CEE

 

The focus so far has been largely on the race for Africa or the race for Latin America. However, Central and Eastern Europe is quite deep into the long game of land grabbing. Foreign investment in CEE’s agricultures is established since early 1990s.

The issue, nonetheless, is not a political bomb as across the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. Agrarian reforms did take place and they were mostly in the sense of liberalizing the market and of cutting down on state incentives and subsidies for smallholders. Conversely, governments – together with industry groups – are actively encouraging holding consolidations. (Carl Atkin, “Regional Perspectives: Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union” in Michael Kugelman and Susan L. Levenstein, editors, “The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food”, Chapter 1, Kindle edition, loc. 3,028)

Few smallholder groups encourage such consolidations, probably with the exception of Hungary – and particularly due to its nationalistic governments in the post-communist decades. (Atkin, loc. 3034)

Investors interested in farmland are largely divided into two groups:

–       the one that considers farmland as a low-risk real estate investment; they are focused on EU Member States or candidates for EU accession because they guarantee on the whole legal and fiscal stability, private property rights and cadastral systems;

–       the one that is focused on operational farming investment; they want big returns on capital by acquiring or leasing large areas of land at low costs; these investments tend to be in the former Soviet Union, mainly in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

 

Foreign land grabbers are spreading their nets more widely across the old Communist bloc in search of bargains. Trigon Agri, owned by a consortium of rich Danes and Finns, is growing wheat and sunflowers on 420,000 acres of black-earth farms from Kirovograd in central Ukraine to Samara close to the Caspian Sea in Russia, and from Estonia on the Baltic to Stavropol in the Russian Caucasus. It is aiming for 740,000 acres by 2015.

 

The giant American grain trader Cargill is buying land in Bulgaria.

 

Danish bacon entrepreneur Erik Jantzen has tens of thousands of acres in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, where about a tenth of farmland is already in foreign hands.

 

2C is currently researching the landgrabbing issue in Central and Eastern Europe. More to come in the nearest future.

 

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Pockets of virtuous local and traditional subsistence farming do resist though, and again, the EU via its new Common Agricultural Policy did create a larger openness towards virtuous local agriculture and “high nature values for farming.” We are enforcing these values by stating courageously that subsistence agriculture is gratifying, that together with its inner respect for biodiversity and its sui generis conservation of semi-natural landscapes, it enhances a culture of rural organization and taste, which is threatened to perish. Profit is so much less of a virtue when related to these values.

 

Countries in the European East have experienced what was called “real socialism”. It killed the idea of social-democracy and socialism is written with scarlet letters. Now, the idea behind Slow Food is something that I called ‘functional anarchy’, that is localization of production and consumption within deep ecology and local culture. And please note that agro-industrialism is as big of a menace as communist planning. Do not fear the term ‘anarchy’, I am referring to it not in the sense of a radical social movement nor ideological, but localization within deep ecology and good governance with a European twist of subsidiarity.

 

Many consumers are discouraged from buying organic food by the perceived higher prices. Are organic farming products truly more expensive than regular industrial farming products?

Organic food is, in most cases, a by-product of agro-industry. Again, we have to bring to front social justice. A giant market of private certifications is stamping, via their own criteria, food products as being organic. That certification in itself brings added value to food and it definitely certifies it as healthier. But hey!, who’s got access to health and health services in this world? The rich. Upper classes and financially well off elites gained access to healthier food whilst disempowered and utterly disenfranchised people are being macdonaldized. I do believe that Slow Food products, as long as locally produced and consumed – and with a much lower carbon footprint, are plainly less costly even than conventional products.

 

Now, saying that EU funding has destroyed Eastern Europe’s traditional farming is erroneous and rather extreme. What was destroyed starting with communist nationalization was indeed the successful small farmer oriented towards innovation and local consumption. It was exactly what we praise today as environmental approach on farming. Again, it was what Bookchin called ‘average agriculture’. However, the American philosopher is mostly focused on his great country where this transformation was business driven and where society is more elastic and prone to change, whereas in Eastern Europe, a great culture of philosophical naturalism has been corroded. Carlo Petrini’s was exactly in that sense, “come to Slow Food because you are great culture.”