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Ice cream and cluster bombs: present and future foodways in Ukraine

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  After the peace, whenever that comes, we will have land that will have to stay out of production for years because it is so heavily mined or full of cluster bomblets.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show we talk with geographer Elizabeth Cullen Dunn about the current food landscape in Ukraine. We discuss what the future may hold for farmers and food producers as the war with Russia drags on, and the country faces land reform at the start of the new year. Oh, and we also talk about ice cream. Current shipping challenges in Ukraine, and the meaning of an ice cream cone in former Soviet-blocked countries. That conversation is just ahead. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for tuning into Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. When we pay attention to national and international news stories, the further away from our own experience and location, the more difficult it can be to relate to the stories and to make connections between the various actors and forces, and to understand the consequences of say, for instance, policy or budgetary decisions. US funding for the war in Ukraine is one of those issues that can feel abstract and distant, and difficult to wrap your mind around. My guest today has been following the conflict in Ukraine and paying particular attention to some of the food stories unfolding in the region. She has a real knack for storytelling and for offering examples that bring some of the larger issues into sharp focus.

 Elizabeth Cullen Dunn has been on our show several times before, talking about macaroni and refugee camps, consolidation in the meat industry, refugees working in meat processing plants in Colorado, and alternatives to humanitarian food aid at the Polish-Ukrainian border at the start of the war with Russia. She's back on the show to share her observations and thoughts about current and possible food ways in Ukraine.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Welcome, Elizabeth Dunn, to Earth Eats.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Once again, it's great to have you.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Thanks, it's great to be back.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Could we clarify your titles and positions? [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  About two weeks ago I became the associate dean for graduate education in the College of Arts and Science, and I am also still the director of the Center for Refugee Studies. I am also a professor in geography, and for at least a little while longer I'm also the director of the Institute for European Studies. So, it has been very busy lately, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's a lot of directorships. [LAUGHS]


KAYTE YOUNG:  So forth.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  You can sleep when you're dead.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I know you traveled to Poland this summer through Fulbright, is that correct?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. I was the Fulbright distinguished lecturer at the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw, and that was a real advantage because it let me be in Warsaw, which is the place where the biggest number of Ukrainian refugees are concentrated now. And it let me spend some time with that community, which I did mostly by making camouflage nets. It turns out you cannot automate the process for making camouflage nets to cover tanks and other kinds of military equipment, and so I went several times on weekends to go sit with Ukrainian folks. People who had been resident in Poland for a long time, or people who had come since the war, and we got to talk while we were weaving these enormous camouflage nets.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow, okay. I know this isn't really food related, but what do you mean by weaving? Do you mean hand tying, or what?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  They set up the kind of grid work, with like paracord for a camouflage net. But somebody has to actually weave the strips of cloth that have been dyed green and brown through that paracord matrix. And you have to do that by hand, and you have to randomize color, and all of those things to make it look like foliage.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay. That makes sense. I can picture that now. So, what kinds of things did you learn?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Well, one of the most interesting things is that the majority of refugees are going home to Ukraine even though the war is still going on. So, the war has largely been contained now to the front line, which is in eastern Ukraine. And so, it's going through places you heard about in the news. Bakhmut, for example. Zaporizhzhia. And it has become a grinding war of attrition in which both sides are losing enormous numbers of people, so they're guessing that it's hit about 250,000 deaths on each side. That's a lot of people. On the flip side, since the Ukrainian military pushed the Russians out of Kyiv, western Ukraine has become comparatively safe. There are missile attacks on Kyiv almost every night, but the air defense system is largely working.

 And so, fatalities and casualties from that have become limited. And in many towns in western Ukraine, it's been months since they've had a strike. So, many people who are from the western part of the country are saying it's time to go home.They've been separated from their husbands and sons because men between 18 and 65 cannot leave the country. So, women and children have been on their own outside of Ukraine and they have had a lot of challenges in finding work. Housing is astronomically expensive for them. The kids are having a hard time learning, so they have part time internet school in Ukrainian. In Poland, they've been welcomed into Polish schools but that has its own challenges. So, a lot of families are just going home. That was a surprise to me. I did not think I would see that.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  One of the interesting things, though, is one of the sources of income for Ukrainian women in Warsaw was making cakes and pierogis and blini and other foods, and selling them via Facebook. So, there was a Ukrainian family that lived in my apartment the year before I was in it, and it was a tiny little apartment, like maybe 400 sq ft. And there was two women and two children living in it, and they were running a pierogi factory out of a kitchen that you almost could not turn around in. So, that was really bold, I thought. That was really brave. And these elaborate hand-decorated cakes for celebrations have become a sort of Ukrainian home production specialty.

