Posts Tagged ‘Food’

>April 22, 2011
A Passover Toast to a Rabbi Known for Social Activism, and for Kosher Coca-Cola

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, of blessed memory, was born in Lithuania in 1870 and educated in the renowned Slobodka yeshiva. In the wake of a pogrom, he immigrated to New York in 1903, and seven years later he moved to Atlanta to become the rabbi of Shearith Israel, a tiny and struggling Orthodox congregation meeting in the battered remnant of a Methodist church.

During his early decades at Shearith Israel, Rabbi Geffen established Atlanta’s first Hebrew school and oversaw its ritual bath. He stood by Leo Frank, the Jewish man falsely accused of murdering a young Christian girl, and after Frank’s lynching in 1915, the rabbi urged his congregants not to flee the South in fear.

At Passover in 1925, he spoke eloquently and presciently against Congress for passing immigration restrictions that “have slammed shut the gates of the country before the wanderers, the strangers, and those who walk in darkness from place to place.” As early as 1933, he warned about the Nazi regime in Germany. Long before feminism, he advocated for Orthodox women who were being denied religious divorce decrees by vindictive husbands.

But all those achievements are not why we invoke the name and memory of Rabbi Geffen today, more than 40 years after his death. No, we come to honor his least likely yet most enduring contribution to the Jewish people and his adopted nation: kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola.

Yes, observant Jews of today, searching supermarket counters for those bottles with the telltale yellow cap bearing the Orthodox Union’s certification, and yes, Coke die-hards of any or no religion who seek out those same bottles for the throwback flavor of cane-sugar Coke, you owe it all to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen.

He of the long beard and wire-rim glasses and Yiddish-inflected English, a man by all outward appearances belonging to the Old World, he was the person who by geographical coincidence and unexpected perspicacity adapted Coca-Cola’s secret formula to make the iconic soft drink kosher in one version for Passover and in another for the rest of the year. To this day, his 1935 rabbinical ruling, known in Hebrew as a teshuva, remains the standard.

That ruling, in turn, did much more than solve a dietary problem. A generation after Frank’s lynching, a decade after Congress barred the Golden Door, amid the early stages of Hitler’s genocide, kosher Coke formed a powerful symbol of American Jewry’s place in the mainstream.

“Rabbi Geffen really got the importance of it,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, who specializes in Jewish life in the South. “You couldn’t live in any better place than the South to get it. To not drink Coca-Cola was certainly to be considered un-American.”

Or look at the interplay of Jews and America from another angle. Rabbi Geffen’s solution to the Coke problem was not to forget the kosher rules and melt into the melting pot. But neither was it to decry the spiritual pollution of modernity in the form of a fizzy drink. A half-century before the era of cultural pluralism, his answer was to have the majority address the distinct needs of a minority.

As a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Adam Mintz, has written in an essay on Geffen and Coke: “Struggling to find their place in a land that was often hostile to their religion, American Jews respected and appreciated rabbis who sought to include them within the Orthodox camp rather than simply condemn them as sinners. Of course his approach would not have been possible had he not felt confident in his powers of persuasion.”

We can safely say, however, that this issue chose Rabbi Geffen rather than the other way around. As early as 1925, as the Orthodox authority in Coke’s home city, he was receiving inquiries from other rabbis about the drink’s kosher status. A few other rabbis had already given certification, without knowing the secret formula. And multitudes of American Jews were drinking Coke regardless.

“Because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink,” Rabbi Geffen wrote in his teshuva, “I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage. With the help of God, I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution.”

Putting aside God’s props for a moment, we should note that Rabbi Geffen had some significant earthly help in the person of Harold Hirsch, a Jewish Atlantan who was Coca-Cola’s corporate lawyer. Through Hirsch, Rabbi Geffen was permitted to enter that industry’s Holy of Holies and receive Coke’s secret formula.

With it, the rabbi was able to identify the elements that rendered Coke nonkosher during the bulk of the year (oil of glycerine derived from beef tallow) and specifically during Passover (a corn derivative). Hiding the exact ingredients behind Hebrew euphemisms in his teshuva, Rabbi Geffen explained the needed corrections. Glycerine could be replaced by coconut or cottonseed oils, and the corn derivative by cane or beet sugars.

