Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged support for livestock farming on Tuesday and sought to assure farmers that Russia's membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) did not threaten the fast-growing sector.
Russia wrapped up 18 years of negotiations last year to join the WTO, with meat imports being one of the last remaining hurdles. Putin said the country will become a member in the summer of 2012.
"There are instruments of protection. We are ready to give you a shoulder," Putin told a government meeting held in the agricultural Tambov region in central Russia. "The state will support agricultural producers."
Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000 as president and then prime minister, is seeking re-election in March as president for a six-year term. Farmers and other agricultural sector workers are seen as his core voters.
Putin said Russia could extend tax breaks currently enjoyed by agricultural producers, taking into account the forthcoming WTO membership.
Russia has experienced a boom in agriculture in recent years, becoming a grain exporter and achieving high growth rates in the poultry and pork sectors. Putin noted, however, that beef and milk production remained problematic.
Putin said that dry milk imports have dealt a blow to the industry. He said that milk production, at 31.7 million tonnes in 2011, has not yet recovered to the 1990 level of 55.7 million tonnes.
"I am sure that we have all the possibilities to saturate the market with our own production. Just as we did with poultry meat," Putin said, calling for closer cooperation between producers and processing firms.
First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who oversees the agricultural sector, told the meeting that Russia aimed to cut imports from 27 percent of consumed meat to 15 percent in the next few years.
"We have serious reserves for increasing beef output," Zubkov said. "The market niche for this product is basically free."
Zubkov also called for the creation of national standards for beef in order to reduce imports of high-quality beef from countries such as the United States and Canada.
Accelerated growth in livestock farming implies that more feed grain will be consumed domestically, cutting the surplus available for exports.
Zubkov pointed out that only one third of Russian pork farms were internationally competitive while 50 percent were "in the risk zone" pending Russia's accession in the WTO.