Russia's Food Policies and Foreign Policy

By Wegren, Stephen K. | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Russia's Food Policies and Foreign Policy

Wegren, Stephen K., Demokratizatsiya

Abstract: Russia has experienced an agricultural rebound since 2000 that has its origins in more state intervention and government assistance programs. Ironically, as agricultural production has increased Russia has become more protectionist in its food trade policies, and the pursuit of food security is a central feature of the political vocabulary. In addition, Russia has emerged as a global grain exporter, with plans to expand exports into markets that have traditionally been dominated by the United States.

Keywords: Agriculture, food policy, foreign policy, Medvedev, Obama, Russia, United States


Russia's food policy often falls under the radar of many analysts, and therefore the purpose of this article is to analyze contemporary policy trends, to explain how those policy trends fit with Russia's foreign policy, and to examine how food policy may affect US-Russian relations going forward. The article argues that Russian food policy is an inherent component of the multidimensional challenge to the United States. Specifically, the article demonstrates that Russia's contemporary food policy strategy consists of three overlapping components: (1) an increase in domestic production, facilitated by government financial support programs; (2) the pursuit of "food security" through the limitation of foreign states' access to food markets within Russia; and (3) an increase in Russia's food exports, specifically grain, thereby making Russia a major player in global food trade. These three elements are integrated to form a unified food policy strategy, a fact that augurs for food trade to become an increasingly significant factor in relations between Russia and the US. (1)

An underappreciated aspect of US-Russian relations is the fact that food policy has often occupied an important place in the bilateral relationship. In the 1970s, the "great grain robbery" embarrassed the Nixon administration and infuriated American consumers who ended up subsidizing wheat exports to the USSR. (2) In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan banned wheat exports to the USSR in retaliation for its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Despite the export ban by the United States, the Soviet Union remained a large importer of grain, with imports rising from 27.8 million tons in 1980 to 44.2 million tons in 1985. (3) During 1986-1990, the USSR averaged 32.2 million tons of imported grain annually, a statistic that represented about 14 percent of total consumption. (4) In the post-Soviet period, beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia began to use concerns over food sanitation as a pretext for trade protectionism. As a result, bilateral food trade between the US and Russia was punctuated by repeated import bans imposed by Russia on US meat and poultry exports. Following Russia's worst grain harvest since the 1950s in 1998, the US provided food aid to Russia, which, while well-intended, created resentment among Russian policymakers. Import bans on US poultry and other meat continued during Putin's presidency--in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. (5) After Dmitry Medvedev assumed the presidency, in May 2009 Russia banned imports of all meats from all states in the US in response to the H1N1 outbreak in the United States, even though the flu virus was not spread by raw or processed meat. (6) Effective in January 2010, Russia imposed a ban on the importation of poultry that was treated with chlorine as a disinfectant, a move that directly affected US poultry exports to Russia and could have negative effects on the relationship, according to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. (7) Based on the historical and contemporary importance of bilateral relations over food, an analysis of current trends in Russia is warranted.

The analysis of Russia's food policy intersects with three theoretical issues in the political economy literature. (1) The role of the state in the development of agrarian capitalism-in essence, laissez-fare policies in which government intervention is minimized, versus a state capitalist model in which the state adopts a more active role. …

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