Kosher-for-Passover Coke is now produced under rabbinic supervision at bottling plants serving Jewish population centers in New York, Florida, Southern California and Houston, among other areas. A number of other major brands have followed Coke into the Passover market: Dannon, Lipton, Pepsi and Tropicana. There are tequila and blintzes made without forbidden grains.

“It used to be that for Pesach you were limited to matza and hard-boiled eggs,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher-certification program. “Now, I’ve got to tell you, I love those cheese blintzes.”

And, whether devout or debauched, Coke fans anticipate Passover for their own cultish reason: the usual sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, is replaced by cane or beet sugar.

Moshe Feder, an editor of science-fiction and fantasy books, traveled to six supermarkets from his home in Queens before finding four two-liter bottles of Passover Coke. The subject of his quest happened to come up at a seder the other night. The host, a Jewish man, had never heard about the difference between Coke and Passover Coke. But two Roman Catholic guests, Mr. Feder reported, “knew all about it.”

Rabbi Geffen, of blessed memory, who’d have guessed you were so ecumenical?

A Passover Toast to a Kosher Innovator — On Religion –


>The Criollo Cocoa bean from Chuao is the best!!

Venezuelan village claims best cocoa

By Lissy De Abreu (AFP) – 3 days ago

CHUAO, Venezuela — As the sun beats down to dry cherished criollo beans in the main square in Chuao, residents of the village in mountainous northern Venezuela simply say: behold the world’s best cocoa.

Of course, people in other countries, with chocolate on their happy faces, may beg to differ.

‘If you are born in Chuao, your life is tied up with cacao,’ Alcides Herrera told AFP, referring to the cacao tree which yields the cocoa bean from which chocolate is made.

Since 1976, Herrera’s company, Empresa Campesina Chuao, has produced Venezuela’s only cocoa beans with a coveted appellation certifying their origin.

‘As a kid, for example, when I was passing through the square, and you could feel a rainstorm closing in, you would stop to help gather up the beans,’ Herrera continued.

‘Ours are the world’s best cocoa beans. That has been certified, and experts from many countries agree,’ he said. ‘We process by hand with techniques that have been passed down for 400 years.’

More than 80 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from the forastero cacao tree and less than one fifth from Chuao’s criollo.

Many experts believe the criollo around here has a singular, tastier bean and they are top-of-the-list ingredients for many of the world’s top chocolate-makers.

Beans from Chuao total about 18-20 tons a year; it’s a tiny figure compared to the 20,000 tons Venezuela produces each year.

Recently, looking to boost output if possible, the government deemed cocoa beans a strategic crop. Now 35 percent of the annual take goes to a German firm; 35 percent goes to a new state Venezuelan Cocoa Bean Company; and the remaining 30 percent to local producers.

‘We have our eyes on the sky to see if any clouds pop up,’ explained Maryoli Chavez, 32, one of more than 1,200 workers at the cooperative.

‘I like to work on the farm. We all do a bit of everything and make the same money. Some weeks I am on drying duty, other times I am out picking pods or breaking out the seeds.’

On this afternoon, three of Maryoli’s kids were playing at her feet.

The cocoa industry has traditionally been women’s work in Venezuela. Men tend to work in construction or the coastal region’s fishing industry.

On cutting duty, the women wield machetes with skill, lopping off the violet or yellow pods in seconds; a few men trailing behind pick up and transport the pods for processing.

The area is just 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Caracas, but feels a world away as one has to travel in by sea as the town is wedged between a mountain and the Caribbean coast.

Edis Liendo, a local star among cocoa bean processors, hes been at it most of her life and is now 60.

