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Russians buy up buckwheat amid rumors of poor harvest

November 20, 2014, 16:44 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
© Alexander Ryumin/TASS

MOSCOW, November 20. /TASS/. Panic demand for buckwheat, triggered by rumors of this year’s poor harvest, has caused a surge in the prices of this food extremely popular in Russia. The current situation is nothing out of the ordinary by and large. Such things did happen on several occasions in the past. But this time experts have noticed Russians are buying up foods in far greater amounts than they may actually need today or tomorrow to fill up the closets of their city flats and the shelves in the basements of family homes in the countryside with food reserves for the rainy day — precisely the way today’s senior citizens did in their younger years during Soviet era shortages. The underlying reasons vary from the ruble’s slump to vague economic prospects.

Since the beginning of November, buckwheat prices have surged by 27.5% on the average. The rumors of a poor harvest that emerged in late October sparked panic buying of this grain, particularly popular with those in the low income brackets. The prices surged up by 50%-80% virtually in no time. Market participants suspect that providers may have decided to hold back buckwheat supplies on purpose in order to create an artificial shortage and cause retailers to change price tags. The Agriculture Ministry is certain that this year’s harvest is enough for both domestic consumption and for export.

Buckwheat is a grain Russians have traditionally used to make porridge. They borrowed the custom of growing this crop from Greek monks. Hence the name of the grain in Russian: grechka. For a westerner, it is hard to explain buckwheat’s place and role in Russians’ diet. Roughly speaking, it's like pasta for a working-class Italian family. It is in great demand by virtue of its low price and extremely valuable consumer properties: it is rich in protein and takes much time to digest, so the feeling of satiety lasts longer, and it can be kept in store for a long time without any loss of quality. Buckwheat is an essential strategic product for the state as a mandatory component of the strategic food reserves.

This time the government is prepared to take resolute measures to stabilize prices, for instance, to tap the state reserves, development director at the Association of Producers and Providers of Foods (Rusprodsoyuz), Dmitry Vostryakov, said.

Salt is another item that Russians have been buying in large amounts this year. The demand jumped when supplies of this product from Ukraine stopped to cause shortages in Russia.

Experts believe that the food embargo Russia has imposed on certain food imports from Western countries caused brief disruptions in the availability of some foods in several regions. However, the supply remained behind demand only for a very short time. New providers filled the niche before long, but rumors had already caused a negative effect by then and Russians started buying up salt with renewed energy.

The buckwheat affair is an indicator of public sentiment and a reaction to the latest fall of the ruble and to inflation. “Demand for this grain soars with the slightest signs of a looming economic crisis or the end of the world,” says the daily Vedomosti.

“The ruble is falling. People have been trying to store up durable foods,” the editor-in chief of The New Times magazine, Yevgeniya Albats, said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “We are a country that has lived through many periods of famine. Naturally, the people’s instant reaction to any alarming news is to buy up buckwheat.”

Building up home food storage and doing gardening in the countryside have been the basics of many Russians’ survival strategy since the 20th century. According to the public opinion studies fund FOM, 43% of respondents make such purchases. Nineteen percent buy cereals, 18%, sugar and 9%, potatoes.

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