FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

From tradition to innovation: FAO report sheds light on the future of small ruminant farming in the Western Balkans

©FAO/Robert Atanasovski

09/02/2024 , Budapest

The small ruminant sector is poised for significant change in the Western Balkans, a region deeply rooted in agricultural tradition. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released Small Ruminant Value Chains in Western Balkan Countries, a report that provides an unprecedented look into the current state and future direction of this important sector.

Covering more than 600 farms across Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia, this study is the first comprehensive mapping of the region's small ruminants. It also offers a clear look into the sector's value chain, showing how small farm products reach consumers and outlining the labor trends and buying habits in the industry.

“This study highlights the untapped potential within the Western Balkans' small ruminant sector,” commented Tibor Szucs, FAO Livestock Production specialist. “By leveraging advanced breeding techniques and sustainable pasture management, we can preserve this ancient farming tradition while significantly uplifting the region's agricultural output."

The sector in the Western Balkans is marked by both declines and growth. In Albania, despite a significant drop in sheep numbers from 1.97 to 1.48 million within five years, the country remains a key player in milk production for sheep and goats in the region. In contrast, Serbia, with fewer small ruminants, has seen a 44.6 percent increase in meat production over the last 15 years. Albania is one of the highest consumers of mutton and goat meat globally, with a per capita consumption of 8.68 kg in 2020 — much higher than nearby countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the leading importer of live small ruminants, while Montenegro and Serbia primarily import processed meats.

Breaking down the journey of small ruminant products from farms to consumers, the report reveals another regional divide. While farmers in Bosnia and Herzegovina,  Montenegro, and Serbia tend to focus on meat production, their counterparts in Albania have a stronger orientation towards milk production. These farmers are wrestling with challenges including labor shortages, low product prices, and insufficient funds for reinvestment. A particular concern is the wool industry, which, due to its underdeveloped state, contributes to environmental degradation. 

“The disparity in milk and meat production across the Western Balkans presents the opportunity for targeted development strategies. Improving value chain efficiency and farmer support can drive significant growth," emphasizes Szucs.

Sheep and goat farmers generally favor policies that offer tangible benefits, such as payments for each animal they milk. To improve their operations, they are open to adopting practices from successful farms, collaborating more closely with each other, and ensuring their farming strategies are in line with the EU’s environmental objectives outlined in the Green Deal

After detailing the current state of small ruminant farming and the challenges it faces, the report turns to potential solutions for the future. Collaboration within the small ruminant sector, with the urgent need to improve the connections between buyers and farmers, is a critical requirement for sector development. It points to strategic management practices as crucial for growth and stresses informed policies and targeted subsidy schemes to improve extension advisory services across the region.

Additionally, the adoption of new technologies stands out as a game-changer. As Szucs further notes “Embracing high-tech farming practices is expected to make resource use more efficient, reduce environmental impact, and ultimately increase the profitability and sustainability of small ruminant farming in the region. Yet, supporting smallholders will be fundamental in the years to come.”

The Small Ruminant Value Chains in Western Balkan Countries report calls on policymakers, international donors, and the farming community to join forces to strengthen the backbone of the region's agriculture. The report makes an appeal to balance of time-honored farming traditions with innovative, sustainable practices that will pave the way for a sector that not only meets today's standards but is poised for a future of prosperity and sustainability.