What is your take on Russian agriculture today? How important is agriculture to the Russian economy?
I am impressed by the way the Russian Federation is developing its agriculture sector and increasing its agricultural production. In just a short period of time Russia has changed from being a net importer to a net exporter of poultry meat and eggs — in particular to countries in the Middle East and Asia — and become self-sufficient in pork.
Russia also increased its greenhouse area significantly and is working hard to tackle its milk shortage. The Russian authorities are now trying to boost the export of agricultural products, which amounted to around 25 billion euros last year.
I believe agriculture has a crucial role to play in the diversification of the Russian economy. Moreover, the agro food sector is not only an important part of the economy of Russia, but also contributes to better food security in Russia and the Eurasian region as a whole.
What is the big difference between the Russian and Dutch agricultural sectors? What can they learn from each other?
Working together is in the genes of the Dutch and this is what makes Dutch agriculture so special, I believe. Not only small- and medium-sized farmers and growers share their knowledge and experiences freely with each other, different stakeholders in the agro food chain also work closely together.
For example, in the Netherlands we have several so-called Greenport Areas, where suppliers of all kinds of inputs including animal or plant genetic material, machinery, equipment and services as well as agricultural producers, processors, traders and retailers join their activities and efforts as much as possible.
Last but not least, the cooperation between the government, knowledge and research institutes and private agribusiness — the so-called Golden Triangle — also plays a key role in the success of the Dutch agricultural sector.
The Netherlands is very willing to share with Russia its experience and knowledge about the way partners in the agro food chain work together.
On the other hand, the Dutch are interested in Russia's experience of increasing production and exports of food from medium-sized family farms and large agro-holdings, which is so badly needed to feed the growing population on our planet.
How have sanctions affected Russia? What are the biggest policy issues facing agriculture in Russia now?
As a consequence of the Russian sanctions against the import of agricultural products, Russian farmers have had to step up their production in order to feed the domestic market. This has strengthened food security and contributed to diversifying the economy. Russia is now eager to export its food products, which also means that it has to comply with international requirements on food safety, quality, animal and plant health issues and environmental and animal welfare norms. I believe this is one of the biggest policy issues Russian agriculture is facing now.
At the same time, I have noticed that the Russian authorities are working hard on most of these issues, for example on the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry, improving tracking and tracing of food and avoiding residues on horticultural products.
Could you tell us a bit about conditions for animals in Russian farms? Would you change them, and if so why?
In Western Europe, animal welfare is high on the agenda for society and politicians. Consumers expect animals to be treated well in their pens and during transport. Within the European Union, for example, small "battery cages" for chickens are forbidden. The Dutch prefer to see dairy cows in green pastures during the summer, and there are limits on the distances live animals can be transported.
I know that Russians like fresh and natural food products close to nature, and for that reason I believe that animal welfare will get more attention in Russia as well. International traders in animal products will ask Russia about its animal welfare status when it wants to export poultry meat, eggs, pork and dairy to profitable foreign markets.
Actually, I expect that a growing number of Russian consumers will ask the same question. These developments will put animal welfare in Russia high on the agenda of society and politicians, as it is in Western Europe.
So today it's still not like that? When do you believe it will change?
I foresee some changes within five years, because without them the export of Russian animal products would slow down.
How do you see the future development of Russian-Dutch relations in the agricultural sector? Is Russia interesting for the Netherlands?
The Netherlands is a global market leader in high value animal breeding material and plant propagation material. It is also a well-known supplier of innovative technology like glass greenhouses, milking robots, storage and cooling facilities, sorting and packing equipment and processing lines.
The Netherlands can contribute to the development of agriculture in Russia and make food production more sustainable, efficient and profitable. Dutch breeding animals, semen, seed potatoes, seeds and fruit tree nursery stock are known for their excellent quality and high yields. The Netherlands also stands for innovation in high-class technology in food production, handling and processing.
I have visited very professional and modern dairy farms and greenhouse complexes in Russia and attended the openings of several high-tech factories, which were doing well in business and were all using high value genetic animal and plant material and sophisticated Dutch agro food technology.
Practical training of farmers, growers and managers of agro holdings is another segment where the Dutch are quite active in Russia. So in short, we see many Russian-Dutch relations in the field of agriculture which are of mutual interest for both our countries.
Russian and Dutch dairy products have different tastes. Is it because of the quality of the milk or the different technologies used to produce them?
One of the reasons has to do with the feed the dairy cows are getting. Cows in the Netherlands graze in green meadows, which affects the taste of the milk and so the taste of the cheese. The high quality and hygiene of the raw milk in the Netherlands is another element that influences the pure taste of the cheese.
And last but not least, the Netherlands has a long tradition and lots of expertise and experience in making the most delicious cheese, well-known all over the world.
You've been living in Moscow for a few years now. How do you like it? It must be very different from living in green and small Friesland.
My family and I look back at four wonderful years living in Moscow so far, and we realize that it is a great opportunity to discover Russia in this way.
Traveling from Krasnodar to Murmansk and from Kaliningrad to Kazan and Tyumen has shown me how diverse and huge the Russian Federation is, at the same time making me realise that Moscow is not Russia.
Moscow is a modern mega city and quite different to Friesland, a small province in the Netherlands where I grew up and which is known for its green pastures for dairy cattle. However, size does not really matter. The Netherlands, for example, has almost the same size and number of citizens as Moscow oblast. But after the United States it's the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world.
In 2019, Dutch exports of agro-related products were worth almost 100 billion euros, four times the agricultural export of the Russian Federation!
What are your favorite places in the capital? How do you spend your leisure time in Moscow?
Being an agricultural counsellor, of course I love the countryside and nature. For that reason I like to spend my leisure time in Moscow's parks and in nature areas with beautiful forests and lakes outside the capital.
Could you describe Russians and Dutch in three words? Are we very different?
Russians and Dutch have a lot in common, I believe. They are, in general, both proud and straightforward people and, thanks to Peter the Great, we use several similar words. The Dutch might be a bit more open in communication, while Russians are known for their great hospitality when you are visiting their homes.