 So, I still see ads for those on Facebook almost every day, which makes me a little nostalgic. But they have occupied an important part in the food business. I taught a class, actually, on food and labor in the American food system at the University of Warsaw, but I had my students out interviewing non-Polish people in the Polish food business. Which was super interesting, because Poland was ethnically very homogeneous since the end of World War II, and it has now become an immigration destination because it's inside the European Union. And what we found out was that the food business, just like in the United States, has become very ethnically diverse. Whether it was Mexican food or it was Chinese food, or it was Polish food, in a lot of kitchens, those kitchens are being run by Ukrainian chefs.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, I see. So, it's not Mexican food being made by Mexican immigrants.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  No, it is Mexican food being made by Ukrainian immigrants.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, that sounds interesting. [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah, it's really interesting. There are certainly some really high-end Ukrainian restaurants in Warsaw. One is right across from the Russian Consulate, so whenever there's a protest everyone means in front of the Ukrainian restaurant to say mean things to the Russians across the street. But the Ukrainians have permeated the food business in retail food, so that has been a really interesting development.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Interesting. So, did you eat at any of these restaurants?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I did. Ukrainian food, don't tell them I said this, is a lot like Polish food. They're very very close, but people squabble over the details. So, borscht in Poland is clear with little dumplings calls ears, uszka in them. But in Ukraine, borscht still has big chunks of cabbage and potatoes and beets. And so, there's the open borscht war which is going on right now.

KAYTE YOUNG:  [LAUGHS] Interesting. So, you have told me in the past that you were doing research on milk, or on milk productions?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah, so a group of us including [UNSURE OF NAME] and some of our Ukrainian colleagues got really interested in the question of land reform. And one of the things that has happened during the war is that the Zelenskyy government has used its martial law powers to pass a lot of highly neo-liberal reforms. To open Ukraine further to foreign investment. And basically, that is really important to the post-war reconstruction. One of the things they have done is, starting January 1st, agricultural land which up until now could not be bought and sold, will be saleable. And that is going to change everything. So, let me just back up for a minute.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, please.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And tell you a little bit about the history. Which is that, as a part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was collectivized in the 1930s which meant that land was pulled away from private landholders, private farmers and re-allocated into these big collective farms. And the idea was that you could gain an economy of scale and produce more food more efficiently if you did that. Of course, the result was a massive famine in Ukraine, but the collective farm structure stood all the way until the 90s with some changes in adaptations. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, agricultural land was re-privatized to its original owners who had given it up in the 1930s or the 40s or the 50s, depending on when. Or those people's heirs.

 And you can imagine this was a very complicated process because the land itself had changed in the interim time. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery talks about the elasticity of the land, and it's true that for example if you owned land from here to the edge of the river, well, the river may have come in 40ft over this time. And come in towards your land, coughing up more dirt on the other bank, through silt and other kinds of deposits. The land itself had changed. Finding out who was the legitimate heir to this land proved to be very difficult, but eventually the collective farms were dismantled and their assets were parceled out largely to their members, who began operating family farms of pretty small size. Like two to five hectares, which is enough to support a family but not enough to produce anything in very big quantities. So, what happened then was that in some cases the family that had originally owned the land no longer wanted to farm it.

 The kids had moved to the city. They had become IT workers. They're not going to give up their job coding in order to come back and plough behind a donkey, but they couldn't sell that land. There was a prohibition on selling that land.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, once it was restored to the original owners or the heirs, they weren't allowed to sell it.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Exactly, but they could lease it. And so, these giant agroholdings developed that were leasing land for 99 year leases, or 49 year leases. And they were combining big plots of land to create, in some cases, absolutely big mega farms. Corn is a great example of that, and Ukraine is one of the largest exporters of corn in the world. A lot of Ukraine's foreign revenue has come from exporting grains, and it's these big agroholdings that are run largely by oligarchs that are in charge of this. So, two pathways for agricultural production developed. One is these little, small hold farmers living in villages, and they're selling for example 10L of milk a day to a truck that passes by every morning. They're selling two pigs at a time in the market. They're making cheese and selling it 1kg at a time in the market, the local village market. And on the other hand there are huge consolidated farms that are producing massive amounts of grain or milk, and they're supplying highly consolidated industries.

