The Rise of Russian Organic Farming

Vladimir Putin is known for many things, but an advocate of environmentally friendly, organic food is probably not one of them. Yet in his speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly in December 2015, Putin makes his stance clear: “Russia is able to become the largest global supplier of healthy, ecologically clean and high-quality food which some Western producers have long lost, especially given the fact that demand for such products in the world market is steadily growing.” Whilst realising that there are other factors behind this statement beyond sheer commitment to ethical food production, Putin acknowledges the potential of Russia’s agricultural industry in a burgeoning market. What has brought about this stance?

When it comes to talk of Russia’s food industry, the first thing that might well spring to mind currently is the food embargo. In retaliation to Western imposed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, at the start of August 2014, Russia implemented a ban on agricultural products, including meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, whose country of origin had introduced sanctions against Russia. There were a few indicators that some were finding ways around the embargo, with reports of apple imports from Switzerland (not included in the sanctions) swiftly increasing 400-fold and a billboard in Samara, the city where I spent my year abroad, advertising ‘real Italian cheese’ long past the introduction of the ban. However, the embargo has undeniably had a huge impact on the agricultural industry in Russia, opening a space in the market for domestically grown produce.

This space in the market equally applies to organic products, which are also included under the embargo’s remit. Whilst organic products certainly do not hold the same proportion of the market as they do in countries like Germany, the market does continue to grow steadily, which is impressive considering the unstable economic climate in Russia. The Association of Russian Farms and Agricultural Cooperatives (AKKOR) estimates that there is a potential market for organic production worth 300-400 billion rubles (£2.7-3.6 billion). And this growing, but still relatively untapped market—there are only 70 organic farms in Russia—has been spotted by a few adventurous former city-slickers, who are now making up what Forbes has termed ‘the new wave of farmers’.

I spent a week helping on a farm run by such a ‘new wave farmer’, Bio-farm Bolotovo, 120km south of Moscow in the Tul’skaia region of Russia. The farmer, Pavel, was a former deputy financial director of a big transport company, but had left to become an organic farmer. It was a small farm, hidden away a few kilometres from the nearest village, surrounded by apparently endless forests. They kept a few goats and sheep, but the farm mainly grew vegetables, such as cabbages, beans and potatoes alongside the Russian culinary staple—dill. A handful of workers lived in the two wooden houses, but especially during the summer months, the farm was desperately short of hands to keep on top of weeding and dill harvesting, so they look for volunteers, to come and stay for a week or so to help. The people on the farm made for an interesting mix: Pavel, the businessman turned agronomist; one Muscovite who had come as a retreat out of busy, urban life; my friend and I, two foreigners taking the opportunity for a bit of alternative travel and a family of workers from Ukraine who did not seem to care much for organic food. The farm also had regular visits from various journalists eager to find out more about this organic movement. While I was there, a group of young hipster journalists from one of the trendy Moscow journals picked through the mud in their pristine trainers and looked taken aback at the outdoor toilet—the farm was a world away from the lives of the affluent, urban, ecologically aware consumers that make up the target market. But then again, that is surely not unique to Russia.

The farm is the only one in Russia to be accredited with the German based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). But as mentioned above, according to AKKOR there are already 70 farms producing organic food. This highlights one of the issues in determining what is organic or not. There are many accrediting bodies with differing criteria and application processes, and the Russian government has recently introduced its own law seeking to facilitate organic farming. What this means is that it can be hard to define and standardise what is organic and what is not. After all, the babushka at the local market selling cabbages she has grown at her dacha may well be just as organic as the certified cabbage you buy at an eco-shop for a higher price, but then again she may well have a penchant for dousing her cabbages in all manner of chemicals.

It is safe to say that there is a distance for Russia to go before it can fulfil Putin’s vision as the world-leading supplier of ecologically clean food, with Russian organic enterprises still occupying only a small part of the domestic agricultural market, let alone competing on the export market. But only a fool writes off Russia and in this case, its organic farmers.

Will Britain and the EU Make it Work?

