food / travel

Why Vladimir Putin Suddenly Has Mushrooms On His Mind

One effect of Russia's embargo on Western food products is the disappearance of imported Polish mushrooms. Microcosm of economic warfare around a Russian culinary tradition.

The central market in Kostroma
The central market in Kostroma
Nina Vazhdaeva

MOSCOW — There were two scandals related to imported mushrooms brewing at the end of August.

First, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that mushrooms from Poland (which is on the list of Western countries not allowed to export food to Russia) were in fact making their way to Russian grocery shelves.

"It says, ‘country of origin: Belarus.’ But if you take off the sticker, it says Poland," the president declared.

He offered as proof a photograph of a box of Belarus mushrooms, whose sticker covered a label stating the mushrooms were from Poland. But after an investigation, the reputation of the Belarus exporter was untarnished: Apparently, they used recycled packaging that had once held Polish mushrooms. Belarus can buy — and eat — as many Polish mushrooms as they want.

At the same time, a truck with 17.2 tons of fresh mushrooms was stopped at the border with Belarus. The driver, an employee of a Russian company, gave the customs agent documents saying that the mushrooms came from Macedonia. During the verification process, the documents proved to be false, and the mushrooms were Polish.

It came as little surprise. That's because, before the food embargo, Polish mushrooms represented a huge percentage of the Russian market. "In total, imports account for more than 90 percent of consumption," says Aleksandr Khrenov, general director of a mushroom-production company.

Given this market situation, and Russia's famous love affair with mushrooms, it's clear that forbidden produce were going to slip into Russian stores no matter what.

"We're already seeing these strange mushrooms from Macedonia," Khrenov says. "But we know that there isn't serious mushroom production there. Ukrainian mushrooms have been coming into the Russian south, and there are talks of mushroom imports from Georgia and Armenia. There is some production in Serbia. Maybe that's where the deliveries are from."

For many companies, though, champignons, often called "button mushrooms," have simply disappeared. "We tried to order frozen champignons from China," says Artem Nikolaev, general director of a mushroom-import company. "But the Chinese mushrooms were more expensive and lower quality than the Polish mushrooms."

For consumers, this means that cultivated mushrooms have gotten more expensive, by 30%, on average. Nikolaev says that the prices will continue to rise, because Chinese producers know the Russians have no other place to turn, so that they can set their own price. In addition, Russian importers have also lost advantageous financial conditions.

"The Poles let us pay 30 to 120 days after delivery," Nikolaev says. "We could basically get inventory for free. We just paid for the transport and the customs."

Nikolaev says that two years of an embargo would be enough for the domestic producers to catch up. "Now is a good time to develop domestic mushroom cultivation," says Pavel Afonin, general director of Mozhaiskii Champignon, a domestic champignon producer. "It's about the costs. Right now, we have costs of $2 to $3 per kilogram, the Poles have costs of around $1.50 to $2." The price increases since the start of the sanctions have made it easier for his company to compete.

Competing fungi

The dark blue hangar is a long, seemingly endless corridor. There are massive iron doors on the walls. Behind each one is a champignon cultivation chamber. Mozhaiskii Champignon has 12 chambers, covering a total of 2,700 square meters. In front of me, one of the doors opens, and the place is filled with the smell of fresh mushrooms.

Each chamber is a long, square room. There is an enormous rack, where compost briquettes laced with mycelium are stacked one over the other. In one room, the champignons have just started to grow, in another they are already being harvested. There is strict climate control, and the walls and ceilings are hung with numerous sensors and tubes.

Kostroma market (Photo - Michael Clarke)

It's a high-tech system that can be controlled by smartphone. Irina Tsareva, the main technician, recently corrected the temperature in the chambers while on a business trip in Italy. Without this control, the harvest could die in hours.

Imported compost

The main problem for Russia's producers is the raw materials. Mozhaiskii Champignon buys compost in Belarus, and sometimes in Holland and Poland, whereas the Poles use their own compost. "More than 50% of our costs are on compost, whereas the Poles only spend 25% to 30%," Afonin says. "We need to create our own, but it's only worth it if we can increase production. We have to produce at least 500 tons of compost per month for a compost factory to be worth it, and we only need 120 per month now."

The new champignon niche that the food embargo has attracted investors. One holding company has announced it will be building a massive champignon factory in Kaliningrad, and it plans to produce 2,500 tons of mushrooms per year. If it is indeed built, it would be among the largest in Russia. There are only 22 companies, with an overall production of at least 500 tons per year, and only three with annual production exceeding 1,000 tons.

The Russian mushroom market is unique in that cultivated mushrooms were rather exotic in Russia until recently. But Russia is a mushroom-loving country, and it consumes two million tons of wild mushrooms annually, most of which are collected in the forest by the consumers themselves. But those wild mushrooms are rarely sold fresh, and are only available seasonally, Krenov says.

Even though companies that sell wild mushrooms are also ramping up production, it's a totally different market. If Russia can't find a way to source or produce mushrooms, it might have to do without this fresh produce year-round.

It's hardly war or famine, but the effects of retaliatory economic sanctions between Russia and the West are spreading every day.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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