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How war is hitting Ukraine’s farmers and menacing world food supplies

Ukraine, dubbed Europe’s breadbasket, is one of the largest exporters of corn, wheat and oats to the European Union.

But the war is having a huge impact on the country’s farmers.

Beyond the destruction of agricultural land, Russia’s blocking of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports means grains can only be shipped out of the country by rail or road. 

Prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine exported up to 6 million tonnes of grains a month. But, according to analysts APK-Inform, 300,000 tonnes were shipped out in March and 923,000 in April. 

A UN food official said on Friday that nearly 25 million tonnes of grains are stuck in Ukraine and unable to leave the country.

If a solution isn’t found soon, the consequences will be apocalyptic, warns Andrii Baran, who is CEO of the Ukrainian agricultural company Agroprodservice, which has more than 40,000 hectares of land.

“I think that this must be solved, and the European countries also have an interest in this,” says Baran, who warns of higher food prices and hunger.

“Otherwise, if we don’t provide all that food, they (the EU) will have a few more million refugees from Northern Africa.”

He shows Euronews around some of the company’s fields in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil and says Agroprodservice is affected by the shortage of fuel and limits on imports of machinery plus the consequences of war in general.

Parts of the company’s fields have been destroyed by the war in the northern, eastern, and southern parts of Ukraine or are occupied by Russia, which makes it impossible to produce.

However, the biggest problem is that it is impossible to export through Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea due to the Russian blockade. It has left only the land routes through Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary as options for export and they are, however, not able to take such great volumes, explains Baran, creating a real problem.

“So now, there is a lot of work to be done with the European countries to manage somehow to create safe routes to the ports or maybe also, find out how to do it with our neighbours like Poland,” said Baran. “Poland doesn’t have all those facilities because they haven’t worked with such volumes and we have problems with road and rail.”

‘Hunger could hit the world’s poorest’

Ukraine is one of the largest agricultural countries in the world, and the problems in Ukraine could very soon become a global problem. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Russia and Ukraine stand for around 19% of the world’s corn exports and 29% of the export of wheat. 

Ukraine is also the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil and the threat to supplies has pushed up prices, hitting consumers and restaurateurs. 

“Ukraine has many millions of tonnes of grain that cannot be exported now. If they are not exported, it will be lost in one way or the other,” Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and former senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Euronews.

He said export problems and the potential decrease in output will have severe consequences for the world.

“It means that there will be hunger in the world. In my opinion, intentionally, Russia tries to cause hunger in third world countries,” said Aslund, pointing out it will be the world’s poorest countries that will be hardest hit by an increase in food prices. 

He said it was impossible to make up for the Russian blockade of the Black Sea by increasing exports through the land border with the EU, as grain takes up a lot of space.

The blockages are seen as a factor behind elevated food prices which hit a record high in March in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, before easing slightly in April, said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Ukraine has some of the best agricultural lands in the world and has been modernising the sector since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In 2021, the Ukrainian Ministry of Agricultural Policy and Food said that Ukraine produced 106 million tonnes of grain, pulses, and oilseeds, which was a record. 

How war has destroyed agricultural land

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has hindered that. FAO estimates that “between 20% and 30% of areas sown to winter crops in Ukraine will remain unharvested during the 2022/23 season” and that there are “considerable uncertainties surrounding Ukrainian farmers’ capacity to plant crops during the fast-approaching spring crop cycle”.

Andrey Novoselov is an analyst at the analytical consulting company Barva Invest with a focus on Ukraine. 

He says that Ukrainian farmers are experiencing a lack of fuel, fertilizer, and equipment. Many farmers from the areas around northern Ukraine — from where Russian troops have recently withdrawn — have lost a lot of their equipment and their fields are full of mines.

“There is a risk to the spring crops,” said Novoselov. “In the area around Chernihiv and Kyiv, some farmers told us that they cannot do any fieldwork due to mines.”

Novoselov called for the EU to help increase exports through Ukraine’s land border, especially via Poland and Romania, from where it can reach other ports. However, it cannot compensate for the closure of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, he added. 

“But even if the war ends, it might take months to clear all the mines in the Black Sea,” said Novoselov. “Day by day, the longer the war continues, the more the prices of wheat and so on will increase.”

Ukrainian farmer: ‘It is not a disaster right now’

Roman Gorobets is a farmer in the Poltava region in northeast Ukraine. He told Euronews he has found fragments from Russian missiles — shot down by Ukrainian defences — in his fields. 

He is better placed than others, however. He was able to sell the majority of his grain before the invasion.

“We have liquidity, money in the bank, so that we can function normally for the next month or two. But then we need to figure out something,” he told Euronews.

“We will plant as usual and will not change our crop rotation. So we are going to plant because we need our company up and running. Keep salaries to employees. Function as normally with a lot of hope that the war will end soon, with our victory. 

“But what is going to happen next, nobody knows.”

Gorobets echoed others who say the biggest problem is exporting. 

“We are quite far away from the western borders to the EU. It is not a disaster right now, and we are searching for new logistic routes,” said Gorobets. “But if nothing changes before the harvesting season, it will become a very big issue.”

“I hope that the world will help Ukraine to figure out how to unlock our ports.”

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