Ukrainian grain is poisonous and of low quality;
The duty-free import of Ukrainian grain and other food products is the reason for the retention of local production in warehouses and the bankruptcy of local producers;
The grain is mixed with the local production and it’s secretly put into products on the market.
These are false or unconfirmed claims, spread simultaneously in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, a verification by Factcheck.bg showed. They are used to argue the requests for a ban on the import of grain and other foods from Ukraine.
The profile of the main speakers calling for a ban is also similar: politicians and farmers, mainly grain producers. The differences are in the domestic political context in each country.
On April 28, the European Commission (EC) reached an “agreement in principle” on the transit of goods from Ukraine with Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. The condition is that the countries cancel the unilaterally imposed measures and unite under a common strategy led by Brussels. In return, they will receive a second package of European financial aid worth 100 million euros. The first, worth EUR 56 million, was agreed to help grain producers from Bulgaria, Poland and Romania earlier this year.
In Poland, the topic of Ukrainian grain does not leave the front pages of the press for weeks. On one hand, this is due to the protests of farmers along the border, but also throughout the country, and on the other hand, to misinformation spreading on social networks.
And while a seized batch with pesticides was the initial argument for the import ban imposed by Warsaw, according to Polish journalists and analysts, the more serious problem in the country is the large amount of grain that remains in warehouses.
Although wheat is not the main grain imported into the country, it is the main character of misinformation on social media.
One of the most recent “phenomena” that the Polish journalists at Fakenews.pl write about is the newly appeared term “technical grain”. According to Krzysztof Gwiazda, chairman of the board of the Polish Association of Employers in the Grain and Milling Industry, the term does not exist in the technical literature and was most likely invented by companies importing grain from Ukraine with the ultimate goal of avoiding inspections and waiting at the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Although the term did not appear in the public space before October 2022, nor was it present in the scientific literature on the subject and the statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture, it gained extreme popularity in social networks and was used for disinformation.
This technically manipulated photo has been shared hundreds of times among Polish Facebook users. At the top, where the flour brand logo should be, the words “the new scam” have been added. Instead of the standard inscription of the type of wheat, the text “technical flour” is added. Below are listed “side effects” that, according to the post with the manipulated photo, occur after consuming products made from this “technical flour”: vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, swelling, fever.
The concern that there is bread made from low-quality Ukrainian wheat on the Polish market, expressed by Poles on social media, is also fueled by political formations such as the National Movement (Ruch Narodowy) and the far-right populist party “New Hope” (Nowa Nadzieja).
Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also gets involved in the Polish “grain affair”. A video posted on Twitter on April 12, in which he talks about the quality of Ukrainian grain, has more than 450,000 views. In the video, Tusk quotes a Polish farmer who says “the biggest garbage comes into our country (ed. – Poland).”
Tusk also shares the opinion of the chairwoman of the Polish Chamber of Grain and Feed Monika Piątkowska that worms, various bacteria and fungi are born in the wagons with grain that come from Ukraine. In an interview with the Polish media OKOpress, Piątkowska admits that her words are final, but she does not deny them, although they are not confirmed by evidence.
The grain affair in Poland is closely linked to the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country, which are expected to be held at the end of 2023. And suspicions that companies close to the ruling “Law and Justice” party are the main importers of Ukrainian grain in Poland, also contributed to the introduction of a temporary ban on imports and calming tensions among farmers and the public. The main opponents in the parliamentary elections in Poland are expected to be the ruling “Law and Justice” of Jarosław Kaczyński and “Civil Platform” of Donald Tusk.
In Slovakia, which has also introduced a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain, the topic has a distinct political nuance. Early parliamentary elections are coming up in the country on September 30, after a vote of no confidence was voted against the ruling coalition at the end of last year.
On April 14, the Slovak Minister of Agriculture, Samuel Vlcan, announced that a banned pesticide was found in 1,500 tons of Ukrainian wheat at the largest Slovak mill in Kolarovo. Three days later, Bratislava announced it was banning grain imports from Ukraine and said it was beginning inspections of all shipments of Ukrainian wheat in the country.
On April 24, it became known that no harmful substances, microorganisms or infections were found in any of the samples taken.
This does not prevent representatives of various opposition parties from fighting for electoral support, precisely relying on misinformation about the quality of Ukrainian wheat in Slovakia.
The social network profiles of the largest opposition party and contender for the first place in the September elections, “Voice – Social Democracy” (“HLAS – sociálna demokracia”), are almost entirely focused on the topic of the Ukrainian grain, and one of the main speakers is the member of the executive bureau of the party and the mayor of the city of Nitra – Branislav Bečik. Even after the published results of the tests of Ukrainian grain available in Slovakia, Bečik continues to claim that Slovaks are being lied to and forced to eat bread made from poisoned Ukrainian wheat.
Branislav Bečik is accused of spreading disinformation and extracting political dividends from imposing fear among the population and popularizing conspiracy theories, including about Covid-19.
