Farming on the battlefield. The reality behind Ukraine’s efforts to put food on our tables
The next time one picks up a sandwich during the lunch break at school, one ought to take a moment to reflect on what the sandwich actually consists of. Perhaps cheese, tomato, some ham – all of these ingredients are replaceable except for one, namely the bread. It is just one sandwich out of a global bakery market worth over $450 billion annually.
When Russia launched its illegal war on Ukraine, most analyses were focused on the impact the war had on energy markets, because Russia is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, coal and natural gas. However, the grim reality is that the war has an even greater effect on food supply, bringing famine to Africa and the Middle East, as well as pushing up prices of all kinds of foods.
Ukraine is often called ‘the breadbasket of the world’. It is so because the incredibly rich soil of Ukraine combined with optimal climate have resulted in this nation being the world’s major exporter of grain, responsible for a 12% global wheat export, 18% of barley, and 16% of corn. Moreover, Ukraine is behind half of the global supply of sunflower oil.
The immediate effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that prices of grain skyrocketed. And while many nations around the world would only suffer from higher prices, in many instances poorer communities would be priced out.
The world already has a hurting problem of hunger that it is desperately trying to solve – according to UNICEF, every night 800 million people go to bed hungry, and every year 3.1 million children die from malnutrition. In Africa alone, there are at least 25 countries that import more than a third of their total grain consumed from Ukraine and Russia.
Undoubtedly, the world hunger problem will be further exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With bombs landing in fields, farmers joining the military, fuel, seed, and fertilizer shortages, alongside the blocking of ports in the Black Sea by Russian fleets and mines, UNICEF expects the number of hungry children to double as a result of Putin’s war.
Even if the Russian military would cease all operations now, the problems would not go away fast. As it is estimated that 400 mines are floating in the Black Sea, it would take months for minesweepers to finish clearing them before ports could reopen for exports.
Effectively, what we are seeing in front of us, is Russia not only killing Ukrainian children with rockets and bombs (at least 183 children have been killed, 342 injured) but many more across the world due to the secondary effects of this horrific war.
“Russia’s war with Ukraine will kill more Africans from starvation than Ukrainians on the battlefields. Africa should get off the fence and condemn Russian aggression”, an Oxford University’s international relations expert, Samuel Ramani, wrote on Twitter.
For 49 days now, Ukrainian farmers have been operating in military mode. They are forced into completing new duties. Living through the spirit of fighting for their land is manifesting physically as they now detect, study and extract bombs from their own crop fields every single day. With the help of Ukrainian military forces, all operations have been handled safely but still, they have to be thinking: “Are we in the 21st century?!” One could imagine having a Russian missile planted in one’s garden right now, exactly where one had been hoping for flowers to blossom.
The people of Ukraine, however, have displayed their humble and proud nature. Surely, it is not a typical day at work when one extracts all kinds of explosives but what farmers underline is that they are thankful for these missiles to strike their fields instead of residential areas in densely populated areas. The soil of Ukraine has always been protecting those who inhabit it – economically in the past and now by capturing missiles launched by aggressors on innocent civilians.
Ivan, a 28-year-old farm manager at Agro Region, wakes up in the morning. Before anyone else, he is on the field in search of stray missiles. When he locates them, he calls on the Ukrainian military to help him deactivate and extract them safely. He takes part in this work, farm tractors and other agricultural machinery are now employed to pull and load bombs, some of them weighing half a tonne, before they are disposed of by the army.
He takes pictures, documenting not only how directly the war has hit his homeland but also what Russia is hurling at Ukraine – frequently, he finds unopened cluster bombs, an illegal kind of weapon that opens mid-air to release deadly submunitions which cover broader areas.
Only after this is all completed, farmers can go back to work in the fields and look after crops.
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Kateryna Rybachenko* is the CEO of Agro Region, one of the most successful agricultural enterprises in Ukraine. Founded in 2002, the Agro Region farms over 41,000 hectares (roughly the equivalent of 76,000 football pitches – or 4.7 Manhattan islands in New York City) divided into three clusters of Kyiv, the Chernihiv, Zhytomyr and Khmelnytskyi regions.
Rybachenko is positive that Agro Region can be perceived as a company representative for Ukraine’s agricultural industry not only in terms of crops – which include corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflower, and barley – but also in terms of the scale of how the war impeded the company’s operation. Therefore, the difficulties which the Agro Region faces permit a projection of how bad this year will be for Ukrainian agriculture as a whole.
Since the beginning of the war, the company has been forced into dealing with extreme working conditions. Yet, some difficulties are shared by all clusters while some are limited to only part of the land cultivated by the company. In some respects, the damage has already been done and there is nothing one could do, in other aspects, there is some scope for problems to be lifted and much more for them to be exacerbated further.
