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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 16:43 GMT
Growth struggle for post-Soviet farms
Russian farmer hauls hay with a horse
Russian farmers have found post-Soviet life tough
By Russian affairs analyst Steven Eke

Russia might be the world's largest country, but it has real difficulty meeting its agricultural needs - partly due to the poor condition of much of its soil.

According to a report published by the Russian news agency Interfax, the fertility of Russian soil has decreased "catastrophically".

It is a problem that has often been overlooked by environmentalists, who have focused their attention on the more headline-grabbing pollution stories from Russia, such as the state of its rivers or leaking nuclear waste containers.

Meanwhile, Russia's capacity to feed itself adequately has been declining.

Even the Black Earth areas of central Russia, historically famous for their productivity, are now part of the same environmental disaster bequeathed by the Soviet past

The Soviet Union saw a rapid intensification of agricultural activity during the 1960s. One of the main ways in which food production was increased was by the massive use of artificial fertilisers.

But fertiliser use in Russia has been cut dramatically since the start of reforms in the agricultural sector in 1985.

Russian farmers now use a tenth of the mineral fertilisers, and only about a third of the organic fertilisers, they were using a decade ago.

Russia's agricultural land is now suffering from what agricultural specialists call a "negative balance".

In other words, crops are taking more nutrients from the soil than the farmers are replacing.

Former Soviet Union - women in Zhashkiv, Ukraine
Many rural areas remain badly affected by poverty
Russia's vast regional variations mean that each area faces unique problems.

In southern Russia, irrigation schemes have left the soil salty. In northern Russia, where land was deliberately flooded, there are vast swathes of waterlogged soil.

Even the Black Earth areas of central Russia, which were historically famous for their productivity, are now part of the same environmental disaster bequeathed by the Soviet past.

Peasant farms

At the end of 1997, Russia adopted a "food security doctrine". It helped consolidate the various other programmes set up, often with international assistance, to tackle agricultural pollution.

Fifteen years of reform in Russian agriculture have brought massive changes to land once covered with the giant collective farms (kolkhozy) and Soviet farms (sovkhozy) of the communist period.

Few Soviet-type farms are left. Instead, there has been a massive expansion in peasant farms, and the production of food now depends on market relations.

The food queues are gone. But the new, external markets have hit Russian producers hard.

Poverty line

More than a quarter of all meat consumed in Russia and about 15% of its milk products are imported from abroad.

But the improvements are elusive.

State allocations to agriculture are still in decline in Russia, and, according to official statistics, agricultural workers in almost half Russia's regions live below the poverty line.

Against that sort of economic background, protecting Russia's soils and environment is still an uphill struggle.

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22 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Soil loss threatens food prospects
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