Crop Failures in Russia Point to Serious Shortages of Bread and Potatoes Ahead

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 149

A wheat farm in Volgograd Oblast (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For several years, food prices have been rising in Russia, forcing the population to purchase ever cheaper products (, September 20). The government has tried to rein in prices, while avoiding having those top-down interventions lead to the empty store shelves that were a feature of Soviet times—a sight that would surely constitute a serious political problem if it were to appear again (Free Press, August 1). However, a combination of two larger factors makes it likely that some shelves will, indeed, be bare in the coming months. First, as a result of climate change, Russian farmers have faced flooding in some food-growing regions and drought in others, sending the production of bread and potatoes down. Second, authorities face difficulties in restraining price increases or purchasing additional supplies abroad because of the large number of players in the food chain, declining production in many countries and the weakness of the ruble. As a result, Russian experts warn, domestic consumers will need to tighten their belts. Yet if Russians cannot find enough traditional base staples like bread and potatoes, they will become angrier and lash out at their rulers.

Bread shortages helped trigger the February 1917 revolution in Russia and, as most Russian officials remember, caused trouble for the Soviet government near its collapse. Many officials and analysts are worried about what the current problems could lead to, with various ministries and even the Kremlin looking for ways to restrain prices while avoiding empty shelves. So far, they have had relatively little success in accomplishing the first and few prospects of forestalling the second. In his last address to the Federal Assembly (parliament), President Vladimir Putin remarked that “we remember what happened in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s” and how “empty shelves” affected people. According to him, “the main thing is to ensure the growth of real incomes” so that Russians will be able to purchase food and other goods. Unfortunately, as experts have pointed out, prices for food have far outstripped stagnant incomes, and the government is at a loss for how to respond (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 27; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 28;, September 9).

The government is failing to limit price increases on many food groups because it has not been able to orchestrate agreement among all participants in the food production chain—a much more complicated task than when Soviet central planning was in place. Furthermore, the production of grain and potatoes has declined in some sectors by more than 30 percent and is projected to fall further due to drought and flooding. As Znak commentator Igor Pushkaryev points out, even though the amount of land sown for these crops was slightly greater this year than last year, the coming harvest will be much smaller because of negative weather conditions. Insufficient rain fell in many areas for crops to flourish; whereas other regions suffered from too much precipitation and flooding, causing plants to rot in their fields. Even when potatoes are harvested, they will likely be smaller than normal because of the anomalous impact of ongoing climate change. As a result, prices are expected to go up by even more than the factor of ten by which they already rose in recent months, making grocery shortages a real possibility (Znak, September 25).

The size of fields ripe for harvesting has fallen significantly, for some crops by as much as 35 percent. In the case of potatoes, new planting has fallen as well. Even worse from the point of view of the market, Pushkareyv continues, the only reason overall production has not fallen further is the growth of private plots that farmers use primarily for their own needs. Thus, there will be fewer potatoes coming to market, and prices for them, as well as for grains, will go up. These domestic trends will be further exacerbated because production in neighboring countries, on which Russia has relied when its crops do poorly, has also fallen. They will be buying from Russia, further pushing up prices.

Russians are, thus, likely to face rising costs and shortages of many key food products, which the government will not be able to stop easily, both because of the size of the problem and the fact that these difficulties are not a temporary phenomenon. Production issues have bedeviled farmers for many years and affect not just Russia but other countries as well. Experts are already saying Russians will have no choice in the coming months but to “tighten their belts”— a message few will want to hear and that the government can send only at its peril. It is one thing for people to have to purchase cheaper cuts of meat; it is quite another to not be able to afford or find bread and potatoes. When these shortages hit home, most likely after the first of the year, when supplies from last year’s crop run out, they will constitute a political threat to the regime far larger than any “smart voting” or opposition agitation.