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Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Collective Action During the War in Ukraine

September 29, 2023

This article first appeared on the ARC2020 website. ARC2020 is a platform for agri-food and rural actors working towards better food, farming, and rural policies for Europe.

The dramatic situation that the Ukranian people have been experiencing since February 2022 is well known. In the news, we constantly hear and read about military operations, tanks, artillery, Zelensky, Putin, Biden, NATO. Familiar too is how important Ukraine is for food production globally and how global food chains have been severely disrupted by the armed conflict. Less well reported is how agricultural production and farmers’ livelihoods have resisted and adapted since February 2022. This is a very important and timely interview related to power, food sovereignty, solidarity, and land. And for the latter, there are many considerations, from consolidation and access, to land grabbing and the future. Transcript of an interview with Natalia Mamonova. (some words in the live version may vary).

Natalia Mamonova is ‘a rural (political) sociologist with over 10 years of research experience in rural politics, agrarian transformation, social movements, food sovereignty, and right-wing populism in post-socialist Europe. Natalia is Senior Researcher at RURALIS, the Institute for Rural and Regional Research in Trondheim, Norway.  Her current research is mainly focused on the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Ukrainian and global food systems. Along with other colleagues, she is involved in a project called: “Food security, food sovereignty, and collective action during the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian and global perspectives” (2023-2026).’

Listen:  on the political ecology website or below on spotify.

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Natalia:  I am not a war-studies specialist, but I had to engage with war theories and studies of extreme instability in order to conduct a decent analysis of what is happening in Ukraine. This is a completely new thing for me.

Moreover, it was not an easy decision to study the war. One thing is to write about war destruction and human suffering in a country that you have no personal attachment…. Another thing… I was born in Ukraine and spent my childhood there. I must say that it’s exceptionally painful to see pictures of a destroyed playground where you used to play as a child, or a ruined grocery store where you bought milk with your grandma. And, of course, I hear from my cousin about people who are injured or died… It turns your world upside down, even if you haven’t lived there for many years.

So, at the beginning of the war, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t write anything. I protested in front of the Russian embassy in Stockholm, but I knew it was useless. Then the editor of the Journal of Peasant Studies contacted me and asked if I could write something about the war in Ukraine. I said yes. It was the right decision. I channel my frustration and anger into something constructive and used my knowledge for something meaningful, maybe even useful, I hope. It was also the time when I proposed to my colleague Brian Kuns to write together a research proposal on the war in Ukraine. We invited Professor Olena Borodina from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to our project, and last autumn we received funding from the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development.

Noé: So, your article “Food sovereignty and solidarity initiatives in rural Ukraine during the war” – which was published earlier this year in the Journal of Peasant Studies – is part of this project, right? How did you study these processes? You didn’t travel to Ukraine, did you?

Natalia: No, I did not. I didn’t have the funds then, and my family wouldn’t let me. Before the war, I conducted fieldwork in various parts of Ukraine and kept in touch with many of the people I interviewed. So I contacted them. Farmers, rural activists, agricultural experts and academics, who are in Ukraine right now… They took the time to talk to me (by phone or online) and share their stories. Most of them are from the Kyiv region or from my native town of Zhytomyr.

Noé: What are the main findings of your research?

Natalia: I was looking at how different farm models survive and persist in times of war.

You know, Ukrainian agrarian structure is characterized by the coexistence of two different types of producers: large-scale industrial agribusiness and small-scale family farmers and rural households.

Large agribusiness is mostly represented by agroholdings – vertically and horizontally integrated groups of affiliated agroenterprises that specialize in grain production for export. Agroholdings can be really huge – up to hundreds of thousands of hectares. They use modern technologies (which, you know, are not always environmentally friendly), receive most of the state subsidies for agriculture, and monopolize the entire agri-food value chain. These big businesses are the major pillars of Ukrainian export-oriented agriculture. They control half of all Ukrainian farmland, produce half of the gross domestic agricultural output and generate significant tax revenues for the state budget.

The other half is produced by a very different type of producer – small family farms and rural households. They are largely self-sufficient, and grow potatoes, vegetables, fruits and produce milk and meat for the domestic market. This type of farming is very resilient, and socially, economically and environmentally sustainable, but, unfortunately, is often perceived by policy makers as backward and inefficient.

