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Frontline Ukrainian farmers fight to feed the world – POLITICO


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On a 1,500 hectare plot of Europe’s breadbasket, Ukrainian farmer Grygorii Tkachenko is rebuilding his farm.

Russian forces rained Grad missiles and bullets on his land in early March, wiping out buildings, machinery and half his livestock – leaving only a trail of devastation when they finally withdrew from the northern region -east of Chernihiv, where he produces corn, potatoes and cows. ‘ Milk.

“They fired at us a lot, and we had a lot of unexploded missiles,” the 54-year-old said of the Russians’ three-day attack on his village, Lukashivka. The assault killed Valentina, a woman in her sixties whom he employed on the farm.

The Russians mined all his fields and embarked on a “hunting expedition” against cows that had not yet been killed by missiles or shrapnel, the father-of-three said. “It was awful, just awful,” he said over the phone, furious at the “savages”, who also looted women’s underwear from his family’s property.

Tkachenko’s harrowing experience plays out across Ukraine, a country that normally fed its own population 10 times, sending ships laden with wheat, sunflower oil and corn to North Africa and the Middle East. East. Countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Mauritania have come to depend on Ukraine’s vast exports which have slowed to a trickle as Russia blocks its Black Sea ports.

Now, as Ukrainian farmers continue a delayed spring planting campaign, the scale of the damage Russia has inflicted on its food production capacity is wreaking havoc on world markets. According to a recent joint report by the UN and the EU, food prices have soared, causing an unprecedented affordability crisis that will worsen the already record level of hunger in the world.

“Ukraine is now forced to focus on providing food to its own citizens,” Ukrainian diplomat Markiyan Dmytrasevych told a UN meeting on food security in Poland last week.

Russia’s deliberate targeting of farms is particularly cruel because Ukraine has some of the richest agricultural land in the world. An ultra-fertile belt chernozem The “dark earth” criss-crosses the country from north to south and from east to west, but much of it is now out of use due to war.

An estimated 10 million hectares – a third of Ukraine’s total agricultural land – have been taken out of production either because they are occupied by Russian troops or because the terrain is strewn with landmines, d unexploded shells and charred remains of tanks and other military equipment, Mykhailo said. Amosov, spatial planning expert at the Ukrainian environmental NGO Ecoaction.

About 6 or 7 million hectares of the generous chernozem the ground is now out of order, he estimated. “They mined everything they could get and officials say it will take about three to five years to clear this area,” Amosov said.

“I see a lot of farmers working with body armor because it’s dangerous to be in the field,” he said.

Tkachenko said his fields were littered with unexploded ordnance when the Russians withdrew. “Most of the technical elements have been restored, but we have problems with the mines in our fields.”

Sow away, it’s alright

Despite struggling to access crucial supplies ranging from fuel to fertilizer and seeds after the war began, Ukrainian farmers are managing to sow crops like corn, sunflowers and soybeans this spring, the most estimates showing that about 70% of last year’s area can be sown.

“Even five or six weeks ago… we estimated that farmers could only plant 30 or 40 percent of our planting area,” said Mariia Dudikh, director of the National Agrarian Forum of Ukraine, an umbrella organization of farmers. .

But whether they will be able to harvest as usual later in the year is another question. A threat still hangs over the wheat that farmers have been growing since last winter.

“Maybe in three months, when the time is for the harvest, maybe the Russians will attack and steal all that harvest and grain,” Dudikh said.

kyiv estimates that Russia has already stolen some 400,000 tonnes of food from areas it controls, and is trying to export it to political allies like Syria.

“The Russian army has started taking our grain and sunflower oil from the temporarily occupied territory in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” Dmytrasevych, the Ukrainian diplomat, told the UN conference.

Ukrainian farmer Misha stands near a tractor destroyed by a Russian tank shell in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine | John Moore/Getty Images

The US Department of Agriculture forecasts Ukraine’s wheat production to fall to 21.5 million metric tons in the 2022-23 crop year, from 33 million the previous year.

There are also early signs that the productive southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will be able to supply fewer locally grown cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes and watermelons this year due to heavy fighting there. .

“It’s not critical, but we need these vegetables for healthy eating, and small farmers were the main producers,” Amosov said.

Even if Russia doesn’t get its hands on winter grain that will need to be harvested in July and August, it may simply rot because there may be nowhere to store it. Russia has targeted the so-called elevators, which are gigantic silos for storing grain. “The problem is that they will not be able to store the new cereals that arrive,” explained Máximo Torero, chief economist of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

But impending storage and price The crisis is mainly caused by Russia’s continued blockade of the Black Sea, which was Ukraine’s exit route for 90% of its main food products before the war.

There are approximately 24 million metric tons of wheat and corn stuck in Ukraine, which cannot be exported. “If that happens, prices will drop significantly,” Torero said.

The EU wants to resolve the complex logistical difficulties that are holding back the expansion of land exports, but until this is improved there is a real threat of financial ruin for farmers still in business, as they depend on traders for their income. .

“The main problem is money,” Tkachenko said. “We have time to restore the roofs to store the harvest, but the main thing is to get the finances together.”

“I will rebuild my farm,” Tkachenko swore. “It will even be much better than before the war. There will be no second coming of these motherfuckers.

Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting.

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