Everywhere in Ukraine, farmworkers are faced with life-threatening risks from mines and rockets, as not all of them are clearly visible.
The least pressing is the shortage of workers. Many of Agro Region’s employees have joined the army. Despite as many as one in three agricultural workers enlisting to serve in the military, Rybachenko assumes this will not affect the crops because there is a widespread understanding of what is at stake; therefore those who decided to remain at work do much more hours (in Ukraine, agriculture is considered a strategic sector, so people responsible for food security are exempt from mandatory military service) in order to sustain the nation’s economy.
There are reasons, however, for those who cultivate the fields to not be able to look after crops as thoroughly as they would like – a lack of spraying and fertilisers will result in declining quality of produce and severely reduced yields. Moreover, logistics have become next to impossible as the issue of the Black Sea blockade from Russia’s naval forces remains completely untouched.
Overall, we are expecting a substantial reduction of both yield and quality. The minimal figure is production reduced to 70% of that from the previous year when we had 10 tons per hectare. Please bear in mind that farmers are heavily dependent on weather conditions and efficiency. We don’t know whether we will be able to harvest at all on time. So the decrease of production could reach 50%
Kateryna Rybachenko, chief executive officer of Agro Region
The first cluster of fields is located in the Zhytomyr-Khmelnytskyi region, in the Western part of Ukraine. As these areas were not directly invaded by Russia, it was generally possible to maintain close-to-regular field operations there. It is important to underline that the area was not untouched by war, it was only not invaded by Russian land forces.
Western Ukraine is experiencing airstrikes and artillery shelling of infrastructure, and Rybachenko explained that one of the most significant problems for her company’s aims to keep the fields cultivated was how Russian tactical measures of shelling not only the military targets and airports but all infrastructure related to fuel distribution. For her it was apparent that the aim was to prevent tractors and other agricultural vehicles from accessing fuel, therefore preventing Ukraine from benefiting from their agricultural wealth.
The second cluster is located in the vicinity of Kyiv and the Boryspil Airport which, as the main airport in the country, was one of the first targets of the invasion. In addition to the problems faced by workers and managers of the first cluster, this area had an even greater risk to workers’ health and life, as constant shelling of Kyiv resulted in a number of missiles landing in company fields – a vivid testimony to how disorganised and poorly trained the invaders were.
“We have to locate those rockets first. Then, together with the Ukrainian army, we have to defuse them and transport them out with special equipment and under military supervision. And only then do we go back to the problems faced by those working in the first cluster”, Rybachenko explains.
The most difficult situation is in the third cluster, whose fields are directly within the part of Ukraine under the current Russian occupation. “The Russians were not allowing humanitarian deliveries, they blocked roads and did not allow for cars to move”, Rybachenko notes, “There, the greatest question mark was whether we would be able to see the spring crops at all. We usually do it March and April and throughout March we simply could not have done that. On April 6 the Russian military has left Chernihiv oblast but planted mines in many areas. On April 10 Agro Region decided to start the sawing campaign there.”
The future only holds uncertainty. Even if the company were able to harvest some or all the crops, under current circumstances, it would be impossible to sell and deliver them to buyers. “We do not understand why we are producing this food. We are not able to ship it out and we simply don’t have the capacity to store all of that grain. There is a huge demand for our food, and we are willing to feed the whole world. However, we cannot deliver the food where it is needed. I imagine Ukraine drowning in its produce. This happens as we speak,” Rybachenko says.
She considers the Russian campaign to be aimed at destroying Ukraine’s economy by ruining the infrastructure of its agriculture. “They are trying to destroy everything: fuel depots, bridges, roads, warehouses, to strip Ukrainians of their key economic wealth, their agriculture,” she explains. Ukraine, however, has so far managed to defend itself on this front – the sawing campaign of 2022 managed to proceed.
“Now, the sea blockade is the most pressing issue. With that, Russians are targeting not only Ukraine but also the whole world. In that way, the Russian aggression is having a direct impact on us, and we do not even realise that. As the Ukrainian farmers cannot ship out their harvest from the last year to a customer outside of Ukraine, all their forward contracts are terminated. This generates losses as we speak because farmers are not being paid.
“And the next year is going to be similar as in the effect of the blockade our storages are filled with last year’s stocks of grain. When the new harvest comes, there will be no space to store it and no space to dry it. That’s when the food security around the planet will be at risk”, Rybachenko explains.
What is being done by the Russian government today in Ukraine is criminal. How many nights will we have to watch a nation having to extract bombs from their fields? Watching millions of Ukrainians being affected, we will watch this extend onto billions of plates globally. The sooner it ends, the better for us all.
Kyiv, Ukraine | London, UK
Born in 2005 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sophie studies in the United Kingdom and plans to study international relations. For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes about arts and politics, focusing on history, foreign affairs and the war in Ukraine. Sophie speaks Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Russian, French and English.