a climate hostile to private business, inhibiting domestic and foreign investment. Moreover, the abandonment of agricultural land as result of the Chernobyl fallout, loss of the Russian market and reliance on obsolete agricultural machinery further aggravated the already declining agricultural sector. As a result, the country is ranked as the lowest among other CIS countries for its private sector contribution to the GDP, with a mere 20%, the agricultural sector faring worst, with private farms exploiting only 0.6% of crop land.
The absence of progress on the government side in liberalizing and restructuring the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular, has led to a suspension of new loans and an overall decline of the level of commitments from major international aid institutions.
At present, agriculture is basically oriented towards meeting domestic market demands for food products, with a clear trend toward increased animal production. In the food sector, the percentage of plant production (grain and forage crops) is 27.3%. Major grain crops are barley, rye and oats, while potatoes and flax have a special importance. Major vegetables in cultivation are carrot, beet and cabbage.
Land tenure, rural infrastructure and agricultural inputs
Despite legislation adopted in 1998 and 1999, which was supposed to accelerate the privatization programme, transfer to private ownership has essentially been limited to some communal assets, partly as a result of the negative perception of the privatization campaign in the Russian Federation.
About 95% of agricultural land remains state owned and is farmed along under collective farming (kolkhoze and sovkhoze) systems. Private land ownership is restricted to household plots of up to 1 ha, which represent less than 15% of all agricultural land. Just about one third of this amount (i.e. 5% of all agricultural land) has been transferred to private ownership. No substantial changes are expected in agricultural policies.
The main components of the governments budgetary support are inter alia capital grants to flax, grain, sugar and potato processing plants, as well as limited and exceptional subsidies extended to private farms. In addition to the state budget, the non-budgetary fund for support of agricultural producers finances low-interest, short- and long-term loans to agricultural producers in less-favoured areas, and provides a subsidy for mineral fertilizers
Heavy industry produces trucks and tractors competitively priced for export, but technologically obsolete, while mineral and chemical processing industries concentrate on the production of fertilizers. However, deficient agricultural equipment and lack of spare parts hinders development of efficient technical systems.
The country is rich in peat, which is used as fuel for power stations, and in the manufacture of chemicals; otherwise, because of limited mineral resources, it is totally dependent on the Russian market for oil and gas supplies.
National agricultural policy
Seed policy follows the tightly state controlled principle. All planning is undertaken at Ministry of Agriculture and Food level, while implementation of the programme is carried out by the agricultural institutes and experimental farms.
Nine state institutes and five regional experimental farms staffed with some 60 plant breeding specialists conduct breeding programmes for new varieties in cereals, potato, forage crops and flax. Belarus has not acceded to the UPOV Convention on PBR, but has introduced instead a national patent/certificate award system to successful breeders (patents granted to institutes, while certificates are normally issued to individual breeders). Issuance of patents and certificates has been ratified by the law on patents issued on 13 April 1995. The overall programme is plagued by financial constraints.
Variety evaluation, registration and release
Responsibility for variety release, registration and release rests with the State Committee for Seed Control, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Committee (with branches throughout the country) conducts tests (using UPOV guidelines) for a period varying from two to four years, depending on the crop species (mostly wheat, rye, barley and potatoes). Following a successful outcome of these tests, the new varieties are registered in the special registers and published in an official gazette.
Usually production is undertaken by the institutes through their experimental farms, under contractual arrangements with state farms and occasionally with individual farmers. For cereals and fibre plants, pre-basic seed production follows the established pattern prevalent in the former Soviet Union countries, namely Super Elite and Elite; for fodder plants and small-seed legumes, Super Elite and Breeding Elite; while fodder plant grasses and oil plants are covered by Breeding Elite.
Seed testing, certification and control
The State Committee for Seed Control is empowered to conduct seed testing, certification and control applicable to the national territory only, as Belarus is not affiliated to ISTA but nevertheless follows its methodology. Certification following the prescribed testing period is in the form of a quality certificate.
Seed processing, storage, marketing and distribution
The State Committee for Seed Control is responsible for ensuring processing through licensed concerns and for seed storage in appropriate cold chambers. Marketing and distribution is similarly carried out under state control.
Research, limited because of financial constraints, is carried out by the state institutes, mainly on flax and potatoes, with emphasis on seed quality and health.
Seed training and extension
Because of financial difficulties, training and extension are limited to occasional seminars and workshops on seed production and quality control for the benefit of state institute personnel and collective-farm workers.
Plant genetic resources
Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Vavilov All-Union Research Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) performed all the basic work on PGR on behalf of national institutes. Currently, due to financial constraints, the country lacks a programme and has no special programme for preserving and utilizing the PGR available. Belarus has no unified PGR database, nor appropriate conditions for the storage of seeds. There is no systematic germplasm collection of planting materials nor are there genebank facilities. The Belorussian Institute of Plant Growing stores a collection of wild species and varieties of apples numbering over 300 accessions, with 1500 selected hybrids obtained from crossing wild forms with cultivated varieties.