Agriculture accounted for 23 percent of the country's 1998 GDP and employed nearly 650,000 people, or more than 17 percent of the labor force in 1999. The majority of agriculture is conducted on state-owned lands and farms. Private farms, however, are much more efficient than state farms. Private farms produce an estimated 40 percent of agricultural output, even though they constitute a mere 15 percent of all agricultural lands. The primary food crops produced by Belarusian agriculture are barley, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, and wheat. Meat products include beef, veal, chicken, lamb, and pork. The most profitable agricultural exports in 2000 were butter, alcoholic beverages, condensed milk, beef, and cheese. The total value of agricultural exports in 2000 was US$377 million, while the value of agricultural imports was US$911 million.
Independence for Belarus, as in many of the former Soviet republics, brought economic hardships and food shortages. Between 1990 and 1998, total agricultural production was reduced by 29 percent, and in collective and state farms, production was reduced by 44 percent. Production of grains and pulses in 1998 was 69 percent of that of 1990, potatoes 88 percent, meat 57 percent, and milk 70 percent. Animal husbandry also saw a reduction: the average yield of milk per cow in government farms fell by 23 percent from 1990 to 1998. The nutritional value of the average daily ration shrank by 14 percent during that period. Due to the poor economic situation, the per capita annual consumption of meat decreased by 14 kg (19 percent), milk by 59 kg (19 percent), and eggs by 57 units (18 percent).
Production of grains in 1998 was 4,475,000 tons. This provided less than half of the minimal grain requirements for the country. Grain yields fell by 31 percent during the period of 1990-98. Land sown to grain also fell by 4 percent. As a result of the grain shortage, Belarus was forced to purchase and import grain from abroad. Russia was a major source of grain imports for Belarus, making up 44 percent of all grain imports in 1998. Imports of grain from Ukraine constituted another 30 percent of the whole. Ukraine was also a major provider of corn to Belarus. To encourage the domestic production of wheat, the government offered an artificially high price for wheat to farmers.
Belarus requires no less than 350,000 tons of sugar per year, but the capacity of internal sugar factories is only 150,000 tons per year. Since internal sugar beet production covers only about 44 percent of the country's needs, the rest is provided by imports. Belarus purchases the majority of its sugar from the Ukraine. During 1998 a total of 476,000 tons of sugar was both produced and imported, leading to an accumulation of sugar reserves and to the export of excess sugar to other CIS countries, mainly Russia. The sugar beet growing areas are located in the Brest, Grodno, and Minsk oblasts, where the 4 main sugar factories are located. The crop takes only 0.7 percent of total farmland in the country. In accordance with state sugar program, the development of the sugar industry aims to increase sugar beet production, increase the production capacity of the 4 sugar factories, and reduce energy and raw material expenses.
Vegetable oil is produced locally and sold to Russia, and it is imported from the Ukraine. Production capacities of the fat and oil industry meet the domestic market demand for vegetable oil, margarine, mayonnaise, and soap, as well as allow for the export of some finished products. The fields devoted to rape (a type of herb with oily seeds used to make canola oil) were increased from 88,000 hectares in 1998 to 150,000 hectares in 2000. The total sowing area under oilseeds was still 16 percent less than what it was in 1990. In order to solve the problem of domestic vegetable oil needs, to expand the growth of oilseeds and to increase the efficiency of oilseed production, the government supplied farms with quality seeds, mineral fertilizers, pesticides, and specialized harvesting machinery. Furthermore, it strengthened the material and technical base for seed processing and drying. An increase of the domestic production of vegetable oil was also induced by the rapid rise of the price for imported oils and oilseeds. In 1998 the price of vegetable oil was US$1,161 per ton as compared to US$823 per ton in 1995. The largest volume of vegetable oil export was recorded in 1998 at 11,300 tons.