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RUSSIA

Foreign Investors Eagerly Eye Chance to Buy Into Farmland

Record prices for crops such as wheat and corn this year have sparked a surge of investment interest for farmland in Russia and Ukraine, a region with large untapped potential but also significant risk.

"It is a bit of a frenzy now as many companies are trying to get into the market. I think a more orderly function of the land market is important," Sevki Acuner, deputy director for agribusiness at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said Friday.

Acuner told a London conference organized by Troika Dialog that the bank has received an increasing number of project requests during the past six to nine months from investors trying to gather land in the former Soviet Union.

"We hadn't thought we were going to go down that route, but we are looking at three to four transactions, not just in Russia but Ukraine as well," he said. "It is a one-time opportunity. You will have a grab whatever land is available to reach critical mass."

Troika Dialog, in a report issued earlier this month, estimated that the Commonwealth of Independent States has 13 percent of the world's arable land, yet grows only 6 percent of its crops and farms just 3 percent of the world's meat.

"New entrepreneurs with fresh technology and ideas have tremendous scope to increase production dramatically," the report said.

Russia is now the world's largest meat importer and is looking to revive its livestock sector.

Kingsmill Bond, chief strategist for Troika Dialog UK, said many Russian political leaders welcomed foreign investment in land development. But analysts warn that foreign landowners could become targets should nationalist sentiment rise, while a more extreme climate than in Western Europe means yields could vary widely.

"In the long term it is a risk and one reason to focus on processing rather than a pure land play," Bond said.

(The Moscow Times 30.vi.08)