 So, one of the things I got to do was tour Ukraine's largest ice cream factory in Zhytomyr. They're making such enormous quantities of ice cream. They export it to Egypt, to Indonesia, all over the world. They export frozen ice cream, which I found just astounding. They can't buy 10L of milk at a time, so they're very interested in seeing the dairy industry consolidate so that they can buy in large quantities. We think that when land reform happens in January, what's going to happen is that rural people, many of whom are quite elderly, are going to be pushed off their land in order to consolidate that land. And when those people can't sell 10L of milk a day anymore they lose their access to cash. Their only access to cash is pensions and whatever they can sell to the trucks that pass by. We think that this is going to spark huge changes in Ukraine's village structures and the lives of rural people in Ukraine are going to change dramatically.

 So, we're putting together a project to study that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're talking about the folks who did want to continue farming their land?


KAYTE YOUNG:  And they just have these small holdings. And so, the folks you just described who were selling small amounts of cheese at their local markets, and that kind of thing.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, so those are the ones who are relying on it for their livelihoods, because the pensions are not enough to live in?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  They are not enough to live on. And so, that access to supplementary cash is really important to them. It's how you buy gas for your car, or you buy medicine. Which now costs money. It's not given out freely by the government. Those things for their lives are really important, and once they don't have access to that small amount of income, we think that they won't be able to stay in their houses.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And so, you and your colleague are going to be studying this. You're going to be researching this.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. We're a team of five, actually.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, a team of five?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  A team of five. So, we're hoping to start that research next Spring.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. More from our conversation after a short break.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young, here. This is Earth Eats. Let's get back to my conversation with Elizabeth Dunn, who recently traveled to Poland and to Ukraine. One of her areas of study is the dairy industry in Ukraine, which is about to undergo some serious transformation once land reforms go into effect in the new year. here's Elizabeth Dunn.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I got to go out to Zhytomyr Oblast. Oblast is like a county. I went out to Zhytomyr and got a tour of Zhytomyr's dairy industry, which was absolutely fascinating. So, at one point I was standing in the middle of this field talking to a dairy farmer and he was introducing me to his cows by name. And he was naming them after world leaders. So, he would bring up this black and white cow and say this cow's name is Biden. And then the next, the red cow was called Sunak. And the next cow was called Macron. So, I was laughing, thinking it was a joke, and he said this is not a joke. He says Ukrainian love their cows deeply. Cows are part of the family. And so, Biden should feel very honored that I have named my cow for him.

KAYTE YOUNG:  [LAUGHS] Now, and these are the small farmers that you're talking about?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah, the small hold farmers. One of the other interesting things I found out about was on the highly industrialized side of the dairy business. At the ice cream factory, one of the people we talked to was their logistics manager, who was really open about how difficult it was to ship ice cream around the world and keep it frozen when he could no longer use sea ports. So, they had been loading ice cream into refrigerated containers for container shipping. And shipping it out of the Black Sea, out of ports near Odessa, and shipping it through the Black Sea onto foreign markets like Egypt, for example. I was shocked. China. They were shipping ice cream from Ukraine to China, but now it has to all go over land. And the issue at the border has become very severe, because the European Union has been putting a lot of pressure on Ukraine about exports.

 As an animal-based product, anything made of milk has to have a veterinary inspection, and the wait for veterinary inspection on the border was now 12 to 14 days when we were there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. That's a lot time for ice cream.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  That is a long time for ice cream to sit in a truck, yeah. And you're paying to freeze that truck the whole time in the middle of Summer. So, that was a huge challenge for them. And they were constantly moving and shifting based on their reports of the length of border crossing, trying to reroute their trucks through Romania or Poland, or wherever they thought they could get through the fastest.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's interesting about the ice cream shipping and it being frozen, because I think I had some idea that maybe they make the ice cream product, then it goes to the ice cream place locally and they do the freezing and the churning or something. But I'm sure that there's some that the whole thing is already made, and it has to be frozen.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Well, this is a legacy of the Soviet period, actually. And there was a historian named Jenny-Lee Smith who studied the history of ice cream in the USSR, which was fascinating.


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So, at the end of World War II there were zero commercial freezers in the entire Soviet Union. By 1960 you could get ice cream in every town or village of the USSR. And if you could imagine the enormous amount of industrial change that has to happen for that, I mean it's a significant transition. But one of the things that happened is that the Soviet government wanted things like ice cream to be a sort of promise about the sweetness of the future. The radiant future. In the radiant future, we would all have ice cream. And so, they've hoarded all the sugar for state factories. And so, it was hard to buy sugar yourself in the store. There was acute shortages of sugar. A lot of times you needed ration coupons for sugar. But the state factories that were making ice cream got sugar, and they would make these frozen confections on a stick or in a cone, that were individually wrapped. And so, you would buy these either from a street cart or from a freezer in a small local shop.

 So, people didn't have freezers in their homes that you could stick a gallon brick of ice cream in. They bought them when they were out of the home and they ate them out of the home. Ice cream was very much a public event, and kids who were eating ice creams in parks or old people who were sitting on benches and eating ice creams in public, this was a really public ritual that the state took big pride in and advertised a lot as proof that things were getting better. In the USSR you can now buy gallons of ice cream, of course, and people have German refrigerators, although generally smaller than our refrigerators and freezers here. But still, people mostly don't keep ice cream at home. They mostly eat it outside on a still or in a cone. So, Rud, this factory where we were, is pre-filling ice cream cones or making novelties, individually wrapping them and shipping them that way.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. That is such an interesting history. I want to keep talking about that because I really like thinking about that, and just what it means for the nation to have that.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Well, you had a centrally planned economy in the USSR. And central planning means that the government invests most in heavy industry, and much less in consumer products. So, consumer products were constantly in shortage. When they existed, they generally existed as industrially produced products that were being pumped out by factories that the center controlled through central planning. So, it was much easier for the central planners at the Ministry of Agriculture to move 50 tons of sugar to a factory than to move 5lb bags of sugar to individual households. And so, they concentrated on these kind of centrally planned productions, and that's what they did.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And then ice cream just happened to be chosen as a symbol of this. Like yeah, but life is sweet, or look at how good it is.


KAYTE YOUNG:  For people.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Jenny-Lee Smith had these great advertisements and propaganda pieces around ice cream that she had collected from the 50s and 60s. Into the 70s, actually. And that was exactly the claim that the state was making, that the economy was getting better, that people were happier. That life had now spaces for pleasure and relaxation. And the proof of that was that you could buy ice cream on a stick.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's brilliant, really.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And they kept them new and fresh by putting out different ones, right? So, ice cream is a seasonal business. Every summer would bring new shapes, new flavors, new packaging. We had an ice cream tasting at the factory, which I have to say is the best day of work in my entire work life.


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Sitting around eating ice cream for science. And they were showing us exactly all of the new products, all of the novelties for the 2023 season. So, it was cherry chocolate chip and chocolate coating, and it was ice cream cones that had chocolate in the bottom and then ice cream on top. And all of these different kinds of packaged goods that they were sending out as new things for the season. Neon green popsicles were one, too. I was a bit surprised by those but they were a huge hit, and they were selling a lot of them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I was thinking about an ice cream truck and how many different items they usually have available. And it's all about shape and color, and less about taste, it seems to me. [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Well, I have fond memories of that as a kid. Of chasing after the ice cream man playing his song down the street. And you had a dollar, and you could buy a wrapped novelty. And I think many people who grew up in the USSR have similar memories of going to big public parks and walking through the park with their families and eating ice cream. And that was a really important part of family gathering, but it was an important part of being part of a community there. That you had that experience. That same experience that every other kid in the USSR had. One of the interesting problems in the USSR was that it was composed of so many different nationalities. How do you knit all of these different people, from Kazakhs and Kyrgyz to Lithuanians and Estonians? How do you knit all of these people together as Soviet citizens?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  One of the ways you do that is by making sure they have common formative experiences. So, the young pioneers was a case in point, that everyone had that experience of going through the Communist youth organization. But simple things like eating ice cream on a stick in a park was something that almost every Soviet person had as a part of their childhood. And it was a shared experience of Soviet-ness.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thank you so much for that context because that really helps make sense of, how important is this Ukrainian ice cream that's being produced? [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It's really important. It's really important for Ukrainians to have an ice cream factory to experience this. It's important to them economically for export. It's really important to remain as a part of the international community that they're exporting valuable goods. Not just raw goods like corn or commodity crops but also produced products. It makes them part of the world, and I think that that's incredibly significant for them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, I remember hearing really early in the war that there might be sunflower shortages. Like, sunflower seed shortages, sunflower oils shortages, and sunflower is my favorite cooking oil. So, I was stocking up. But has that happened, and is that still an issue, or do you know?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I know much more about corn than I know about sunflowers, although Ukraine is one of the world's largest producers of sunflower oil as well as seeds. But corn has become a big issue because much of Africa depends on Ukrainian corn for subsistence. And without that corn in international markets, the price of corn will go up high enough that many African countries may experience food shortage. That's really significant, and Russia had agreed in 2022 to let Ukrainian corn exit the Black Sea ports. And now, they have backed out of that deal which means that all corn transiting out of Ukraine now must go over land or risk being bombed. This caused a huge problem in the European Union, because in Poland, it's an election year. now you have a lot of angry farmers who are saying you're letting Ukrainian corn, which is cheaper than our corn, it's cheaper than we can even produce corn for.

 You're letting it supposedly transit Poland to get to the Baltic Sea ports, but in fact, a lot of it is staying here and they're under-selling us. And it's costing us a lot of money. And this is starting to chip away at support for the war across Europe. The Law and Justice Party in Poland has been playing up this issue, and at one point closed the border to Ukrainian transit, which meant that Ukraine could not get corn out of the country very easily. Which means that Africans don't eat. The same is true in Romania. I read this morning that Slovakia, the lead in Canada in the Slovakian elections is saying not one bullet for Ukraine. So, support for the war depends enormously on food policy and how they manage to get food out of Ukraine. The other thing that matters, of course, is the revenue it generates. And agricultural export, I believe, is Ukraine's largest industry.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Having that money to buy military equipment is really important to the government. Those two things mean that whether or not that corn makes it across an international border can determine the outcome of the war.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is why it's important to understand global food policy and why it's great to talk with an expert. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is a geographer and food study scholar who has done decades of research in eastern European countries. She's studied forced migrations, the effects of consolidation in the food industry, and so much more. We'll return to our conversation after a short break. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Let's return to my conversation with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What about within the country are Ukrainians getting access to the food that they need? What is the food security situation?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Depends dramatically on where you are. So, in the villages which are on the front lines and formulate occupied territories close to the front line, we have no idea what the situation is in Russian occupied territory. I have no information about that. But on these front line villages, getting food in has become very difficult because suppliers won't drive food in. It's too close to the conflict. So, you have people who are elderly, they have been unwilling to evacuate because this is their home, because they're defending livestock, or they're trying to keep their homes intact. Those people do not have easy access to food, and they are highly dependent on humanitarian aid provision. The big aid providers won't drive into the conflict zone, or they won't drive close to the front, so a lot of this is being provided by volunteer aid providers who are bringing in van-loads of food. The same is true of medicines.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And so, by volunteer do you mean what you were talking about before? These scrappy, grassroots, everyday citizens saying we've got to get some food to people. And we don't have these restrictions of, can't go in this war zone, so we're going.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Absolutely. It's Poles, it's Ukrainians. It's people who are private citizens organizing and funding these convoys of aid, and driving them in in small vans. And that's still really important for front line villages. But the interesting thing is, if you were in Kyiv, or I was in Zhytomyr, the food situation is completely normal. The stores are full of food in western Ukraine. I remember at one point I went out and I had one of the fanciest dinners I have ever had. I mean, liver pâté and beautiful glossy globes that were covered with this opaque aspic, but it was delicious. It sounds bad but it was delicious. A duck salad, champagne. I think I paid $23 for the whole meal, because the prices are so different. You can go to a café, the drink this summer was the bumble, which is orange juice and espresso mixed together.

 And you know what's good? Espresso tonic is the other one. That's pretty good. Espresso and tonic water together. So, people are sitting in cafés drinking bumbles and espresso tonics, and life is completely normal. I went out and had a beautiful fancy dinner. I went back to the hotel, went to sleep, and at 2am the air raid sirens went off. And I just about hit the ceiling. Most Ukrainians can sleep through it now, but I could not. I'd forgotten about it. And all of a sudden, life is completely abnormal. In Zhytomyr, about three days before I arrived, the Russians had struck an ammo dump just outside of town. I think still inside city limits. And the fireball and the shock wave were so strong that it blew out windows all over town. Life all of a sudden is really abnormal, and then it immediately sort of snaps back to normal, and you go back to sitting in cafés having cappuccinos and discussing literature. The war is strangely intermittent in those places.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But in those front line communities it's anything but, it sounds like.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  In the front line communities it is non-stop. A lot of people who have left, their homes are being occupied by soldiers who are using them as sleeping quarters. You want to spread the fighters out at night for sleeping because you don't want one missile hit to hit a lot of them at once. The Russians made that mistakes, and the Ukrainians blew up about 400 soldiers in one hit. So, they're sleeping there but they're also using them as military bases, basically. Where they're planning, organizing combat, or actually fighting from. In case where you're having urban warfare, you have people living in apartment blocks that are also occupied by soldiers, because some of the people won't leave. I think about it all the time. I think, if war came to me, what would I do? How would I leave? And I thought, I don't know how I would get out of Indiana if there was a war.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Would I stay back and try and ride it out? If I leave will someone take over my house, and I'll lose it forever? How do you make the decision, when to go? And some of that has a lot to do with how available you think food is going to be. How much food you could stockpile. Whether you think you're going to have cooking gas, because many of these front line villages didn't have heat or cooking gas last Winter. And so, those are all calculations in big population movements.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. And are these mostly cities, or are they also some rural areas? Is it kind of a combination of both?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It's a combination. So, sometimes it's villages. Bakhmut was a medium size town. Izyum was a medium size town. But sometimes, the fighting is not going on village by village. And you can see from satellite photography and drone photography that some of these villages, which before the war were leafy and pleasant and full of houses with fields, sort of streaming out the back of them because you'd have a lot strip of field. And then you'd put a house right on the street. Now, are just absolutely rubble. Nothing but foundations. And the land itself has been rendered unfarmable because the Russians have used so many land mines. Land mines is the first issue which have been really extensible on the front line. The second issue is cluster bombs. The Russians have been using grad rockets, which release these little bomblets. And the bomblets are very light, and when they hit ground that has been urned over, they very often don't hit with enough force to explode.

 So, those bomblets can stay for months or years or decades until somebody finds them. Usually a kid. Doesn't know what they are, picks them up and blows their arm off. So, the United States recently authorized the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine, so now Ukraine will be seeding all of the territory on the other side of the line of contact with cluster munitions. And this is going to be an issue for decades to come. After the peace, whenever that comes, we will have land that will have to stay out of production for years because it is so heavily mined, or full of cluster bomblets.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. I remember hearing that on the news, the talking about the cluster munitions.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  When I was in Georgia, after the Russian invasion, I was once sitting in my friend Rezzo's garden. And my kid was about six, and he came up. He'd been playing in the back of the garden, and came up with this object. And said, what's this? What's this? And Rezzo just went white and said put that down very carefully. And once he put it down, it was a cluster bomblet. We could see that it was empty. It had already detonated, but there was that ten seconds of absolute fear that my kid had picked up a cluster bomb.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. And that was in?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  2009. I think the really hard thing for most Ukrainians has been, there is not a single person who has not lost somebody they care about. The loss of life has been so significant. There was recently a quite well-known writer, Victoria Amelina, who was with a delegation from South America. And they had wanted to see the front. And so, she was with him in one of the only remaining restaurants, which is where aid workers hang out, and soldiers were hanging out. And it was a pizza place, and the pizza place was bombed by the Russians while they were in it, and she was killed. And this was a wound to the national psyche. So, there's that. There's people coming home with really grave injuries, and there will be many, many thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of people who are returning with limb loss, with permanent injuries to their faces, and Ukraine as a society is going to have to figure out how it will contend with that degree of profound damage.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is just an important reminder, because a lot of us, the way that we're hearing about the war is just as it moves in and out of the headlines. And some stories end up covering up the amount of coverage that we get from the war, and then it comes back up again. And I just feel like it's just ongoing, and peoples lives are being affected every single day by this. And it's easy to lose sight of that level.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And especially as it's not interesting anymore, right? There was a graphic in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that showed how much territory had been gained or lost since January of 2023, and it was almost none. It has been an absolute stalemate. And so, it's not interesting anymore, people are moving on, it's boring. They want their money back for domestic purposes. And there's a real danger in that, because if we back away from Ukraine and if the Russians take over that territory, it's not clear that they're going to export corn to Africa. We could have a massive famine on our hands in Africa if we can't figure out how to get that corn out of Ukraine. It's not clear that the Russians won't come into Poland. I think that's a very real possibility, still. I think you choose where you're going to fight this war. You can fight it in Ukraine, or you can fight it in Poland, or you can fight it in Germany. Your choice. But not fighting it is really not a choice.

 We will be engaged in this war for the foreseeable future.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I think what's also hard about hearing about that level of devastation, trying to imagine the fields and the rubble that you described, and thinking about all the natural disasters that we've been dealing with this Summer and the scenes from that. And just how devastating it is, and you just have this feeling of oh, it's going to be so hard for these people. And this isn't a natural disaster. [LAUGHS] This is people making choices, you know? It's hard to wrap your mind around it.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It's really hard.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And the destruction has a different meaning.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  But you also have to realize that one of the techniques that the Russians are using is deliberate ecocide. When I was in Zhytomyr on the last day of my stay, the Russians blew up a dam in central Ukraine on the Dnieper River. And the flooding that blowing apart that dam caused devastated cities, destroyed whole villages, but also because of the silt that it carried with it, took lots and lots of land out of production. That land is no longer immediately farmable because of the huge amount of silt that had aggregated at the bottom of the dam, and was now coating the land in unfarmable mud. Ukraine is very famous for its black soil, which is this hyper fertile soil. Interestingly, the only other really large concentration of this black soil is in the American mid-west. It's in Kansas, but now much of that black soil is covered under mud and silt, and the villages that supporting farming it are gone. So, you have whole ways of life that are being destroyed by deliberate ecocide.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, in some ways we've gotten a little bit away from food, but of course we are actually talking about food. We're talking about farming, and about ongoing effects of land.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Land that has been used for food production.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I would just say again, the thing is that it's so intermittent. So, people see pictures of Ukrainians eating croissants. There's a fantastic chain that comes out of Ukraine called Lviv Croissants, and they have the best croissants I have ever had. So, there's all these pictures of people. Students at McDonalds and people sitting having coffee, and the retail food business is still in full force in big parts of Ukraine. And people look at that and say, aren't you supposed to be having a war? Like how dare you have coffee or go to McDonalds, or go out to dinner?

KAYTE YOUNG:  Or just think maybe it's not that bad if life is still going on like this.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Right, right. People don't understand the geographic variation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right, totally.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  The farther west you are, the safer you are, and the more normal life appears.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But like you said, everybody knows somebody who has died or been several wounded. And so, nobody is not touched by this.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Everybody is affected by the war. There is not a single person whose life has not been dramatically changed by the war. I'll be really interested, by the way, as displaced people go home, how this will change Ukraine's food ways. Because Ukraine has a brilliant restaurant culture, particularly in the big cities. Kyiv has some of the most amazing food I have ever had. Azerbaijani food, and Armenian food, and Georgian food, and Mexican food. There's really a world cuisine in Ukraine, and as all of these Ukrainians go out to different parts of Europe, get used to other kinds of European cultures and then come back to Ukraine, I'll be really interested to see how it changes their food culture.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. That does sound like an interesting question. So, can you say what's next in terms of your research with this? Is it going to be focused on dairy?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. We're trying to understand these land grabs through the lens of milk. And trying to understand how when there's not local production, local cheeses, people selling fluid milk in the marketplace, people selling butter in the marketplace that they've made at home.


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yogurt is another big one. How is this going to change people's livelihoods? How is it going to change the way people eat? How is it going to change rural urban relations? So, we'll be interested to see what happens. Whether this consolidation happens, we don't know, but we're going to start tracking and seeing what's going to happen. And we're also doing that in a geographically variable way. So, we think what happens towards eastern Ukraine and what happens on the west side could be really different. With more consolidation happening in the west than in the east. So, we will be watching that, and I hope I get to go back. I had not spent a lot of time in Ukraine before the war. I had been there a couple of times when I was doing work on meat export, but that was years ago. And I had just fallen in love with Ukraine. It is such a deeply cultured, unbelievably beautiful place, and the countryside is just gorgeous. Standing out in the middle of a field of cornflowers and you just think it's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life.