All relationships are difficult sometimes. One person wants commitment, the other not to be tied down. These divisions can grow over time, and eventually some relationships sadly fall by the wayside. The UK-EU relationship has certainly had its fair share of problems, but after enduring for 40 years the two partners should have reached an amicable plateau—regular bickering, the occasional screaming match, but ultimately with a strong foundation underneath. The reality however is than it its fourtieth year this particular relationship looks as fragile as it ever has before, and with a 2017 membership referendum a very genuine prospect, there will need to be a concerted and genuine effort on both sides to renegotiate, rebalance and prove to a generally sceptical British public that they shouldn’t sign the divorce papers.

As has become standard with British political debate, discussion of the UK and EU’s relationship is largely based on what are euphemistically described as mistruths and misinformation. Important to note is that this comes from both sides—for every UKIP member wailing about how all British law is now dictated by Brussels, there is a Brussels civil servant smoothly spinning that the EU seeks only the bare minimum of powers necessary to run the Union effectively. None of these statements is on their own correct, and if British voters are to be convinced to vote to stay in 2017, a great deal more honesty and openness will be required on both sides. There is a compelling case to be made that the European Union of today—in terms of size, scale and scope—bears little resemblance to the European Economic Community that the British public voted to join in 1975. Many of the changes that have been made have undeniably been for the better—improving efficiency, bringing down trade barriers and helping Eastern European states forge a post-Communist future. But what has been lacking with these changes is an honesty about what the European Union is moving towards, what its ultimate goals are in terms of integration and convergence. And it is this that has led levels of British euroscepticism to increase rather than subside as our membership of the EU reaches its fourtieth anniversary.

The benefits for Britain of membership of the EU are both extensive and difficult to exactly quantify—and as a result will represent the key battleground should a referendum on membership take place in 2017. Business leaders are almost unanimous in their support for continued membership—the nature of the single market makes operating across different European nations, even those with different currencies, immeasurably easier than would otherwise be the case. There is also more in the pipeline designed to increase European efficiency further—as extending the single market to services as well as goods would make it easier for service firms—from plumbers and electricians to lawyers and accountants—to operate on a pan-European basis. The cultural argument is equally strong—Britain should be proud to play its part in a Europe that is hugely strengthened by the interaction and cooperation of its members.

The benefits are obvious, the advantages clear, therefore what exactly is needed to keep this relationship together, to end Britain’s simmering euroscepticism and cement our place within a strong and united Union? The answer is a fundamental renegotiation of the powers that Britain cedes to the EU, a chance to review all that has changed since 1975 and, on an almost line-by-line basis, explore both whether it can be improved upon and—realistically given the political situation—whether it is palatable to the British electorate. The result may well be that the EU agrees to give up control over some areas of British social, justice and welfare policy—in exchange for maintaining the cultural and business benefits that make Britain such a valuable partner. What a 2017 referendum would do is limit the power of UKIP rhetoric, allow the public to understand our relationship with the EU outside of tabloid dramatics, and potentially put the issue of EU membership to bed for a generation. After fourty years of sniping and on occasion even open warfare, those potential benefits seem like a chance to start afresh and reposition Britain within the EU for the long haul. They seem like too good an opportunity to miss.

Mattarella’s the Word

Sergio Mattarella, the newly incumbent President of Italy, has made the neutralisation of what he called a ‘pervasive cancer’ his main priority, and, as a man with personal experience of the violence of Italian organised crime (his brother was killed by a mafioso in 1980), he looks like a good bet.

The main problem surrounding the Italian mafia is that of omertà, the code of silence, an issue which has recently been raised by Trevor McDonald in his exploration of the American bob on ITV. In his programme, McDonald meets ex-mafiosi who have broken this code of silence, mainly by virtue of generous bribery on the part of the FBI. The indifference of some of these men regarding their participation in the mafia is staggering, especially when we consider that they are risking their own lives, speaking so openly on television.

There are obviously many parallels with the Italian mafia, however, there seems to me to be a clear difference between the American and Italian networks. That is, while the American mobsters appear to be solely driven by money, there is something extra that pushes the Italians to such immorality: family. Criminal activity is so entrenched in everyday, familial life that it becomes impossible to penetrate and destroy; everyone is involved and everyone is omertosi.