When the war began, big agribusiness faced huge problems. Even those enterprises, which lands were located outside the areas of active hostilities, were unable to organize their logistics and cultivate their lands. Their supply chains were destroyed. They store pesticides and seeds in one place, cars and tractors in another. They do not hire local labor, but have teams of professional machine operators who travel from one region to another. When the war started, they couldn’t carry on with their business just because they couldn’t handle the logistics.

And, of course, the blockade of the Black Sea ports was a complete disaster for Ukrainian export-oriented agriculture. About 98% of all grain and oil seeds exports were shipped abroad via the Black Sea. The blockade was a nightmare. There were not enough of storage facilities in Ukraine to store such an amount of grain. Fortunately, Solidarity Lane was organized and many other initiatives… But the war demonstrated how fragile and interdependent this neo-liberal export-oriented agriculture is.

In contrast, Ukrainian family farmers and smallholders are less dependent on international trade and external resources. They managed to cultivate their lands and produce food for their country, despite all the hardships and dangers of war.

Noé: Yes, you wrote in your article about remarkable solidarity initiatives that help smallholders to grow their food. Could you elaborate on this?

Natalia: That the war provoked social solidarity is not surprising. According to Durkheim, any situation of extreme instability triggers button-up social actions that were not present in normal settings. People collaborate and work together in order to survive and restore stability. This is a classic theory.

What is interesting in the case of Ukraine is that these cooperation and collective action are very important in recognizing the role of smallholder farming in domestic food security and the emergence of a food sovereignty movement.

I did research on food sovereignty in Ukraine.

You know, food sovereignty is a big thing in the Global South, and it has been gaining popularity in the Global North. It defends the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food and their right to define their own food systems. The global food sovereignty movement unites various food producers and consumers in a collective effort to create a sustainable localized food system, which could be the alternative to the neoliberal agricultural model.

Food sovereignty-like ideas are certainly popular in Ukraine, but they were not accompanied by associated discourses and social mobilization. This limits the emergence of a food sovereignty movement that could defend the rights and interests of smallholders in Ukraine. In my previous study, I looked how the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, followed by the Annexation of Crimea and the confrontation with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, transformed societal discourse about small-scale farming. I argued that the rising pro-European patriotism and the redefinition of national identity in opposition to Russia and the Soviet past, led people talk about personal farming as a sustainable alternative to large-scale agriculture and something that Ukraine should enhance and support on its path to the European Union. However, things did not go beyond discourse, and no collaboration and collective action among smallholders happened back then.

The war sparked a massive wave of solidarity and collective action in rural Ukraine. People saw that when large-scale industrial agriculture was paralyzed, it was the smallholders who produced food to feed the nation. They collaborate and help each other. But solidarity went beyond that. For example, farmers host many internally displaced persons. You know, currently there are more than 6 million displaced persons in the country. Many of them flee the zones of active military operations and large cities, that are often targeted by Russian air force. They come to rural areas, as it is safer there. And they often engage in subsistence farming and help local farmers here and there. Some of my respondents said that the war – despite all its horrible impacts – has revitalized the Ukrainian village and gave boost to small-scale food production.

Noé: Do you think this will lead to the emergence of a food sovereignty movement in Ukraine?

Natalia: Well, the movement actually exists, only it is not called as such. It is called: УКРАЇНСЬКА МЕРЕЖА СІЛЬСЬКОГО РОЗВИТКУ (the Ukrainian Rural Development Network). It is an informal member of La Via Campesina – the international peasant movement – the major advocate for food sovereignty in the world. The Ukrainian movement doesn’t use the concept “food sovereignty” but it promotes it’s ideas. Thus, for example, thanks to its effort, Ukrainian government supported the Declaration on the Peasant Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in 2019. Now they are advocating to prioritize local food systems and family farming in the post-war reconstruction and recovery of Ukraine.

Noé: Why don’t they use “food sovereignty” concept?

Natalia: It is an alien concept for Ukraine. It is better to use the ideas that are already there. And also, what they told me, is not to frighten… Not to frighten authorities, business, and society as well. Food sovereignty is too revolutionary for Ukraine at the moment. There have been too many revolutions and turbulent periods in the last few decades, society does not want one more, even if it is just an agricultural revolution. However, now the movement is getting more vocal as they have valid arguments to push forward the localized food systems.

Noé: As the war is going on, there is also a complex land reform going on. What is the land reform about and how does it intersect with the armed conflict?

