The wheat was planted last autumn, which,
after a brief growing period, fell dormant for the winter. Before the grain
returns to life, however, farmers typically spread fertilizer that encourages
the tillers to grow off the main stalks. Each stalk can have three or four
tillers, increasing the yield per wheat stalk exponentially.

But Ukrainian farmers – who produced a record
grain crop last year – say they now are short of fertilizer, as well as
pesticides and herbicides. And even if they had enough of those materials, they
can’t get enough fuel to power their equipment, they add.

Elena Neroba, a Kyiv-based business
development manager at grain brokerage Maxigrain, said Ukraine’s winter wheat
yields could fall by 15% compared to recent years if fertilizers aren’t applied
now. Some farmers warn the situation could be much worse.

Some Ukrainian farmers told Reuters their
wheat yields could be cut in half, and perhaps by more, which has implications
far beyond Ukraine. Countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and others have
come to rely on Ukrainian wheat in recent years. The war has already caused
wheat prices to skyrocket – rising by 50% in the last month.

The Ukrainian farming crisis comes as food
prices around the world already have been spiking for months amid global supply
chain problems attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. World food prices hit a
record high in February, and have risen over 24% in a year, the UN food agency
said last week. Agriculture ministers from the world’s seven largest advanced
economies are due Friday to discuss in a virtual meeting the impact of Russia’s
invasion on global food security and how best to stabilize food markets.

Ukraine and Russia are major wheat exporters,
together accounting for about a third of world exports- almost all of which
passes through the Black Sea.

Svein Tore Holsether, president of
Norway-based Yara International, the world’s largest maker of nitrogen-based
fertilizers, said he is worried that tens of millions of people will suffer
food shortages because of the farming crisis in Ukraine. “For me, it’s not
whether we are moving into a global food crisis,” he said. “It’s how large the
crisis will be.”

Ukrainian officials say they are still hopeful
the country will have a relatively successful year. Much of that hope rests
with farmers in the west of the country, which, so far, remains distant from
the shooting.

But officials are taking measures to protect
domestic supplies to ensure Ukraine’s population gets fed – posing another
possible hit to export shipments. Agriculture Minister Roman Leshchenko said on
Tuesday the country was banning the export of various staples, including wheat.
Leshchenko has acknowledged the threat to Ukraine’s food supply and that the
government was doing what it can to help farmers.

“We understand that food for the entire state
depends on what will be in the fields,” he said in televised remarks Monday.

Moscow says it is conducting a special
military operation in Ukraine to demilitarize and capture dangerous
nationalists. It has denied deliberately targeting civilians and civil
infrastructure, despite documented attacks on hospitals, apartment buildings
and railroads.

Grain exports are a cornerstone of Ukraine’s

In the coming weeks, farmers should also start
planting other crops, such as corn and sunflowers, but they are struggling to
get the seeds they need, said Dykun Andriy, chairman of the Ukrainian
Agricultural Council, which represents about 1,000 farmers cultivating five
million hectares.

Andriy warned that the fuel is the critical
problem now. Unless farmers can get diesel to run their equipment, spring
farmwork will be impossible and this year’s harvests doomed. “Farmers are
desperate,” he said. “There is a big risk that we don’t have enough food to
feed our people.”

Maxigrain’s Neroba said farmers are facing
fuel shortages because military needs take priority.

Ukrainian farmer Oleksandr Chumak said little
work is happening in his fields, some 200 km north of the Black Sea port of
Odessa. He farms 3,000 hectares (about 7,500 acres) where he grows wheat, corn,
sunflowers and rapeseed. Even if he had enough fuel to get his equipment into
the fields, he said he had insufficient fertilizer for all of his crops and no

“Usually we have maybe six to seven tons (of
wheat) per hectare. This year, I think that if we get three tons per hectare,
it will be very good,” Chumak said. He added he remains hopeful that Ukrainian
farmers will find a way to grow enough food to feed their countrymen, but he
does not expect much will be exported.

In northern Ukraine, he said friends of his
have been reduced to skimming fuel from a ditch that was filled with diesel
after a Russian attack on a train spilled fuel from several tankers. Other
friends, in the occupied areas near Kherson, are scavenging diesel from
ambushed and abandoned Russian tanker convoys, Chumak said.

Currently, he spends much of his time
preparing for a Russian assault. “I live in Odessa. Every day I see rockets fly
over my house.”

Val Sigaev, a grain broker at RJ O’Brien in
Kyiv, who evacuated last week, said it is unclear how much of the usual spring
farming — planting and fertilizing — would be possible. High prices for
natural gas – a major input for fertilizer – sent fertilizer prices up, so some
farmers postponed purchases.

“Some people think we could plant as much
as half of the crop,” Sigaev said. “Others say that only the West will see
plantings and what is produced will be strictly for Ukrainian needs.”

An aerial view shows a French farmer in his tractor making bales of straw after wheat harvest in his field in Coquelles near Calais, northern France, July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

The situation is especially dire in the
southern port city of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city Russia captured after
invading the country on Feb. 24. Spring-like weather adds to farmers’ urgency,
if they don’t tend to their fields now this year’s harvest will be a bust.

Andrii Pastushenko is the general manager of a
1,500-hectare farm just west of the city, near the mouth of the Dnipro River.
Last autumn, they sowed about 1,000 hectares of wheat, barley and rapeseed. His
farm workers need to get into those fields now, but can’t, he says, and they’ve
lost access to fuel. “We’re completely cut off from the civilized world and the
rest of Ukraine.”

Additionally, many of Pastushenko’s 80 workers
cannot come to work at the farm because they live a few miles to the north,
across the front line. The manager’s problems are compounded because the region
is drier than other agricultural areas of the country and his fields need to be
irrigated. And that too requires fuel.

Unlike many, Pastushenko has a 50-metric ton
nitrogen-based fertilizer stockpile. With the fighting all around him, however,
he’s not sure that’s such a good thing: Fertilizer is highly explosive. “If
something drops from a helicopter, it could blow the whole place,” he said.

He said he fears the harvest will be poor.
Last year, his wheat and barley fields yielded about five metric tons per
hectare. If he doesn’t spray insecticide – which he says he can’t get – and
spread fertilizer, he doubts he’ll get a third of that amount.

“I’ve no idea whether we’ll be able to harvest
something,” he said. “Something will come off the ground, but it won’t be
enough to feed our cattle and pay our staff.”

About 150 km west of Pastushenko’s farm is the
Black Sea port of Odessa, which remains under Ukrainian control. In peacetime,
much of Ukrainian agricultural exports find their way onto ships at the port,
Ukraine’s busiest. Today, no ships are leaving and the city is besieged by
Russian forces.

Much of Ukraine’s harvest was due to be
exported to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Levant. According to the
United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), Ukraine supplies Lebanon with more
than half of its imported wheat, Tunisia imports 42 % and Yemen nearly a
quarter. Ukraine has grown to become WFP’s largest supplier of food.

For some countries, rising prices could hammer
governments as well as consumers because of state food subsidies.

Egypt, which has become increasingly dependent
on Ukrainian and Russian wheat over the past decade, heavily subsidizes bread
for its population. As the price of wheat rises, so will pressure on the
government to raise bread prices, said Sikandra Kurdi, a Dubai-based research
fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The country’s food subsidy program currently
costs the government about $5.5 billion annually. Currently, nearly two-thirds
of the population can buy five loaves of round bread daily for 50 cents a

Other poor with similar subsidies will also
struggle with rising wheat prices. In 2019, protests over bread price increases
in Sudan contributed to the overthrow of the head of state, Omar al-Bashir.

For countries that provide large subsidies,
rising food prices will mean that either governments take on more debt or
consumers will pay higher prices, Kurdi said.

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