Russian Food Security: Addressing the Internal Existential Threat

On August 2, 2015, the Russian government approved legislation allowing for the destruction of sanctioned foodstuffs that have managed to get in to the country, with the law coming into force August 6, 2015. Under this legislation the seizure of the items can be done under any lawful means, and the destruction should be carried out immediately after seizure. Destruction will occur irrespective of ownership of the goods. The method of destruction (incinerators and dumpsites) will be dependent on the type of food slated for destruction, will occur within the presence of a minimum of two disinterested individuals and must be photographed and recorded in an effort to limit the possibilities of officials simply taking the food.

The destruction of food will include meat, cheeses, fruits and vegetables throughout the country, though it is expected that the majority of the destruction will occur in Kaliningrad, Western Russia and the Urals.

Russia crushes food
Russia crushes sanction foodstuffs

With these sanctions in place, Russians are seeing less variety in items at the supermarkets and an increase in prices, the latter being particularly harmful to the more vulnerable segments of the Russian population, including pensioners and wounded veterans. If conditions remain like this for too long, there will likely be backlash towards the government by the citizenry. While under law, the destruction of illegal foodstuffs is not unlawful, it can cause increasing dissatisfaction with government policy as the consumer becomes harder hit by the sanctions the Kremlin has put in place.

Citizens have created a petition to appeal to the government to repeal the law. However, the government’s response to the petition is that the destruction of the foodstuffs is predominantly due to improper documentation and that as smuggled goods, could pose potential health risks. Additionally, despite there being over 200,000 signatures on the website, the government, while aware of the petition, is wary of the numbers. Despite the government response, it is apparent from this that the policy has upset a number of Russians.

As major food importers like the European Union are now unable to supply Russian markets, the government has to address the issue of ensuring food security for the nation. One such way Russia is addressing this issue is through the easing of restrictions on food imports from nations like Moldova, with 17 Moldovan fruit suppliers being allowed to import following the easing of a ban imposed in 2014. While Russia has been looking to other nations like Moldova, but especially South America, to make up for the lack of imports, this is an inefficient long-term strategy for ensuring national food security. While agricultural development remained static in the post-Soviet world, following the imposition of sanctions, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev instructed the government to increase funding programs for the development of domestic agriculture.

Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters An aerial view shows machines harvesting wheat in a field near the village of Moskovskoye, outside Stavropol in southern Russia.
Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters
An aerial view shows machines harvesting wheat in a field near the village of Moskovskoye, outside Stavropol in southern Russia.

However, domestic food production is suffering from some problems, though not all are the result of underfunding. It was reported on August 10, 2015, that the a major salmon river in the Kola Peninsula has seen significant cases of a lethal fungal infection called saprolegnia amongst salmon populations. Additionally, a wet July has impacted Russia’s wheat harvest, with by the end of July 2015, only 37 million tons of grain having been harvested with a yield of 100-102 million tons expected. If harvest continues to be slow and weather remains wet, the wheat could become diseased to the point where it’s at best fit for livestock rather than human consumption. Admittedly, while a rainy year is out of anyone’s hands, the company running the fish farms in Murmansk Oblast, Russkoye More, has claimed they have had no indication that any infection is present, there has been independent reports that the company has willingly sold diseased fish. This conflicting reporting can be indicative of a problem in the Russian agricultural sector that goes beyond underfunding or the weather, simply that of transparency and good practice, and will need to be addressed as Moscow looks to ensure Russian food security.

Improving national self-sufficiency for food is ideal, especially in a sanctioned environment, but while the nation’s agriculture is in the process of improving, the destruction of illegal food, even sanctioned food that lacks ‘proper documentation,’ is a poor strategy. While imported food will increase the cost to the consumer, and with a weak ruble, increase the economic strain for the average Russian, until domestic yields reach a level that can sustain the nation as a whole, imports must be maintained. Rather than destroying food, provide it to those who the sanctions are hitting the hardest. It costs the nation as a whole very little, and goes a long way to keeping the public on your side. Concurrently, empowering customs officials within the Customs Union as a whole to help enforce sanctions as well as making agricultural development a priority would go a long way to improving not only long-term national food security but popular opinion.

However, the Kremlin’s priorities seem to be geared towards the preservation of territorial integrity against external existential threats to the nation. They acknowledge and are working to address what can be considered an internal existential threat, but this should be given more of a priority. After all, external threats mean little when the citizens cannot eat.

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