Food Fight! (Let the Tomatoes Fly?)

Street Market in Moscow
A street vendor in Moscow displays fruits and vegetables grown in Turkey. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

Which has more firepower: an air-to-air missile or a Roma tomato? One can down an aircraft, but the other can cripple a food industry.

When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he felt “stabbed in the back.” There would be consequences, he promised, for the attack that ultimately killed two of his servicemen. Early reports made it sound like Russia would impose a ban on food imports from Turkey. One government advisor, Gennadiy Onishchenko, even called for a tomato boycott, all but equating Turkish tomatoes sold in Russian grocery stores to blood diamonds.

However, President Putin’s decree does not specify a food embargo. The package includes: revoking visa-free travel for Turkish citizens; limits on Turkish companies doing business in Russia; a boycott of the Turkish tourism industry; “tightening” the enforcement of imports from Turkey; and limiting “certain” products imported from Turkey. While the latter is a catchall category under which Russia could embargo Turkish food, the decree stops short of actually implementing the tomato boycott.

Why? Maybe because Russia knows a tomato is too volatile of a weapon to use in retaliation. The blowback could do as much harm to Russia’s food industry, perhaps more, as it would Turkey’s.

In the geopolitical playbook, a food sanction is a move that can only be used so many times in a game before it works against you. Russia already has one food sanction in play, the Western Food Ban, a response to sanctions put on it by Europe and the United States for its actions in the Ukraine. That play is still developing, with the outcome uncertain. In the meantime, Russia can’t afford to set another one in —> Read More