MOSCOW (Reuters) -- A Russian decision to ban most Western food imports, taken in anger six years ago, is helping Moscow navigate the coronavirus crisis, giving it enough homegrown stocks to withstand panic buying and greater leeway on its agricultural export policy.
Russia has so far reported 4,149 cases of the virus and 34 deaths, far fewer than some major western European countries.
Moscow imposed a ban on Western cheese, vegetables and dozens of other products in 2014 in retaliation against European Union and U.S. sanctions imposed on it for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea.
The Russian counter-sanctions, coupled with a weaker rouble, have helped the domestic food sector flourish, spurring the creation of new food products and producers.
Russia cut its food imports to $29.8 billion in 2018, down from $43.3 billion in 2013, according to the agriculture ministry. That repositioning is now coming into its own.
Haunted by memories of appalling food shortages in the 1990s, some Russians went on a panic-buying spree earlier this month, snapping up staples such as buckwheat.
The strength and depth of the domestic food sector meant Moscow’s shelves were fully restocked within a week.
"The accumulated safety margin in the industry allows us to fully ensure the country’s food security,” the Agriculture Ministry told Reuters. "Even in conditions of higher demand, the country’s domestic needs for basic foodstuffs are fully met by existing production.”
Moscow’s ban on Western food imports boosted domestic production of vegetables, dairy products and apples, said Andrei Sizov, of the SovEcon agriculture consultancy.
Russia is self-sufficient in grain, sugar, poultry, pork, vegetable oil and fish, and wealthy businessmen have invested heavily in sprawling greenhouse complexes to grow fruit and vegetables in recent years.
Moscow still relies on some imports and needs to import citrus fruit, coffee and some other products for which it does not have the right climate. But the range and volume of what is produces is much bigger than in 2014.
Russia’s drive for food independence has also seen it become the world’s largest wheat exporter.
As a result, it is not under pressure to build up grain stockpiles, something some large importers, such as Egypt, are considering.
Instead, Russia on Thursday said it would sell up to 83% of grain from its state stockpile into the domestic market to increase supply for flour millers and bakers as coronavirus spreads.