 So, I hope I get a chance to go back.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I just wanted to mention too, that you have also studied and looked at consolidation in other places including the US. That was one of the things we were talking about in the meat industry and around Covid.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. Consolidation has kind of been a theme in my work for 30 years. So, I originally started out working in Poland right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, looking at the food business there. And trying to understand what foreign direct investment meant. So, what happens when a company like Gerber Baby Food comes in and takes over a baby food factory in Rzeszów. , Poland? Which by the way, used to be the middle of nowhere, and is now the most geopolitically important city in Poland, I think. Maybe in the world, because it's where all the weapons going to Ukraine transits. I was really interested in those processes of foreign direct investment and consolidation in Poland, and so I'm just following that 30 years later into Ukraine, and trying to understand what those reforms will mean when they take place in a post-war environment.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And then you've also studied consolidation here in the US as well, so.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. Primarily in the beef industry. So, my previous work looked at what happened when four companies own 98% of the American beef industry and what that means for workers who are getting sick, and many times getting hurt.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And then the connection to the refugee studies that you do, because those are often the folks who are working in the meat processing.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yeah. Meat processing has a lot of refugees in it, just like the food business in Warsaw now has a lot of refugees in it. When people move, labor is moving too, and there are lots of people ready to take advantage of desperate people who need jobs.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. And having them do the jobs that other folks don't want to do.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Well, interestingly, some colleagues of mine at the Center for Migration Studies at the University of Warsaw did a big survey of Polish employers, and it turns out that many of them, particularly in agriculture, don't want to hire Ukrainians anymore. Because the Ukrainians ask for too much. They want high wages, they want good working conditions. And employers see them as not vulnerable enough.


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  To accept poor working conditions and low pay. So, the Polish government, which says it is anti-immigration, has begun issuing visas to Nepalis to come from Nepal to work in Polish agriculture.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That just really says a lot, I think. [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It says a lot about what situation people have to be in to be willing to work in the food and agriculture industry. It is hard, hard work for not very much money.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and dangerous as we've talked about before. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with me today. Is there anything more that you wanted to say before we go, about these topics? [LAUGHS]

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I always say that if you want to eat, then you should support immigration. But now, I'll say if you care about other people eating, if you care about people in less developed countries eating, if you care about avoiding famine, you have to think about how places are interconnected. And there are people in American politics who say we should abandon Ukraine, and we should walk away and leave Ukraine on its own to fall to Russia because this isn't our fight. But it is our fight. It will be our fight. If you have people starving in Africa you have then people who are on the move towards Europe trying to get in, and dying in the Mediterranean Sea. If you have people starving in Africa, you have people who are vulnerable to radical Islam, or who will sign up for other radical political movements trying to improve their situation.

 If you don't support the war in Ukraine, you can create instability throughout Europe and throughout the rest of the entire world. So, I think it's really important that people understand that their support for one country has ripple effects throughout the world. And if you care about the stability of the world, you have to care about the outcome of this conflict. There is no other choice. We can't turn away.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The interconnected-ness is very important, and definitely lost in the political sound bytes that you often hear.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I'm glad I got to say that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. Thank you.


KAYTE YOUNG:  That was Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. Geographer, food studies scholar, director of the Center for Refugee Studies, the Center for European Studies, and the newly appointed associate dean for graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. Find links to her work at

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time. The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey, and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Balstridge.

Elizabeth Dunn stading in protective smock and hair covering near stainless steel table and procedural ice cream company posters on the white wall behind her

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn touring the Rud ice cream factory. Rud is Ukraine's largest exporter of ice cream, sending frozen treats as far away as Egypt, Iraq and China. (courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

“After the peace, whenever that comes, we will have land that will have to stay out of production for years because it is so heavily mined or full of cluster bomblets.”

This week on the show we talk with geographer Elizabeth Cullen Dunn about the current food landscape in Ukraine. We discuss what the future may hold for farmers and food producers in the region as the war with Russia drags on and as land policy shifts in Ukraine at the start of the new year. 

We also talk about ice cream! We look at current shipping challenges in Ukraine, and the meaning of an ice cream cone in Eastern Bloc countries.

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is a Professor of Geography, Director of the Center for Refugee studies, Director of the Center for European Studies and the newly appointed associate Dean for Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University-Bloomington. 

Music on this Episode:

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

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