On August 30, as I write this article, the news has just been published that the first ship, with Ukrainian agricultural products, which was chartered by the UN World Food Programme, arrived in Djibouti with 23,000 tonnes of wheat on board. After unloading, wheat will be delivered to consumers in Ethiopia.
As part of the initiative, 44 ships left Ukrainian ports and exported more than 1 million tonnes of agricultural products to 15 countries around the world last month.
I never gave much thought to Ukrainian agriculture. As an economist by education, I always knew that it was a big and important part of our economy. As a Ukrainian by heritage, I always knew how fertile our land was. Fascists were taking black land from Ukraine to Germany. The Soviets created an artificial famine in 1932-33. Millions of Ukrainians died, though it was the best harvest in decades.As a result, Ukrainians are very careful about bread and about not finishing the food on the plate. From my childhood, I was taught by my grandparents that when bread falls from the table, after we pick it up, we should kiss it. To throw bread out is like a sin to Ukrainians. Grains have a special place during Christmas and any big holiday.
In the last six months, I have talked a lot about our agriculture. Because it is crucial not only for Ukraine but also for many other countries. In March-April, 2022 many Ukrainians realised that we are the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seeds oil, No. 3 in corn, No. 4 in walnuts, No. 5 in honey, No. 6 in wheat and pigs, No. 7 in oats and poultry meat, No. 8 in whole milk powder and No. 9 in cattle. These numbers were a surprise for many Ukrainians. The war which Russia escalated on February 24 in Ukraine made us fight another battle – how to deliver goods that are stuck in Ukrainian ports and are mined by Russians.
In the third week of the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in one of his evening messages, said that all Ukrainians are volunteering and supporting our army. It is extremely important to save Ukraine when no one believes in us. But we should not forget that we have to think about the long-term future and what any of us can do best for victory. Already in spring, we have to think about winter and how we can grow and harvest our land. The goods will not only be consumed by Ukrainians, but also by people in many countries.
One of our University Board members, a woman, has a family business in agriculture. Their family has not only developed their business but also their communities and villages. They provided education and built roads which are at the heart of their business. On March 29 in a Facebook post, she said, “We have started. God help us!” She added a picture of a tractor on their land. The post went viral. There has been no year when Ukrainians appreciated people working on the land like this year. The clarity came to so many.
However, war is devastating, not only to infrastructure and cities but also to land. In July, Ukraine lost most of the grain due to fires: 317,000 tonnes. These are catastrophic losses. About 22 percent of all Ukrainian agricultural land is currently occupied by Russians, according to NASA Harvest satellite data.
In July, the front line stretched for more than 1,000 km. Occupation forces are shelling fields in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv regions. Farmers and local authorities in the frontline areas see first-hand the loss of crops. Fields are burned by rocket fire, artillery, the detonation of mines or military equipment. Collecting data throughout Ukraine on the status of agriculture is a non-trivial task. Not everywhere do local authorities have the opportunity to estimate the total area of lost agricultural land. The latest study by the Kyiv School of Economics Institute, jointly with the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, says that as of June, direct losses in the agricultural sector amounted to $4.3 billion, and indirect losses, to $23.3 billion.
In July, 2022, almost the entire front-line zone in the south burned. It was primarily grain fields. In total, about 70,000 hectares of cereals (wheat and barley) were destroyed in a month. July was the first month of such large-scale fires. In contrast to the previous months, it was in July that the already ripe crop, ready to be harvested, would burn incredibly quickly from the impact of rocket fragments or artillery fire. Those who grow grain have suffered the greatest losses. Firstly, because it is the largest sector in terms of the number of manufacturers. Secondly, they were affected by a significant increase in the price of logistics. At its peak, logistics cost more than the grain itself.
Life is not easy in Ukraine now. Life is not safe. The life of many people in the world depends on how Ukrainians stand now. If we had not been resolute in February and March, it is a question of where Russian President Vladimir Putin and his army would have been by now and what our European neighbours would be doing now.
If we did not remember that this was not just about Ukraine, we would not be so strong. It is mind-blowing that in 2022 the basic right of people for life and human dignity is questioned now in Ukraine and the whole world is in a kind of reality show.
But it is also such a pity that food is being used as a major card in blackmailing by the terrorist State. Ukrainians feel huge responsibility now and rely on support and help from all parts of the world. With the help of God, right will prevail.
Otherwise, what do we leave to our children…
Dr. Sofiya is Vice-Rector for Strategic Development, Ukrainian Catholic University.
Source: September 2022 issue of PAX LUMINA on Global Food Crisis and Food Justice