‘I think the cocoa bean is something from the heavens. It was what the gods used to prepare as a special drink,’ Liendo says, hawking candies, liquor and desserts at the door of her home.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

AFP: Venezuelan village claims best cocoa

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Venezuela in London: Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino, Crystal Palace

Between the pubs and print shops of Westow Street in Crystal Palace is a fantastic little restaurant serving authentic Venezuelan cuisine. Mi cocina es tuya (My kitchen is yours) bills itself as London’s only Venezuelan restaurant – perfect for our World in London series.. If you know better, let us know in the comments below!
I went to meet husband-and-wife team Alexis and Mary yesterday to sample their coffee, and find out about their unique eatery. What started as an events catering business with a stall in Camden Market now has a more stable base in this Crystal Palace restaurant. During the past three years, Alexis and Mary have served their traditional Venezuelan cuisine all over London, from the Carnaval del Pueblo to the Venezuelan Embassy. For the last seven months, they’ve been concentrating on developing Mi cocina es tuya.
The menu offers delicious-sounding empanadas (patties), asado criollo (grilled beef and rice) and arepas (corn bread with beef, chicken or cheese). The most popular dish, Alexis tells me, is the Pabellón de carne: beef, black beans, rice and fried plantains.

“At first, finding the right ingredients was difficult. For example, this hallaca is a traditional Christmas dish, but it’s wrapped in banana leaves.” He shows me an intricately bound parcel of dark green leaves. “But, you can’t just buy banana leaves in Asda! Now, we’ve found out about the right vendors in Brixton, at the market, and we can make hallaca. Similarly, you can’t get the chilli beef for Pabellon de carne in a normal supermarket. Now, we go to a Columbian butcher in Brixton. It tastes just as good as the meat in Venezuela.”

As well as the traditional food, Mary and Alexis are proud to show me their Venezuelan drinks. Mi cocina es tuya is one of the few places in London you can enjoy typical Latin drinks like Malta, Sugarcane with lemon, and Cocada, which, I’m told, is like coconut milkshake, but much nicer.

“People are often surprised that our food is like food from Trinidad and Tobago, or Caribbean food. But really, we’re from the same part of the world. Chilean, Peruvian, Columbian, all Latin American people that come here will see and recognise the products we sell.”

Indeed, as well as being a lovely place for a traditional Venezuelan breakfast of Perico (scrambled eggs with chopped tomatoes, onions and coriander, black beans, cheese and arepa, or corn bread – much healthier, I’m assured than the Traditional English they also serve), Mi cocina es tuya is also something of a Latin American deli. You can by the white or yellow “PAN” cornflour, as well as Malta drinks and other typical delicacies.
With guitars and maracas hanging from the walls, as well as plenty of gorgeous pictures of Venezuela itself, I think Mi cocina es tuya is a fantastic representation of Venezuelan London. And the wonderful hospitality of Alexis and Mary means I’ll be back for more. That, and the promise of trying some Dulce de tres leche next time!

Visit Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino at 61 Westow Street Crystal Palace, London, SE19 3RW. If you know any other examples of Venezuelan culture in London, let us know in the comments below.

Venezuela in London: Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino, Crystal Palace – Visit London Blog

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>Asado Negro in the NY Times!!!

