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Ears of wheat in a field near the village of Hrebeni in Kyiv region, Ukraine. In southern Ukraine, fieldwork typically begins somewhere between mid-March and the beginning of April. That means time remains to salvage this year’s harvest, although very little of it.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

Any day now, the weather will begin its turn toward spring in southern Ukraine, a moment that would normally mark the beginning of the planting season around Peresadivka, a village 75 kilometres from the Black Sea.

Volodymyr Semiryaga has fields ready to plant with sunflowers here, in a small corner of a country that agricultural economists estimate provides food for 350 million people.

“But I can’t sow anything,” he said. “Because that land is under occupation.” With Russian forces operating in his area, “no one can leave their homes because they told us they would shoot,” he said. Russian tanks have already opened fire on nearby farms. “They destroyed agricultural machinery, fertilizers and chemicals,” Mr. Semiryaga said.

The attacks have badly scarred Mr. Semiryaga’s future. He has little left from 12 years of building up his farming operation. “I even have loans that will have to be repaid after the war,” he said.

But Mr. Semiryaga’s loss, punishing as it is, constitutes a mere fraction of the agricultural cost that Russia’s war on Ukraine stands to exact. Farmers in Ukraine and Russia together produce roughly 12 per cent of the world’s calories. Their exports are the sustenance on which many countries in North Africa and the Middle East depend.

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A war that prevents Ukraine from growing some of its crops and blocks Russia from exporting its goods threatens consequences whose scale is difficult to imagine. “We’re going to see millions of people dying from lack of food,” agricultural economist Andriy Yarmak warns.

“The death rate from hunger may be much higher than the death rate from COVID-19 during these past two years,” Mr. Yarmak says. Ukrainian by birth, Mr. Yarmak has analyzed global food markets for three decades. “I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tragedy,” he said.

Worse, he expects high oil prices to encourage greater use of corn and sugar cane worldwide for the production of ethanol, which stands to further constrain food supplies. Such a possibility “has to be changed right now” by foreign governments to protect global food supplies, said Oleg Nivievskyi, an agriculture scholar at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Otherwise, he said, there is little prospect to replace what may be lost from Ukraine. Prof. Nivievskyi helped with a study several years ago to evaluate where in the world farmers could wring more food from the land. Only Russia and Ukraine offered real opportunity. If they are no longer on the global agricultural map, “you don’t have other options left,” he said.

Any threat to food is also a threat to global security. If low-income countries run low on food or see prices rise so high that many people can no longer afford to eat, “there will certainly be people trying to flee, and inevitably they will end up in high-income countries, like in Europe,” Prof. Nivievskyi said.

All may not yet be lost. Much of Ukraine remains gripped by late-winter cold, meaning the sowing season has not yet begun. Farmers planted winter crops, such as wheat and barley, without interruption. Those account for roughly a quarter of the country’s farmland.

Ukraine’s agricultural warehouses already contain sufficient seeds and fertilizer to ensure much of this year’s spring planting season is able to proceed. The country’s government has raced to support agriculture, exempting farmers from military conscription, providing state loan guarantees and interest rate payments, deferring duties on fertilizer imports and cutting taxes on fuel.

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In southern Ukraine, fieldwork typically begins somewhere between mid-March and the beginning of April. That means time remains to salvage this year’s harvest, although very little of it.

“If this all stops soon – I believe that everything is going to be fine,” said Kateryna Rybachenko, chief executive of Agro-Region, which operates 41,000 hectares of land across Ukraine. She expects to sow about 60 per cent of her company’s fields this year, since its land holdings include large areas outside of the current conflict zone. “In the central and western parts of Ukraine, where there has historically been a lot of corn, work is going on in the fields,” she said.

And Ukraine’s farmers, perhaps more than anyone else, have great motivation to forestall disaster. “Everybody understands the country and the world needs this grain. So basically we will do our best,” said Ms. Rybachenko.

At the moment, though, it’s unclear how much mere effort can produce. Active fighting in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine means only fields in central and western parts of the country are likely to be planted, said Alex Lissitsa, CEO of IMC, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies.

“But it will not be more than 40 or 50 per cent of the total land,” he said. With diesel in demand by the military, he estimates farmers have access to only a fifth of the fuel they need to plant crops this year. Russian shelling has destroyed some silos, elevators, fuel storage and slaughterhouses. Only one domestic fertilizer manufacturer is still in operation.

And fields have been mined. The Ukrainian military has fired anti-tank weapons at advancing Russian forces from cropland. In response, Russian forces have placed landmines on pathways through those fields, said Mr. Lissitsa, who is also president of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club.

On the weekend, he said, a fleeing family was killed when they struck one of those mines in the Chernihiv region, which borders Belarus. “I will not send my workers to fields where there are probably mines,” he said.

Other obstacles have also accumulated, including unexploded ordnance and corpses. “It’s not very good to begin planting among the bodies of killed soldiers,” Mr. Lissitsa said.

IMC operates 120,000 hectares. Mr. Lissitsa is preparing to plant only 20,000 hectares. What Ukraine grows this year, he says, “will be enough to cover domestic needs.” But if war continues, he does not expect any agricultural exports from Ukraine this year. Already, the destruction of farm equipment portends a long return to normal operations.

Even before the war, supply chain problems meant “big companies had lead times of six to nine months for delivery of machinery to Ukraine,” said Vitaliy Skotsyk, chair of Agrarian Platform, a loose co-operative of mid-sized farming operations.

For him, ensuring Ukraine survives has become as much a focus as attempting to secure adequate fertilizer. He now leads a high-risk operational unit for an arm of the Territorial Defence militia operating just outside Kyiv. He spent much of Sunday night patrolling the streets, getting just 90 minutes of sleep before beginning weekday conference calls.

“We are driving around the area with machine guns, checking everything. Then in the morning we go to normal work,” he said. He remains optimistic.

“All of us count on this war being sorted out. Because they cannot fight for a long period of time,” he said of Russian forces. “We are talking weeks or months. We definitely are not talking about years.”

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