At a former World War One battlefield near Verdun, France, some pre-war grain fields and pastures have gone unfarmed for more than a century due to craters and unexploded shells, a 2008 paper by Remi de Matos-Machado and Hupy said.
Hupy told Reuters that some arable land in Ukraine, too, may never return to crop production due to its contamination and topographic alteration. Many other fields will require significant earth-moving to relevel the ground, along with demining on a massive scale, Hupy said.
Naomi Rintoul-Hynes, senior lecturer in soil science and environmental management at Canterbury Christ Church University, studied soil contamination from World War One and fears the conflict in Ukraine is doing similar, irreversible damage.
“It is of utmost importance that we understand how bad the situation is as it stands,” she said.
Lead, for example, has a half-life of 700 years or more, meaning it may take that long for its concentration in the soil to decrease by half. Such toxins can accumulate so much in plants growing there that human health may become affected, Rintoul-Hynes said.
To be sure, World War One lasted four years, and the war in Ukraine only one year so far, but lead remains a key component of many modern munitions, Rintoul-Hynes said.
Removing mines and other unexploded ordnance, which cover 26% of Ukraine’s land according to the government, will likely take decades, said Michael Tirre, Europe program manager for the US State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal.
Andrii Pastushenko’s dairy farm in southeastern Ukraine, where he grows cattle feed and sunflowers, is pockmarked with craters and former Russian bunkers.