By Maurice and Tamman
(Reuters) – The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens millions of tiny spring shoots that are expected to emerge from the stalks of dormant winter wheat in the coming weeks. If farmers cannot feed these crops soon, far fewer so-called tillers will sprout, jeopardizing a national wheat crop on which millions of people in the developing world depend.
The wheat was planted last fall, which, after a brief period of growth, fell dormant for the winter. Before the grain comes to life, however, farmers usually apply fertilizer that encourages tillers to grow on the main stems. Each stalk can have three or four tillers, increasing the yield per stalk of wheat exponentially.
But Ukrainian farmers – who produced a record grain harvest last year – say they are now short of fertiliser, as well as pesticides and herbicides. And even if they had enough of these materials, they cannot get enough fuel to power their equipment, they add.
Elena Neroba, business development manager at Kyiv-based Maxigrain, said winter wheat yields in Ukraine could drop 15% from recent years if fertilizers are not applied now. Some farmers warn that the situation could be much worse.
Some Ukrainian farmers have told Reuters their wheat yields could be cut in half or even more, with implications far beyond Ukraine. Countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and others have come to depend on Ukrainian wheat in recent years. The war has already sent wheat prices skyrocketing, rising 50% last month.
Ukraine’s agricultural crisis comes as food prices around the world have already been rising for months due to global supply chain issues attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Global food prices hit a record high in February and have risen more than 24% in a year, the UN food agency said last week. Agriculture ministers from the world’s seven largest advanced economies are due to discuss in a virtual meeting on Friday the impact of the Russian 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 global exports, almost all of which pass through the Black Sea.
Svein Tore Holsether, chairman of Norway’s Yara International, the world’s biggest maker of nitrogen-based fertilizers, said he feared tens of millions of people could suffer food shortages due to the agricultural crisis. in Ukraine. “For me, it’s not about whether we’re going into a global food crisis,” he said. “That’s the scale of the crisis.”
Ukrainian officials say they still hope 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 far from the gunfight.
But authorities are taking steps to protect domestic supplies to ensure the Ukrainian population is fed, posing another possible hit to export shipments. Agriculture Minister Roman Leshchenko said on Tuesday that the country was banning the export of various commodities, including wheat. Leshchenko acknowledged the threat to Ukraine’s food supply and that the government was doing what it could to help farmers.
“We understand that food for the entire state depends on what’s in the fields,” he said in a televised address Monday.
Moscow says it is carrying out a special military operation in Ukraine to demilitarize and capture dangerous nationalists. He denied deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, despite documented attacks on hospitals, apartment buildings and railways.
Grain exports are the backbone of Ukraine’s economy.
In the coming weeks, farmers are also expected to start planting other crops, such as corn and sunflower, but they are struggling to get the seeds they need, said Dykun Andriy, chairman of Ukraine’s Agricultural Council, which represents about 1,000 farmers cultivating five million hectares. .
Andriy warned that fuel is the critical issue now. Unless farmers can get diesel to run their equipment, spring farm work will be impossible and this year’s crops doomed. “Farmers are desperate,” he said. “There is a great risk that we will not 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 was being done in his fields, about 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. Although he had enough fuel to get his equipment to the fields, he said he didn’t have enough fertilizer for all his crops and no herbicides.
“Usually we have maybe six to seven tons (of wheat) per hectare. This year I think if we get three tonnes per hectare it will be very good,” Chumak said. He added that he remains hopeful that Ukrainian farmers will find a way to produce enough food to feed their compatriots, but he does not expect much to be exported.
In northern Ukraine, he said friends of his were reduced to skimming fuel into a diesel-filled ditch after a Russian attack on a train spilled fuel from several tankers. Other friends in occupied areas near Kherson are recovering 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 flying over my house.
Val Sigaev, a grain broker with RJ O’Brien in Kiev, who evacuated last week, said it was unclear how much of the usual spring farming – planting and fertilizing – would be possible. High prices for natural gas – a major fertilizer input – have pushed up fertilizer prices, so some farmers have postponed purchases.
“Some people think we could plant up to half the crop,” Sigaev said. “Others say only the West will see plantations and what will be produced will be strictly for Ukrainian needs.”
The situation is particularly serious in the southern port city of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city captured by Russia after it invaded the country on February 24. The spring weather adds to the urgency for farmers, if they don’t tend to their fields now this year. the harvest will fail.
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 fall they sowed about 1,000 hectares of wheat, barley and rapeseed. His farmhands need to get to those fields now, but they can’t, he says, and they’ve lost access to fuel. “We are completely cut off from the civilized world and from the rest of Ukraine.”
Moreover, many of Pastushenko’s 80 workers cannot come to work on the farm because they live a few kilometers north, across the front line. The manager’s problems are compounded because the region is drier than other agricultural areas in the country and his fields must be irrigated. And that too requires fuel.
Unlike many, Pastushenko has a stockpile of nitrogen-based fertilizer of 50 metric tons. With the fighting all around him, though, he’s not sure that’s such a good thing: the fertilizer is highly explosive. “If something falls from a helicopter, it could blow up the whole place,” he said.
He said he feared the harvest would be bad. Last year, his wheat and barley fields produced 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 don’t know if we will be able to harvest anything,” he said. “Something will come out of the ground, but it won’t be enough to feed our livestock 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, a large part of Ukraine’s agricultural exports end up on ships in Ukraine’s busiest port. Today, no ship leaves and the city is besieged by Russian forces.
Much of the Ukrainian harvest was 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 almost a quarter. Ukraine has become WFP’s largest food supplier.
For some countries, rising prices could hit governments as well as consumers due to 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, pressure on the government to raise bread prices will also increase, said Sikandra Kurdi, a researcher at the Dubai-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
The country’s food subsidy program currently costs the government about $5.5 billion a year. Currently, nearly two-thirds of the population can buy five loaves of round bread a day for 50 cents a month.
Other poor with similar subsidies will also struggle with rising wheat prices. In 2019, protests against rising bread prices in Sudan contributed to the overthrow of the head of state, Omar al-Bashir.
For countries that provide large subsidies, rising food prices will either mean that governments will take on more debt or that consumers will pay higher prices, Kurdi said.
(Reporting by Maurice Tamman in New York, David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul, Sarah McFarlane in Sydney and Sarah El-Safty in Cairo; editing by Cassell Bryan-Low in London)