Food Imports and the Future of Russian Agriculture

Despite massive production of grains, oil, sugar, fiber, fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry, Russia and most of the other FSU countries remain net food importers. In 2005 over $16 billion was spent by Russia to import food—almost 17% of all imports for the year. The cost went up to $35 billion by 2008, boosted by a national program (Wegren, 2009). Although for some African nations food constitutes one-third of all imports, for a typical European country food accounts for under 10% of imports (under 5% in the United States), and most of the imports are specialty items for which there are no domestic substitutes (e.g., deli cheeses, wine, or tropical fruit), not staples. In the FSU, only Armenia and Georgia have a higher proportion of food in their imports than Russia (about 18%). On the other hand, agriculture-heavy Moldova, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan spend only 10% on food imports and export some of their food. Kazakhstan is one of the leading wheat exporters in the world, while Ukraine exports wheat, sunflower oil, sugar beets, barley, buckwheat, and some fruit. Moldova is primarily a vegetable and fruit exporter, as well as a wine producer.

What foods does Russia import? About one-quarter of its food import budget was spent on tobacco and alcohol products, and 10% on tropical and subtropical fruits like bananas, mangoes, avocadoes, and citrus. Most of the remaining money (almost half, or about $15 billion per year) was spent on staples that Russia could grow in sufficient quantities itself: sugar, grains, nontropical fruit, vegetables, and especially meat and poultry. Among the most popular import items from the United States are chicken drumsticks. Beef and pork are also imported in massive quantities from the EU or the United States. Butter, cheese, and some processed dairy products are significant import items as well. The top exporters of food to Russia overall are Ukraine, the United States, Germany, and France, as well as smaller EU countries with extra food capacity (Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands). In the Far East of Russia along the Pacific Coast, most food now comes from China, and some from Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. A chronic inability to feed itself is a bad sign for any nation and has implications for national security. Neither Yeltsin's nor Putin's government was able to address this issue adequately. Recent politicalization of food imports has led to occasional sanctions against some exporting nations—supposedly for sanitary reasons, but frequently due to entirely political causes (Wegren, 2009).

Despite heavy imports, Russians today eat less protein than before the reforms. For example, an average Russian ate 69 kg of meat products a year in 1990, but only 41 kg in 2000; 20 kg of fish versus 10 kg; and 385 kg of dairy products versus 216 kg. Thus protein-rich products are not as easily obtainable now as before. Consumption of starchy foods (bread and potatoes) and junk food, on the other hand, has soared, raising fears of an imminent obesity epidemic. An average Russian now consumes 118 kg of potatoes per year, as compared to only 106 in 1990. For comparison, an average American consumes only 55 kg of potatoes, but 117 kg of meat per year.

What is likely to happen with Russian and other FSU agriculture in the future? In Russia's case, Ioffe et al. (2004) have documented profound depopulation of many old agricultural areas, especially in the European center and north. This process is likely to continue. However, it is not necessarily bad: Some of the most marginal farms are abandoned first, and transportation networks decline in the most disadvantaged areas (the so-called economic vacuum zones), which increases the concentration of food production near cities. Heavy investments in more intensive farming methods are likely to increase the overall production of food in the country eventually. The importance of food production on personal plots remains high; however, with better laws supporting private businesses, and national investment programs already in place, private family farms may receive a needed boost and are likely to continue to increase their share of the overall food production.

Many of the same processes are happening in other FSU republics. The Baltic farmers are facing increased opportunities, but also competition, within the EU framework. Ukraine is an agricultural giant with many unsolved internal political problems. Moldova and Belarus are agriculture-heavy economies as well; Moldova, however, is being increasingly marginalized as a trade partner by the Russian leadership. Most of the fruits, vegetables, and wine that Moldova produces can be purchased more cheaply or readily within the EU now, or even outside Eurasia. Few countries in Europe need Moldovan agricultural products, resulting in severe hardship imposed now on the republic.

The trans-Caucasian republics have an excellent climate for growing subtropical crops, such as tangerines and tea, but they must now compete with global producers (Spain, Morocco, Sri Lanka, etc.). They also have severe issues with transportation infrastructure and with ongoing military conflicts. The Central Asian states and Azerbaijan currently dominate Russia's fruit and flower markets, respectively. Internally in Central Asia, there is increasing competition between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for fruit and vegetable produce. Turkmenistan could produce more fruit and vegetables for export than it currently does, but is politically isolated. All of the Central Asian countries are heavy cotton producers. Their ranching is not at its best at the moment, but they all remain important producers of beef and mutton, for both domestic and Russian consumption.