The Cheat: Dark Arts

This week’s recipe is a raggedy Christmas number out of Venezuela called asado negro. It requires a fat roast of beef that is simmered for a long time in dark caramel, its sweetness tempered by vinegar. The result is sticky and unctuous beneath a cloak of peppers, onions and leeks. It looks mysterious and bold on the plate and at the start of a New York winter can conjure some degree of Latin American humidity and joy.
Asado negro has its primary home in Caracas, where it is often served during the holidays, alongside fried sweet plantains and white rice, with perhaps a tart green salad for contrast. The meat is napped in blackness that comes not from fire or smoke but from the absorption of all colors into one, a color as deep as space itself.
It is beef the color of a velvet dinner jacket seen across a dark lawn at midnight. It makes mockery of pot roast. And, as we shall see, it is exceedingly simple to make.
Hold on: blackened beef? I first had the dish at a restaurant called Mohedano, a flash place in Chacao, the relatively prosperous part of Caracas that is a stronghold of opposition to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. The neighborhood supports restaurants and shopping centers and has plenty of gated parking lots guarded by men with guns. It recalls Miami crossed with the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a few blocks of London and Mexico City thrown in for good measure.
Mohedano’s chef, Edgar Leal, runs the restaurant with his wife, Mariana Montero de Castro, with whom he has also had a restaurant in the United States. They served asado negro as part of a tasting menu designed to highlight the traditional flavors of cosmopolitan Venezuela.
Leal is an irrepressible figure in his restaurant, a ham who cooks with grace and precision, a character out of Stoppard, the gourmand existing within the privation of a repressive state. “It looks burned,” he said of his asado negro, laughing as he often does, as he placed the plate on a table. “But you see what you think.” Then he put on a stage whisper: “It’s not burned at all!”
The beef was cut thin, against the grain, and it glistened with moisture. The sauce cloaking it was dark and deep in flavor — with a strong, nutty sweetness, yes, but a bracing sort, far from cloying and leading only to the desire for more.
Leal cooks his asado negro with papelón, the solid block of unrefined cane sugar that is known by various names across Latin America (boiled sugar-cane pulp, essentially, formed into small blocks that can be broken into shards or grated into drinks or sauce). Papelón makes for excellent asado negro, and if you can find some at your local market — where you’ll most likely discover it listed as panela or piloncillo — go ahead and use it for your own.
But you can also cheat, which, as Chávez might say, is the way of our nation. Norman Van Aken, the Miami chef and restaurateur who has done much to bring the flavors of the Caribbean and South America to the United States, and who included a recipe for asado negro in his excellent 2003 cookbook, “New World Kitchen,” said in a telephone interview that the home cook could replicate some of the complexity of papelón by making a dark caramel out of plain white sugar and water, then adding a few teaspoons of brown sugar at the end.
“Asado negro is not a dish that’s centuries old,” Van Aken said. “As near as we could figure it in our research for the book, it goes back to the 1960s or ’70s. You can definitely mess around with it a little and make it your own.”
And so we begin with caramel, a chemistry-class lesson for the home. Sugar is dissolved in water and heated until the water evaporates and the sugar molecules break down, turning heavy and dark. Add to this sticky pool some vinegar and dry red wine, which impart savory, acidic notes to what will amount to a braising liquid, as well as some brown sugar for rustic depth. Pour the liquids carefully, for the caramel will spatter and hiss. Then allow the sauce to become whole again, stirring occasionally.
Now we sear the beef, creating a crust on the bottom of the pan that will add heft to our meal, a beefy intensity to counter the sugars and acids. Removing the meat from the pot for a moment, we sauté a great deal of garlic and onion, celery and leeks, then combine these with the seared beef and the caramel sauce under a swirl of sliced bell peppers, and push the covered whole into the oven for a few hours. Some crazy magic happens in there.
Plain white rice dressed only with a pat of butter is the best starch with which to pair this meal. You might try to locate some ripe plantains as well, to slice into coins and fry gently in oil until they turn the same golden brown as the caramel you started with. (In a pinch, you can use bananas, though they are a great deal more fragile and sweet than a ripe plantain, and require close attention in the pan, lest they turn to mush.)
Leal adds a rustic Venezuelan salad to the plate, with fresh hearts of palm, avocado and diced tomato. You might do the same, but at this time of the year, you would most likely disappoint yourself: December tomatoes in the United States are generally a grim affair, to say nothing of our canned hearts of palm and rock-hard avocados. Better to find some hothouse lettuces — Van Aken suggests something peppery in the area of watercress or arugula — and to dress these in a lime vinaigrette.
There’s a new Paul Simon song out, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” It’s all strummy guitar and thumping Delta blues, Simon’s muted trumpet of a voice singing about money and war, the pain of family and the release that comes to all of us somehow, religious or not, on Christmas Day. This would make a fine final accompaniment to the dinner itself, along with some dark beer or a strong zinfandel, slightly chilled.

The Dark Art of Beef –

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>Incredible!!! as if they had nothing more important to do!!!! – And anyways, if bake sales are the most popular way to raise money, it must be that it is the only one that works!!!  Fools!!