Natalia: oh yes, this is a very controversial and widely discussed issue at the moment. Currently, my colleagues and I are working on two articles on this topic. Russia invaded Ukraine in the midst of the land reform, aimed at cancellation of the moratorium on land sales.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine launched a land reform aimed at distributing former collective and state lands to the rural population for private farming. Every former collective worker received a certificate for a land share of an average of 4 hectares. The idea was to create commercial family farms similar to those in western Europe. However, the majority of land recipients did not have resources to set up private farms, and most of them have rented the distributed land back to the reorganized enterprises.

In the early 2000s the Ukrainian fertile farmland became the target for investments by domestic oligarchs and multinational corporations. To prevent land concentration and land grabbing, the Ukrainian government introduced a temporary moratorium on land sales (it was in 2001). However, land grabbing occurred to some extent. Although it is rather land control grabbing, when large agribusiness controls – not owns – the bulk of Ukrainian land. Big business enters into long-term lease agreements with the rural population and pays them rather small payments (often in kind) for the use of their lands.

The moratorium had been repeatedly extended, and this is a very controversial issue. Supporters of lifting the moratorium argued that an open land market would boost the efficiency of agricultural production and increase the transparency of land deals, since much is now happening informally or in shadow schemes. Opponents fear further concentration of land, the disappearance of small-scale farming and the depopulation of rural areas.

Nevertheless, the Zelensky government lifted the moratorium. From 1 July 2021 it is possible to buy and sell land in Ukraine, but only if you are a private person (not a company) and you can buy a maximum of 100 hectares. These rules are valid until 2024. After 2024, companies will be allowed to participate in the land market, and the maximum amount of land in one transaction will be increased to 10,000 hectares. Foreigners cannot own land in Ukraine.

Noé: So, when the war started, the land market was open for just… 6-7 month, right? Did the Ukrainian government put on hold the reform or continue it as planned?

Natalia: In the first few months of the war, the government restricted access to state registers and cadastres, so no transactions were possible. But then the reform continued as planned.

Civil society, farmers’ unions and many academics are calling for a temporary closure of the land market, or at least to postpone the changes that should come into force from 2024. The reasons are:

  • Many people are not currently in their places of residence, they are either internally displaced persons or have become refugees abroad. They cannot participate in land transactions.
  • Most of the current support programs benefit only large agribusinesses. Private farmers do not have the financial means to purchase land at the moment. It is they who will lose in the open land market.
  • Also, one third of Ukraine is currently occupied. How can you pursue a land reform in such a context?

However, supporters of lifting the moratorium – among them such influential actors as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – argue that the land reform should continue as planned, and land sales will stimulate large-scale investment in agriculture and generate financial resources needed for the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine after the war.

The Ukrainian government faces a difficult choice. There is a chance that the entry of companies into the land market will be postponed. The bill – proposing this amendment – was recently submitted to the Verkhovna Rada for consideration. We shall see.

Noé: There is currently much discussion about Ukraine’s post-war recovery and reconstruction plan. The plan was presented a year ago in Lugano, Switzerland. And recently it was discussed again in London. How does this affect rural development in Ukraine?

Natalia: yes, agriculture and rural development are among the key objectives of the plan. There are some good ideas in the plan, well thought out programs, but most of them follow a neo-liberal framework and aim to restore and strengthen export-oriented agriculture.

Meanwhile, if Ukraine wants to join the European Union, it must strengthen the farmer-centric model and focus more on sustainable development and not just production volumes and export revenues.

This is where the Ukrainian Rural Development Network is currently active. Last autumn, they organized several gatherings with the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Small farmers, rural activists and scientists came together to discuss and develop their own proposition for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine, where they suggested concrete measures to help create a fair, healthy and sustainable food system in Ukraine.

They based their propositions on

  • UN Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Land Tenure
  • FAO Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems,
  • Global Action Plan for the UN Decade of Family Farming
  • UN Declaration on the Peasant Rights
  • The European Green Deal: the “Farm to Fork” & “Biodiversity” strategies.

Noé: And what has happened to this proposition?

Natalia: They submitted it to the government and try to influence it in different ways. However, the lobby of large agribusiness is very strong. But you know, Ukrainian civil society is quite vibrant, and the government has to respond to its demands to some extent. I really hope that they will be able to push forward some of their ideas.

Natalia Mamonova

Principal organiser for the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative Europe coordinating team