Russia's Destruction of Contraband Western Food Is a Terrible Idea

  • Food could have gone to better uses
  • Also it's terrible PR - especially when you make a spectacle out of it as Moscow has done
Mon, Aug 17, 2015
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Economic destruction and PR nightmare rolled into one

This article originally appeared at Journalitico


This week Russian authorities began destroying products that fall under its embargo on Western food imports.

A decree for the destruction of the products was signed by Putin on July 29 and will apply to countries that have introduced sanctions against Russia over the situation in Ukraine.

Those sanctions are a form of economic warfare, and are in my opinion, wrong.

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But incinerating good food is also wrong.

The reaction from Russian people has been mixed. Some are in favour of destroying illegally imported produce, arguing (correctly) that the destruction of contraband or surplus produce is not uncommon in many developed countries, that Russia needs to reduce its own reliance on food imports (also correct — and the embargo has indeed had the positive side effect of helping domestic producers).

They also argued that destroying the contraband will discourage further smuggling (not a guarantee).

Others, even prominent pro-Kremlin figures, have been outraged by the decision. They believe that the red tape could have been worked around, that the food could have been distributed to orphanages, the homeless, or even sent to eastern Ukraine, where people are literally starving.

I’m in their camp.

The pro-destruction side however, said no, the government couldn’t guarantee the safety of illegal produce with no official documentation and others said they wouldn’t eat it. The anti-destruction faction countered that by saying that in fact it would only increase corruption by creating a black market in confiscated goods.

The Kremlin, to be fair, was in a tricky situation.

Another group of people, who are generally pro-Kremlin, have refrained from saying anything at all about the issue. One can only assume it is too much of an unappetizing thought (pardon the pun) to provide more fodder (and that one) to Western media who in general, don’t cover Russia with much objectivity.

But not everything needs to be about “Western media”. If they didn’t want to see gleeful headlines about starving Russians and videos about food being “Russia’s latest victim” then this was a bad idea.

I’ve been tweeting about it over the last couple of days and the response to my disapproval of the government’s decision has mostly been along the lines of “but other countries do it too” (correct) and “the media didn’t make a scene out of it when the EU destroyed food meant for Russia” (also correct).

But that is not really the point — and here’s why.

First of all, “they do it too” is a cop-out in this instance. That is ‘whataboutism’ in its most useless form (and yes, there are varying degrees of usefulness when it comes to whataboutism).

But, more importantly, there is a good reason why this is getting more coverage.

The destruction of the food, according to the presidential decree, is to take place immediately after it has been seized, and the incineration/bulldozing/whatever will be documented on video. Authorities will also search warehouses and food stores around the country for banned products. Fats, cheeses, fruit and vegetables will be burned in furnaces.

That has, predictably, resulted in what looks to me like a PR nightmare.

apples

It is one thing to say we have no choice but to destroy this food and then to go ahead and quietly do it. It’s quite another thing to decide to make such a public circus of it.

The showy, public element to all of this is basically intended to be the equivalent of giving the middle finger to the West by sending the produce up in flames on national TV.

It’s a ‘fuck you’ to the sanctions. It is also, of course, for the visual benefit of some Russians who, angered by the economic warfare being waged against them, would greatly enjoy that spectacle.

As for the Western coverage; true, you could make the valid argument that there would have been ridiculous over-the-top headlines either way — but honestly, they probably would have been marginally less dramatic had there not been so much visual evidence to go with them.

News channels have been showing footage of bulldozers crushing mountains of cheese and rolling over crates of apples. A group of girls wearing “Eat Russian” t-shirts have been going around Moscow searching stores for banned goods and slapping “sanctioned” stickers on them.

On the other side, homeless charities have called the destruction “inhumane” and unnecessarily wasteful.

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, did manage to admit that “visually, it probably doesn’t look very nice” (no shit!) but told people they shouldn’t “over-dramatize” the situation.

Online petitions have been launched, seeking to have the decree overturned and the destruction stopped.

The Kremlin then, in another idiotic move, decided that rather than addressing the concerns or even pretending to reconsider, they would instead “investigate” to see whether all the signatures on the petitions were authentic.

Talk about a waste of time, and a bit of an over-dramatization in itself.

Natalya Shagaida at the Center for Agricultural and Food Policy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (that’s mouthful, pardon another pun), told Russia Beyond The Headlines that she personally had an “extremely negative attitude” to the whole thing. She said:

“In general, Russians have quite a reverent attitude to food, to the work of those who produce it. A large part of the population sees the burning [and] destruction of benign products as blasphemous.”

Valery Panyushkin, a St. Petersburg journalist, used his online column to ask how Putin, the son of a woman who barely survived the Siege of Leningrad, the son of a man who was injured in one of the deadliest fights to break the blockade, and the brother of a child who died there, could be in favour of incinerating food.

That is, of course, an emotional argument, and doesn’t take all factors facing the Kremlin into account, but it’s a question that was inevitably going to be raised.

It’s possible that distributing the food to orphanages, schools or the homeless could have, in Putin’s mind, contributed to another PR disaster as reporters from Western outlets ran around taking pictures of ‘starving’ Russians receiving contraband Western products. But if PR was even part of the decision-making equation, maybe they should have considered the inevitable surfacing of pictures of Russians rummaging through piles of semi-destroyed Western goods in landfills?

russians

To avoid both kinds of PR disaster then, why not send the food to eastern Ukraine? Russia is already doing more than any other country in terms of delivering aid to Donbass, so it seems to me a missed opportunity that they couldn’t figure out a way to use this food for good.

Another common reaction to my tweets on the topic has been to ask me, if the food couldn’t be sold and for some reason could not be distributed to the needy, then what do I suggest?  Well, let’s see: I am not an expert in food waste management or agricultural supply chains, so why would I have any great suggestions? Not having a solution doesn’t preclude one from voicing an opinion.

I do know this, though. This is not a Kremlin problem. What’s happening in Russia right now is the tip of a far worse iceberg.

  • the EU Commission estimates that 90 million tonnes of food meant for consumption is lost along the supply chain in the EU (about 180kg per person)

  • every UK family wastes an estimated £700 a year throwing away good food

  • almost half of the food produced in the world (about 2 billion tonnes) is thrown away every year

  • about 60% of the world’s total food loss comes from the US and Europe

It is unrealistic to think food waste can ever be fully — or even nearly — eliminated. Given the amount we produce and waste, it is an epic challenge.

But it’s a cop-out to see bulldozers rolling over crates of apples and for your only reaction to be well, there’s no other option, or to claim (purely) for political reasons that it’s the “right” thing to do.

It’s not right. And there are always other options.

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