Hold the brownies! Bill could limit bake sales

WASHINGTON – Don’t touch my brownies! A child nutrition bill on its way to President Barack Obama — and championed by the first lady — gives the government power to limit school bake sales and other fundraisers that health advocates say sometimes replace wholesome meals in the lunchroom.
Republicans, notably Sarah Palin, and public school organizations decry the bill as an unnecessary intrusion on a common practice often used to raise money.
“This could be a real train wreck for school districts,” Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said Friday, a day after the House cleared the bill. “The federal government should not be in the business of regulating this kind of activity at the local level.”
The legislation, part of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to stem childhood obesity, provides more meals at school for needy kids, including dinner, and directs the Agriculture Department to write guidelines to make those meals healthier. The legislation would apply to all foods sold in schools during regular class hours, including in the cafeteria line, vending machines and at fundraisers.
It wouldn’t apply to after-hours events or concession stands at sports events.
Public health groups pushed for the language on fundraisers, which encourages the secretary of Agriculture to allow them only if they are infrequent. The language is broad enough that a president’s administration could even ban bake sales, but Secretary Tom Vilsack signaled in a letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., this week that he does not intend to do that. The USDA has a year to write rules that decide how frequent is infrequent.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the bill is aimed at curbing daily or weekly bake sales or pizza fundraisers that become a regular part of kids’ lunchtime routines. She says selling junk food can easily be substituted with nonfood fundraisers.
“These fundraisers are happening all the time,” Wootan said. “It’s a pizza sale one day, doughnuts the next… It’s endless. This is really about supporting parental choice. Most parents don’t want their kids to use their lunch money to buy junk food. They expect they’ll use their lunch money to buy a balanced school meal.”
Not all see it that way.
Palin mocked the efforts last month by bringing a plate of cookies to a school speech in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said the federal government “has really gone too far” when it is deciding when to hold bake sales.
Some parents say they are perplexed by what the new rules might allow.
In Seminole, Fla., the Seminole High Warhawks Marching Band’s booster club held a bake sale to help send the band’s 173 members to this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. One of the bake sale’s specialties: New York-style cheesecake, an homage to the destination they’d pursued for 10 years.
“Limiting bake sales is so narrow-minded,” said Laura Shortway, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, is a drummer in the band. “Having bake sales keeps these fundraisers community based, which is very appealing to the person making the purchase.”
Several school districts and state education departments already have policies suggesting or enforcing limits on bake sales, both for nutritional reasons and to keep the events from competing for dollars against school cafeterias. In Connecticut, for instance, about 70 percent of the state’s school districts have signed on to the state education department’s voluntary guidelines encouraging healthy foods in place of high-sugar, high-fat options.
Under those rules, bake sales cannot be held on school grounds unless the items meet nutrition standards that specifically limit portion sizes, fat content, sodium and sugars. That two-ounce, low-fat granola bar? Probably OK, depending what’s in it. But grandma’s homemade oversized brownie with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips inside? Probably not.
One loophole in Connecticut: The nutritional standards apply if the food is being sold at a bake sale, but not if it’s being given away free, such as by a parent for a child’s birthday.
“If a mom wants to send in cupcakes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, that would not be subject to the state guidelines,” said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state’s education department.
In New York City, a rule enacted in 2009 allows bake sales only once a month, and they must comply with nutritional standards and be part of a parent group fundraiser.
Wootan says she hopes the rules will prompt schools to try different options for fundraising.
“Schools are so used to doing the same fundraisers every year that they need a strong nudge to do something new,” she says. “The most important rebuttal to all of these arguments is that schools can make money other ways — you don’t have to harm kids health.”
Associated Press writer Stephanie Reitz contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.

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Alla Vecchia Bettola
34r Via Luigi Ariosto Phone ++-39-055-22.41.58

If you’re in Florence, don’t miss Alla Vecchia Bettola: eat the penne bettola and the Florentine steak- you will not regret it!

Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia

August 10, 2010 | 0856 GMT

By Lauren Goodrich

Three interlocking crises are striking Russia simultaneously: the highest recorded temperatures Russia has seen in 130 years of recordkeeping; the most widespread drought in more than three decades; and massive wildfires that have stretched across seven regions, including Moscow.
The crises threaten the wheat harvest in Russia, which is one of the world’s largest wheat exporters. Russia is no stranger to having drought affect its wheat crop, a commodity of critical importance to Moscow’s domestic tranquility and foreign policy. Despite the severity of the heat, drought and wildfires, Moscow’s wheat output will cover Russia’s domestic needs. Russia will also use the situation to merge its neighbors into a grain cartel.