In Italian contemporary literature and film (I am thinking of Non ho paura by Niccolò Ammaniti and Alla luce del sole directed by Roberto Faenza in particular) there is a very different feel: there is no ‘easy way out’, no FBI to run to for protection. Everyone depends on everyone else and so the very human chain is unbreakable. All the more so during this period of economic crisis: last year it was said that Italian banks’ reluctance to lend left more businesses turning to the mob for help. This resulted in the Italian Mafia having a bigger annual budget than the European Union. It therefore takes a daring and determined leader to start the process of demolishing the underworld that partly serves as a foundation for the successful running of the country.

Mattarella has initiated a dialogue; it is now up to his compatriots speak up.

Iran, we Love you: Social protest in Israel

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March 2012. Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer, posts a poster on facebook which features him carrying his daughter, the latter holding an Israeli flag. ‘Iran, we will never bomb you, we love you’ is written as a slogan on the poster. The picture goes viral and receives reactions from Iran, in both personal messages and posters over facebook. Edry opens a facebook page: Israel-loves-Iran. In Iran a new group is created: Iran-loves-Israel. For the first time, swathes of people between the two countries are in contact with each other – through pictures, photos, slogans and messages. Eventually the group members travel from all over the world to meet. Today, more than 90,000 people like Edry’s pages and multiple countries have a dedicated ‘love’-page. What are the implications of this facebook activity?

Edry explains how it is through the social network that individuals can become part of a new peace movement, which hopes to offer the people the power to prevent a war – a constant threat for the past 10 years. As a graphic designer, this Israeli more than anyone else, perhaps, understands that the image of the Middle East is now changing. For a few blissful days, it is love and hearts that dominate the Middle Eastern news reporting, not news of war and bombs. Every so many weeks, a new campaign is started, publicizing different slogans. Posters bear texts reaching from, ‘we will never bomb you’ to the more politically aggressive, ‘Not ready to die in your war’. The group that designs the posters is called ‘The Peace Factory’; its recent commissions include flight commercials for the Israeli airline El Al to Teheran.

For me, the most striking of the messages the group spreads is that of the impossibility to hate. On several occasions, and in their promo-movies, the main reason for this is underscored as follows: ‘I never met an Iranian, I don’t hate you … I don’t even know you’. Such a powerful slogan, surely, puts into perspective the main reason we must not fight. “Not only am I not prepared to die for a war which was not fought in my name, not only are there Israelis and Iranians who simply want to live in peace and continue their lives, they do not even know each other.” The message is clear: how could anyone justify a war with people they do not know? Whether it is effective, however, is another question entirely.

An Israel-loves-Palestine group exists with less than 2,000 likes. Meanwhile tension between Gaza and Israel not only remains, it seems to have increased in its intensity. I cannot help but ask myself: do Israelis and Palestinians know each other well enough to actually hate each other? Is there too much hate already to spread the love through images of smiling people and warming hearts? Or are the prospects of a war between Israel and Iran more threatening and pressing than the current situation between Palestine and Israel?

Edry stresses that his project is meant to prevent a war, to ‘reach the other side before it is too late’ (TEDx Jaffa 2012). Yet clearly the conflict between Palestinians and Israel is not avoidable, and has not been for many years. Opposition movements to the Israel-loves-Palestine campaign – who use similar poster strategies – focus on the violence of the Israeli army above all else. This, if anything, is evidence for the possible failure of this initiative.

On the other hand, the Israel-Iran group has made it as far as the parody show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). Such publicity is a visible marker of success, for now the group is both recognized as a trend in Israel, and given all the attention it needs (that and the tens of international and pan-Arabic newspapers writing about the movement). Not only Israel, but other main players in the Middle East have been involved in this new initiative. The Facebook-hype of giving power to the voice of the people is a continuing phenomenon and in Iran, especially, the movement has grown stronger in its lending the individual a voice. If at the start of the initiative posters were posted in which faces were still unrecognizable, people now appear full frontal to the camera, and engage with our gaze. More importantly, their names stand defiantly alongside.

So whilst discussions concerning a nuclear war continue on higher political levels (and might still, for another ten years to come), this does not prevent people from all over the world in making their objections clear, not only to their own government, but also to those who would suffer the implications of a such a war. We can only hope their voices will be heard.