As the World Bank calls on nations to boost food production to combat the global food security crisis exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a conspiracy is festering on social media.
It lays the blame for the food crisis at the feet of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, claiming he has sold off 17 million hectares of farmland to US corporations.
But the claim is baseless. Ukraine’s strict laws governing the sale of agricultural property don’t allow foreign companies to own land, and the author of an article used to back the claim has declared it fake news.
The claim is made in a Facebook post from August 10 that says President Zelensky “sold 17 million hectares of agricultural land to Monsanto, Dupont, and Cargill”, which it describes as GMO (genetically modified organisms)/chemical companies.
Monsanto no longer exists under that name, having been bought by Germany’s Bayer in a $US63 billion takeover in 2018. DuPont is an American biotechnology company, while Cargill is an international producer and distributor of agricultural products.
The post says the sale to these companies is “very bad for the entire world since Ukraine is the largest exporter of wheat and other grains”. It quotes reports by the “Australian National Review (ANR)” which state these “cross-border consortiums have bought 17 million hectares of Ukrainian farmland”. It also attributes the post to “Veronica Ivonne”.
The cited “Veronica Ivonne” post was published on July 31, also quoting the ANR report, which in turn was published on May 27. The report makes the same claims but an “Editor’s note” at the bottom of the article has since been added, saying: “The 17 million hectares quoted was an error and its 1.7 million. Note the alleged companies don’t hold the land in their names but via investment funds.”
None of the posts or the ANR report provides any evidence to support the claim. However, some of the posts, including the Ivonne tweet, link to an external article sourced to the Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank, and to authors Frederic Mousseau and Ben Reicher.
The August 2021 Oakland Institute article does not make the claim and instead states the sale of agricultural land to foreign companies is outlawed. Article co-author Frederic Mousseau, policy director with the institute, told AAP FactCheck the claim was “fake news”.
“It seems highly unlikely that the president could sell any significant amount of land,” he said in an email.
Mr Mousseau said Ukrainian law prohibited such sales, and even if it was allowed, the companies named do not buy large tracts of land.
“The story of 17 million owned by US firms sounds like fake news, which distracts from the important fact that US and European firms and investment funds do have significant interests in Ukrainian land and agriculture,” he said.
“There is no doubt that Cargill, Dupont and Monsanto have major business interests in Ukraine (and see major profit opportunities there), but it is not through their direct control of the land.”
Kateryna Krykunenko, a Ukraine-based agricultural extension and advisory services specialist with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told AAP FactCheck that ownership of Ukrainian land remained within the country: either being privately owned, communal property or owned by the state.
Land plots classified as private property were acquired by Ukraine citizens by sale or gift, free transfer from state or communal lands, or allocation in kind of the land share belonging to them, Ms Krykunenko said. Communal land was owned by territorial communities of villages, towns and cities. All other land was owned by the state.
“The right of state ownership of land is acquired and exercised by the state through executive authorities in accordance with the powers defined by the Land Code of Ukraine,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post, in response to questions from AAP FactCheck.
The Land Code of Ukraine is set out on the website of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), with Chapter 5, Article 22, Section 5, stating: “Agricultural lands may not be transferred to the ownership of foreign nationals, stateless persons, foreign legal entities and foreign states.”
In July 2021, Ukraine lifted a near 20-year ban on the selling of farmland in a move to increase investment in the agricultural sector, according to Reuters. An analysis of the new land laws by the Ukrainian Rural Development Network can be read here. It says companies cannot buy agricultural land under the new laws until 2024 – and even then the land market is restricted to Ukraine entities.
The claim that Ukrainian President Zelenskiy sold 17 million hectares of farmland to three US corporations is false. Ukrainian law does not allow foreign companies to own agricultural land with an expert describing the claim as fake news.
False – The claim is inaccurate.