A History of Drought and Wildfire

Flooding peat bogs appears to be bringing the fires under control. Smoke from the fires has kept Moscow nearly shut down for a week. The larger concern is the effect of the fires — and the continued heat and drought, which has created a state of emergency across 27 regions — on Russia’s ordinarily massive grain harvest and exports.
Russia is one of the largest grain producers and exporters in the world, normally producing around 100 million tons of wheat a year, or 10 percent of total global output. It exports 20 percent of this total to markets in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Cyclical droughts (and wildfires) mean Russian grain production levels fluctuate between 75 and 100 million tons from year to year. The extent of the drought and wildfires this year has prompted Russian officials to revise the country’s 2010 estimated grain production to 65 million tons, though Russia holds 24 million tons of wheat in storage — meaning it has enough to comfortably cover domestic demand (which is 75 million tons) even if the drought gets worse.
The larger challenge Moscow has faced in years of drought and wildfire has been transporting grain across Russia’s immense territory. Russia’s grain belt lies in the southern European part of the country from the Black Sea across the Northern Caucasus to Western Kazakhstan, capped on the north by the Moscow region. This is Russia’s most fertile region, which is supported by the Volga River.

Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia
(click here to enlarge image)

Though drought and wildfires have struck Russia over the past three years, they have not affected its main grain-producing region. Instead, they struck regions in the Ural area that provide grain for Siberia. Those fires tested Russia’s transit infrastructure, one of its fundamental challenges. Russia has no real transportation network uniting its European heartland and its Far East save one railroad, the Trans-Siberian. While its grain belt does have some of the best transportation infrastructure in the country, it is designed for sending grain to the Black Sea or Europe — not to Siberia. The Kremlin began planning for disruptions of grain shipments to Siberia during the droughts and fires of 2007-2009. During that period, Moscow established massive grain storage units in the Urals and in producing regions of Kazakhstan along the Russian border.
This year’s drought and fires do not primarily affect Russia’s transportation network, but rather the grain-producing regions in the European part of Russia that make up the bulk of Russia’s grain exports. These regions lie on the westward distribution network, with the port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea handling more than 50 percent of Russian exports.
Russia has focused largely on being a major grain exporter, raking in more than $4 billion a year for the past three years off the trade. This year, the Kremlin announced Aug. 5 that it would temporarily ban grain exports from Aug. 15 to Dec 31. Two reasons prompted the move. The first is the desire to prevent domestic grain prices from skyrocketing due to feared shortages. Russia’s grain market is remarkably volatile. Grain prices inside Russia already have risen nearly 10 percent. (Globally, wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen nearly 20 percent in the past month, the largest jump since the early 1970s.)
The second reason is that the Kremlin wants to ensure that its supplies and production will hold up should the winter wheat harvest decline as well. Winter wheat, planted beginning at the end of August, typically fully replenishes Russian grain supplies. Further unseasonable heat, drought or fires could damage the winter wheat harvest, meaning the Kremlin will want to curtail exports to ensure its storage silos remain full.
Russia’s conservatism when it comes to ensuring supplies and price stability arises from the reality that adequate grain supplies long have been equated with social stability in Russia. Unlike other commodities, food shortages trigger social and political instability with shocking rapidity in all countries. As do some other countries, Russia relies on grain more than any other foodstuff; other food categories like meat, dairy and vegetables are too perishable for most of Russia to rely on.
Russia’s concentration on food volatility has a long history. Lenin called grain Russia’s “currency of currencies,” and seizing grain stockpiles was one of the Red Army’s first moves during the Russian Revolution. In this tradition, the Kremlin will husband its grain before exporting it for monetary gain. And this falls in line with Russia’s overall economic strategy of using its resources as a tool in domestic and foreign policy.