The chairman of “Voice – Social Democracy” and former prime minister of Slovakia, Peter Pellegrini, also often spreads unconfirmed information about Ukrainian wheat through his social media channels.
Also included in the Ukrainian wheat disinformation campaign are the right-wing conservative party “Life – National party” (“Život – Národná strana”), founded in 2019, and the nationalist self-described Russophile party “Slovak Patriot” (Slovenský PATRIOT), which has existed since 2021. Their social media posts reiterate the main points of support for banning imports from Ukraine: cheap Ukrainian wheat dumps Slovakian wheat; Ukrainian wheat is retained in Slovakia instead of being re-exported to third countries; Ukrainian grain in Slovakia is infected and toxic.
In Bulgaria, the main claim that is being spread by Bulgarian politicians and local grain producers is that the import of Ukrainian wheat is the reason why a large part of the Bulgarian harvest from 2022 is sitting in warehouses. In reality, Ukrainian wheat imports for last year amounted to about 50,000 tons, which is less than 1% of the preliminary data of the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) for the wheat harvest in Bulgaria for 2022 – 6.2 million tons.
Regarding the claim that imports of cheap Ukrainian wheat have led to record low market prices and bankrupted many producers, there is also no evidence.
Official data show that the price of wheat on world markets has fallen compared to the beginning of the war, but it is still higher than the pre-war period.
And in Bulgaria, as well as in the other countries that imposed a ban on imports from Ukraine, there is also speculation about the quality of Ukrainian grain. Grain producers have been claiming for months that the grain from Ukraine is of extremely poor quality and that it does not pass sanitary control upon entering the country. A receipt from an alleged laboratory test carried out by a private laboratory is being shared, which, however, in no way proves that the sample is actually of Ukrainian wheat.
It is not true that there is no quality control of the Ukrainian grain entering Bulgaria. The EU regulation provides for duty-free import of Ukrainian goods, but sanitary control has not been canceled. The EU has strict requirements for food products that enter its market, and Ukrainian grain is no exception.
The newly appeared term “technical grain”, which is extremely popular in Poland, is also found in Bulgarian in posts on social networks.
A video with more than 47,000 views on Tik Tok claims that “technical wheat” has been smuggled from Ukraine throughout Eastern Europe and that Polish authorities have said it contains “bacteria, fungi and technical waste”.
In Romania, the government is under pressure from farmers, who periodically organize protests in the country, but despite them, Bucharest decided not to ban imports from Ukraine until there is an official decision from Brussels.
The topic is being discussed on social networks, with one part of Romanian users believing that banning imports would serve Moscow, while another sees it as the only solution in favor of Romania and the Romanian people.
The topic is used by nationalist formations to reinforce the anti-European sentiments of the people, one of the main speakers in the public space being Diana Șoșoacă, a member of the political party “S.O.S România”.
Șoșoacă is popular for her far-right political views. She is also one of the most popular anti-vaxxer figures in Romania during the Covid-19 pandemic. Șoșoacă supports Romania’s exit from the EU and is known for her anti-migration rhetoric. As early as 2021, Șoșoacă was criticized by Romanian media for her close ties to Moscow.
In Hungary, which was the first to impose a ban on imports from Ukraine, there is no particular activity on the subject among users on social networks. The posts that gather more audience contain the already mentioned claims. The subject of the grain is used to create anti-European sentiment, as for example in the following post:
“Until a month ago, I thought that EU membership had more advantages than disadvantages. That has changed. For some reason, the “pouring” of Ukrainian grain on us was the last straw for me…”
The post was accompanied by an image calling for HUXIT (from the English words for “Hungary” and “exit”, modeled on the British “Brexit”).
False or unverified claims about Ukrainian grain spread by grain producers and political formations can be found in the official positions of Russia.
On April 22, the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Great Britain published a statement by Sergey Lavrov, according to which “Ukrainian grain, offered at dumping prices and zero tariffs, is invading European markets in circumvention of all phytosanitary requirements”, and causing huge losses for grain producers in Europe.
In fact, it is Russia that is dumping wheat prices.
“She (Russia – note ed.) is the biggest exporter and it depends on her what will happen to the grain market in the whole of North Africa, and right now we have a problem with that. All tenders of our exporters are in competition with Russian grain”, says Vladimir Ivanov from the State Commission for Commodity Exchanges and Markets to the Bulgarian National Television (BNT).
According to him, this is the result of long and purposeful preparation:
“I have been observing this process for more than 12-13 years. In Russia, very serious investments are made in the agricultural sector. And right now, so, on the one hand, a country that was a net importer is now a very serious exporter, and it’s dictating the international market situation, in terms of grain and other foods.”
In this way, Russia makes it difficult for other exporters, while at the same time encouraging conflicts in countries between producers and processors, raising prices in domestic markets and ultimately, political instability.
Translated by Vanessa Nikolova