Russia has stepped up the destruction of banned food imports, burying tonnes of vegetables seized in the disputed region of Crimea, amid growing calls to give the contraband to the poor.

The Russian food safety agency, Rosselkhzhadzor, reported on Monday that four tonnes of imports from Ukraine, including 2.4 tonnes of pepper, a third of a tonne of Dutch lettuce, Italian cherry tomatoes and celery had been confiscated and buried. Crimea is an internationally-recognised Ukrainian territory under Russian control.

The news came as calls to redistribute the food for free gained more supporters, with more than 343,000 people signing an online petition as of Monday, urging President Vladimir Putin to revoke his order.

"Why destroy the food when we can simply eat it?", Olga Savelieva, the author of the petition, wrote.

Vladimir Sotnikov, a Russian international affairs analyst, told Al Jazeera "it's more expensive" to destroy the food, than to redistribute them to the poor.  

But he predicted that the destruction of the food contraband would continue, as it is an official Kremlin policy.

Last Thursday, Russia marked the one-year anniversary of its ban on European agricultural products, by destroying seized cheeses, fruits and other imported edible products using steamrollers and tractors. 

Several shipments of banned imported products were destroyed in the Orenburg region in the Ural Mountains and Belgorod and Smolensk near Russia's Western border.

Tension over Ukraine

The move raised controversy amid the nation's economic downturn. Coupled with the Russian currency's sharp depreciation, the ban on Western food has helped drive consumer prices up, pushing an increasing number of Russians below the poverty line.

Russian farmers seek profit from food embargo

Analyst Sotnikov, however, told Al Jazeera that the ban has a "minor effect" on the price of food, as compared with the impact of the oil price slump.

The Kremlin, hoping to stem the flow of banned products by raising the costs for those involved in contraband, has ignored the public outcry as tensions are brewing with the West over the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia slapped a ban on many Western agricultural products, including meat, milk products, vegetables and fruit on August 6, 2014 in retaliation to the US and EU sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Defending the ban, Putin said it helped create incentives for local agricultural producers. Many farmers have lauded the move, hoping to fill the niche previously held by imports.

Experts warn, however, that while some local farmers thrived, it would take years for Russia to reach self-sufficiency on food and prices will rise, hurting the population.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies