Russia has planted mines in millions of hectares of the world’s most fertile soil.
BY EDDY WAX
May 16, 2022
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 retreated from the northeastern Chernihiv region, 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 early 60s whom he employed on the farm.
The Russians mined all of his fields, and went on a “hunting expedition” against the cows that hadn’t already been killed by missiles or shrapnel, said the father of three. “It was horrible, just horrible,” he said over the phone, raging against the “savages,” who also looted women’s underwear from his family’s property.
Tkachenko’s harrowing experience is playing out across Ukraine, a country that in normal times fed 10 times its own population, sending ships laden with wheat, sunflower oil and corn to North Africa and the Middle East. Countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Mauritania have come to rely on Ukraine’s vast exports that have slowed to a trickle as Russia blockades its Black Sea ports.
Now, as Ukraine’s farmers press ahead with a delayed spring sowing campaign, the scale of the damage Russia has inflicted on its food production capacity is wreaking havoc on world markets. Food prices have shot up, provoking an unprecedented affordability crisis that will worsen the already record level of world hunger, according to a recent joint U.N. and EU report. “Ukraine is now forced to concentrate on providing food for its own citizens,” Ukrainian diplomat Markiyan Dmytrasevych told a U.N. meeting on food security in Poland last week.
Russia’s deliberate targeting of farms is particularly cruel because Ukraine possesses some of the richest agricultural land in the world. A belt of ultra-fertile chernozem “black soil” crisscrosses the country from north to south, and east to west, but much of it is now out of action due to the war.
An estimated 10 million hectares — a third of Ukraine’s total farmland — has been knocked out of production either because it’s occupied by Russian troops or because the land is strewn with landmines, unexploded shells and the charred remains of tanks and other military hardware, said Mykhailo Amosov, a land use expert at Ukrainian environmental NGO Ecoaction.
About 6 or 7 million hectares of the bountiful chernozem soil is now out of use, he estimated. “They mined everything they can get and officials are saying around three to five years will be needed to de-mine this area,” Amosov said. “I see a lot of farmers working in a bulletproof vest because it’s dangerous to be on the field,” he said.
Tkachenko said his fields were littered with unexploded ordnance when the Russians retreated. “Most of the technical stuff has been restored, but we’re having issues with mines in our fields.”
Sow far, so good
Despite struggling to access crucial supplies from fuel to fertilizer and seeds after the war began, Ukraine’s farmers are managing to sow crops like corn, sunflowers and soybeans this spring, with most estimates showing that around 70 percent of last year’s surface area can be seeded. “Even five or six weeks ago, we estimated that farmers could only sow up to 30 or 40 percent of our plant area,” said Mariia Dudikh, the director of the Ukrainian National Agrarian Forum, an umbrella farmers’ organization.
But whether they will be able to harvest as usual later in the year, is another question. A threat still looms over the wheat that farmers have tended since last winter. “Maybe in three months when the period will be for harvesting, maybe Russians will attack and steal all this harvest and grains,” Dudikh said.
Kyiv believes that Russia has already stolen some 400,000 metric tons of food from areas it controls, with reports that it is trying to export it to its political allies like Syria. “The Russian military began to take our grain and sunflower oil from the temporary occupied territory in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” Dmytrasevych, the Ukrainian diplomat, said at the U.N. conference.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that Ukraine’s wheat production will fall to 21.5 million metric tons in the 2022-23 crop year, down from 33 million the year before.
There are also early signs that the productive southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will be able to supply fewer home-grown cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes and watermelons this year due to the heavy fighting that has taken place there. “It’s not critical but we need these vegetables to eat healthily, and small farmers were the main producers,” Amosov said.
Even if Russia doesn’t get its hands on the winter grain that will need to be harvested in July and August, it may simply rot away because there may be nowhere to store it. Russia has targeted so-called elevators, which are gigantic silos for storing grain. “The problem is that they won’t be able to store the new grain coming in,” explained Máximo Torero, the chief economist of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the looming storage and price crisis is primarily being caused by Russia’s continued blockade of the Black Sea, which was the route out of Ukraine for 90 percent of its major food commodities before the war.
There are around 24 million metric tons of wheat and maize stuck in Ukraine, unable to be exported. “If that comes out then prices will substantially fall,” said Torero.
The EU wants to solve the complex logistical difficulties holding back the expansion of land-based exports but until that is improved, there’s a real threat of financial ruin for the farmers still operating, as they rely on the traders for their incomes. “The main issue is the money,” Tkachenko said. “We have enough time to restore the roofs to store the harvest, but the main thing is getting the finances together.” “I will rebuild my farm,” Tkachenko vowed. “It will be much better even than it was before the war. There won’t be a second coming of these fuckers.”
Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting.