The world’s important wheat crop in Ukraine is in danger

PERVOMAYSK, Ukraine – The grain that Ukraine produces can be found everywhere. Much of the bread in the Middle East is made from it. Much of what aid organizations distribute to fight famine in Yemen is made from it. Much of what feeds Chinese cattle, which in turn feed people around the world, is made from it.

Even with a catastrophic war nearing its seventh week, Ukraine is on track to harvest most of its vast crop fields this summer — although there are growing concerns war-related supply shortages are cutting output by as much as a third could. The country also has 30 million tons of wheat in stock.

“Last year was a record wheat year for the whole country,” said Dmytro Grushetskyi, an industrial farmer with nearly 30,000 acres of farmland near the central city of Uman, who also runs an agricultural data company that monitors crops in Ukraine, Russia and neighboring countries. “Ukraine is actually full of grain. Our warehouses are full.”

“But now we can’t get the grain out,” he said, putting his finger on the problem that could lead to a huge spike in grain prices and worsen hunger around the world, “which means Ukrainian farmers and the rest of the world.” world, are screwed.”

All Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea are sealed off from the outside world by a Russian blockade with floating mines. A battleship sunk by the Ukrainian navy to avoid capture is blocking access to grain storage facilities at the country’s largest port in Odessa. And after 20 years of investment in farm-to-port infrastructure, the wheat exported by train is a tiny fraction of what is exported by sea.

Without export earnings, Ukraine’s gargantuan industrial agriculture grinds to a halt, threatening farmers with bankruptcy and increasing the likelihood that the global grain market — and other food supplies that depend on it — will face ever-increasing shortages, even in the unlikely event that it does Conflict will end soon.

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David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), told the UN Security Council that food prices are already skyrocketing. A third of the world’s population depends on wheat as a staple food. Anger over rising food prices has always been one of the main causes of civil unrest around the world.

The effects of war on energy and fertilizer supplies are already affecting agricultural supply chains, raising the prices of staple foods for almost everyone on the planet.

Countries like Egypt – last year’s largest importer of Ukrainian wheat – as well as Lebanon, Pakistan and others source most of their wheat from Ukraine. The country produces about one-fifth of the world’s high-quality wheat and 7 percent of all wheat. WFP buys half of its grain from Ukraine.

Grushetskyi stockpiled more than $2 million worth of wheat, and like other farmers across the country, he worried that without the ability to sell some of it, he wouldn’t be able to pay workers, seeds, fuel and buy fertilizer. Maintaining equipment or paying outstanding bills, jeopardizing the future of his business.

A trader he works with at the port of Odessa, Oleksandr Chumak, put the industry’s despair in no uncertain terms.

“There is nothing left but to give away the grain to the army or as humanitarian aid. Thank God Ukraine will not starve,” he said. “But when we talk about global food security, well, that’s already a fragile system. Climate change, supply chain chaos and now this war – in six months poor people will starve. I don’t think the world understands that anymore. For their own sake, the transport of food through the Black Sea must be negotiated.”

For Ukrainian farmers, however, there are more immediate problems.

On the first morning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it took just two hours for his forces to occupy the 55 square miles of Volodymyr Khvostov’s industrial farms, which grow wheat, canola, sunflower and dairy cattle in the country’s most productive region, the Crimean Peninsula and the southern City of Kherson.

Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s most productive agricultural regions have come under Russian control.

Major canals that irrigate millions of hectares have been damaged in fighting.

The diesel that powers tractors and other equipment is increasingly unavailable across the country, either because it was once sourced from Russia or because Russia has bombed local fuel storage facilities.

Key moments in the farming calendar — fertilizing, tilling, and soon planting — pass as farmers struggle to get essential supplies and while others have gone to fight. Agricultural workers are exempt from conscription, but many have joined out of a sense of duty.

“We are still planning the harvest, even if it will be difficult,” Khvostov said. “But if we don’t defeat the Russians by then, the rest of the world won’t care.”

Agriculture officials in Ukraine have expressed concern that while their country’s army appears to be preventing the Russian army from achieving its most ambitious goals, Russia could win in a long war against Ukraine by crippling its agricultural economy.

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A collapse of industrial agriculture would be catastrophic for Ukraine in every conceivable way. And because Russia is also one of the world’s largest grain producers, it’s winning exactly where Ukraine is losing.

“It’s a secret weapon in war,” said Andrii Dykun, head of Ukraine’s Agricultural Council. “Let Ukraine go bankrupt. Make the world buy from Russia. Of course the world will buy from them instead of starving.”

Russia has already slashed its wheat prices to make its product more attractive on the world market, although it has also threatened to restrict agricultural exports to countries it considers hostile to its invasion of Ukraine. Russian food exports have yet to fall under Western sanctions, and some of the United States’ largest agribusinesses, including Cargill, continue to operate in Russia.

“American and German companies are still operating in Russia, and while the US is imposing sanctions on Russia, they are funding them at the same time,” Dykun said. “The West will slowly let us die this way.”

Because agriculture is such an integral part of Ukraine’s economy, the peasants were idolized by their fellow citizens, their role being considered almost as important as that of the soldiers. And many farmers have seen it as their duty to harvest as much grain as possible, not just for their land but for the world.

“It’s half a joke, but maybe the West should give us armored tractors,” said Bogdan Lukiyanchuk, a farmer, agronomist and host of Growex, a YouTube channel dedicated to Ukrainian farmers.

At a gathering at his home on the outskirts of Pervomaisk – north of the town of Mykolayiv, which has been under intense Russian shelling in recent weeks – Lukiyanchuk posed for a photo with an automatic rifle.

“I sleep with one. I’ll take someone else with me to the fields just in case,” he said. “We need to keep as much land under our control as possible. This fight is not only for Ukraine, but for everyone.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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