Hardly any storage space, hardly any trade
Rich wheat harvest in Ukraine threatens to rot
May 23, 2022, 2:04 p.m
Similar to Russia, the wheat harvest could also be good in Ukraine. However, the warehouses there are still full and there is not enough space for the new harvest. Transport is massively restricted by the Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea. Part of the harvest could perish.
Looking at the seemingly endless fields of wheat near Odessa, farmer Dmitrij Matuljak finds it difficult to imagine that famine is imminent. In the south of Ukraine the grain harvest is imminent and it will be good. But as long as Russia blocks the port of Odessa, the wheat cannot be exported – with catastrophic consequences for poorer countries. The Russian attack hit Matuljak hard. On the first day of the invasion, one of its warehouses went up in flames in an air raid, burning 400 tons of animal feed. Nevertheless, the 62-year-old tilled his fields and will bring in a rich harvest in a few weeks.
But what to do with the grain? The camps are still full from last year, according to the Ukrainian authorities, more than 20 million tons of food have been left behind. It is to be feared that large parts of it will rot. “It’s brutal when food goes bad in a country and other people remain poor and hungry,” says Matuljak. “It’s an atrocity, a cruelty, there’s no other way to express it.” While most of the attention is focused on the grueling fighting in eastern Ukraine, the blockade of the Black Sea could have the most far-reaching consequences of war: rising food prices and famine.
In peacetime, Ukraine was one of the most important breadbaskets in the world. Around 4.5 million tons of agricultural products were exported monthly through its ports, including 12 percent of the world’s wheat, 15 percent of its corn and half of its sunflower oil. The Russian attacks and above all the naval blockade have largely brought trade to a standstill. Rail and truck transport cannot replace ship transport. The war “threatening to plunge tens of millions of people into food insecurity,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week. “Malnutrition, mass hunger and famine” for many years could follow.
Four million tons of grain are stored in Odessa
The port of Odessa has been idle for months. The city on the Black Sea was the center for agricultural exports for decades – also for other Eastern European countries. The grain arrived by rail and was shipped around the world from Odessa. There are currently more than four million tons of grain from last year’s harvest in the port and in the city’s warehouses. “We can no longer store the new harvest, that’s the problem,” says Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov. If the blockade continues, “people will just starve to death”.
On land, the Ukrainian army manages to resist the overwhelming enemy, but at sea the attacker clearly has the upper hand. “Unfortunately, Ukraine has traditionally neglected the issue of maritime security,” writes the country’s former Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk in an analysis published by the US think tank Atlantic Council. “While the democratic world has accepted the challenge of arming Ukraine to resist Russian aggression on land, international engagement in the naval war has been rather limited.”
Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked the world for “appropriate weapons” that could help end the Black Sea blockade. But even if it succeeds, it could be months before trading gets going again. Because hardly any shipping company will send their ships to the war zone.