Exports and Foreign Policy

Russia is a massive producer and exporter of myriad commodities besides grain. It is the largest natural gas producer in the world and one of the largest oil and timber producers. The Russian government and domestic economy are based on the production and export of all these commodities, making Kremlin control — either direct or indirect — of all of these sectors essential to national security.
Domestically, Russians enjoy access to the necessities of life. Kremlin ownership over the majority of the country’s economy and resources gives the government leverage in controlling the country on every level — socially, politically, economically and financially. Thus, a grain crisis is more than just about feeding the people; it strikes at part of Russia’s overall domestic economic security.
Russia’s use of its resources as a tool is also a major part of Kremlin foreign policy. Its massive natural resource wealth and subsequent relative self-sufficiency allows it to project power effectively into the countries around it. Energy has been the main tool in this tactic. Moscow very publicly has used energy supplies as a political weapon, either by raising prices or by cutting supplies. It is also willing to use non-energy trade policy to effect foreign policy ends, and grain exports fall very easily into Moscow’s box of economic tools.
Russia is using the current grain crisis as a foreign policy tool even beyond its own exports, prices and supplies. It has asked both Kazakhstan and Belarus to also temporarily suspend their grain exports. Belarus is a minor grain exporter, with nearly all of its exports going to Russia. But Kazakhstan is one of the top five wheat exporters in the world, traditionally producing 21 million tons of wheat and exporting more than 50 percent of that. The same drought that has struck Russia also has hit Kazakhstan; production there is expected to be slashed by a third, or 7 million tons.
Kazakhstan traditionally exports to southern Siberia, Turkey, Iran and its fellow Central Asian states: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. For the first time, Kazakhstan had planned to send grain exports to Asia. It had contracted to send approximately 3 million tons of grain east, with 2 million of those supplies heading to South Korea and the remainder to be split between China and Japan. The drought has forced Kazakhstan to reassess whether it can fulfill those contracts along with contracts for its immediate region.
Russia’s request that Belarus and Kazakhstan cease grain shipments does not seem primarily connected to Russia’s concern over supplies, but instead looks to be more political. The three countries formed a customs union in January, something that has caused much political and economic turmoil. Kazakhstan sought to lock in its president’s desire to remain beholden to Russia even after he steps down, while Belarus reluctantly joined as Russia already controlled more than half of the Belarusian economy.
For Moscow, however, the union was a key piece of its geopolitical resurgence. The Russian-Kazakh-Belarusian customs union was not set up like a Western free trade zone, where the goal is to encourage two-way trade by reducing trade barriers, but as a Russian plan to expand Moscow’s economic hold over Belarus and Kazakhstan. Thus far, the customs union has undermined Belarus and Kazakhstan’s industrial capacity, welding the two states further into the Russian economy.
Since the customs union has been in effect, Russia has quickly turned the club into a political tool, demanding that its fellow members sign onto politically motivated economic targeting of other states. In late July, Russia asked both Kazakhstan and Belarus to join a ban on wine and mineral water from Moldova and Georgia after continued spats with each of the pro-Western countries. Russia has added another level of demands in light of the grain shortages. As of this writing, neither Astana nor Minsk has accepted or declined the demands from Moscow, with grain exporting season just a month away.
Given current Russian production and storage supplies, Russia doesn’t actually need Belarus or Kazakhstan to curb their exports. Instead, it is seeking to use the drought and fires to create a regional grain cartel with its new customs union partners.
And this leads to the question of the other former Soviet grain heavyweight, Ukraine. Ukraine, which does not belong to the customs union, is the world’s third-largest wheat exporter. In 2009, Ukraine exported 21 million tons of its 46 million-ton production. Also hit by the drought, Ukraine revised its projected production and exports for 2010 down 20 percent, with exports down to 16 million tons. Some fear Ukraine will have to slash its export forecasts even further. Moscow will most likely want to control what its large grain-exporting neighbor does, should it be concerned with supplies or prices. Despite Russia’s recent actions with regard to Belarus and Kazakhstan, however, Ukraine has not publicly announced any bans on grain exports.
If Russia is going to exert its political power over the region via grain, it must have Ukraine on board. If Russia can control all of these states’ wheat exports, then Moscow will control 15 percent of global production and 16 percent of global exports. Kiev has recently turned its political orientation to lock step with Moscow, as seen in matters of politics, military and regional spats. But this most recent crisis hits at a major national economic piece for Ukraine. Whether Kiev bends its own national will to continue its further entwinement with Moscow remains to be seen.

Read more: Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia | STRATFOR

Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia | STRATFOR

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