War. Stories from Ukraine

Ukrainians tell stories about their life during the war

The world is facing the threat of “the biggest famine since World War II”: What Russia has to do with it and why it will affect everyone

by | 28 August 2022 | War. Stories from Ukraine

Writer: Maria Semenchenko

Editor: Aliona Vyshnytska

Translator: Roksolana Mashkova

Illustrator: Karyna Katsun

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukrainian territory. And already in a month, in early April, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN calculated that global food prices broke the historical record, growing by 33.6% in just one month. FOA attributed these price dynamics to the turmoil in the vegetable oil and grain markets due to the war in Ukraine, particularly due to Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports.

In 2019–2021, Ukraine provided almost 10% of the global wheat exports, 15% of barley exports, and almost 50% of sunflower oil exports. A number of countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, are critically dependent on the imports of these foods. The months-long Russian blockade of Ukraine’s sea ports, through which 90% of the grain exports were transported, already has consequences both for the global market and for specific people suffering from hunger.

“President Putin is stopping food from being shipped and aggressively using his propaganda machine to deflect or distort responsibility because he hopes it’ll get the world to give in to him and end the sanctions. In other words, quite simply put, it’s blackmail,” stated US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He emphasized that Russia was seriously exacerbating the situation with famine outside Ukraine’s borders, particularly in African countries.

According to UN Secretary General António Guterres, the war in Ukraine threatens 1.7 billion people, 20% of the world’s population, with hunger and poverty. And according to the predictions of EurasiaGroup, by November 2022, about 1.9 billion people will already face food security problems. This may cause riots and protests in the poorest countries, a significant outflow of refugees from Africa and Asia to Europe, and mass human deaths from famine, primarily in African countries.

A wheat field in Donetsk Oblast after the Russian shelling. Source: SESU

Drought, COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine can cause “the biggest famine since World War II” in the world, stated Svenja Schulze, the German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Russia blackmails the world with food and uses the food crisis as a weapon to put pressure on the global community. It blocks and bombs Ukrainian ports, destroys Ukrainian grain storage facilities, burns crops in Ukrainian fields, transports crop yields and agricultural equipment from the occupied territories to Russia, bombs food warehouses and oil storage facilities all over Ukraine, mines agricultural lands. But even under these circumstances, Ukraine has managed to first sow and then harvest its grain.

On June 22, Ukraine, under the auspices of the UN, signed the so-called “grain deal” with Turkey about resuming exports via sea routes. A corresponding agreement with Turkey and UN Secretary General Guterres was signed by Russia. But right the next day, Russians attacked the Odesa Sea Trading Port with Caliber missiles. Despite this, on August 1, the first Ukrainian ship carrying grain left the Odesa Port. In total, in the 20 days of the “grain deal,” 27 ships have left Ukrainian ports, and 40 have applied to enter them. However, there is no guarantee that Russia would not fire at ports and grain storage facilities.

“I’m not afraid of anything anymore”

In spring, the frontline got very close to the fields of the Mykolayiv agricultural company called the Golden Ear. The land belonging to the company was littered with missile craters as well as mines and unexploded ammunition. The company depot was struck by Russian missiles, and all of their equipment was damaged. The grain warehouse was battered by shell fragments. The office building was robbed by Russians. “But we keep working. What else do we have left?” says the company director Nadia Ivanova.

Photo: Nadia Ivanova

“At first there was shock,” she recalls. “We didn’t understand what to do and where to run. On the night of February 24, there was major shelling, but in the morning everyone came to work. We managed to get some work done by noon, but then air raid sirens began, and I let the people go home.” She says that in the first weeks, the company helped the military. In particular, their equipment dug trenches and arranged checkpoints. “Of course, we couldn’t work in the field at that point,” says Nadia Ivanova. “Many were afraid. The frontline was so close to our fields. We harvested the seed crops later than we were supposed to.”

The agricultural enterprise has been working since 2003 and cultivating four thousand hectares. It specializes in growing seeds.

“In addition to traditional winter crops, wheat, rapeseed, sunflower, we also grow forage grasses—peas, mustard, lucerne, millet, as well as niche crops such as coriander, linen, etc.,” says Nadia Ivanova. “We employ 78 people. Nobody has left or quit, even despite the shelling and the generally unstable situation in the region. This year, despite everything, we managed to sow 3,300 hectares out of 4,000.”

Nadia Ivanova recalls back-to-back bombings. “On March 7, there was a mass shelling of our threshing floor, several missiles hit the depot, a few tractors burned up completely, other tractors and combine harvesters were battered: not a single window pane left unshattered, not a single wheel undamaged,” says the director. “When our military pushed the frontline back a little, we began by restoring what could be restored in order to go out in the fields. Then there was an interesting quest to remove everything that exploded or did not explode from the fields. We heard news about farmers and mechanics blowing up 10-15 kilometers from our fields. Everyone was scared. We tried to clean up our fields as best we could, and it was a long process: we cleaned one field and went to work there, then the same was repeated for the next field.”

Photo: Nadia Ivanova

They were unable to repair their equipment quickly. Stores in Mykolayiv had shut down, it was impossible to find and buy the required spare parts. Delivery companies and the post were not working either. “There was also the diesel collapse,” recalls Nadia Ivanova. “Now the situation with fuel has stabilized more or less, only the price has increased twofold or even more.”

The yield this year was worse than they expected, says Nadia Ivanova. “We weren’t able to fertilize the plants, a part of the area was not sprinkled, plus the drought, so I realized in general that we should not expect a good yield. And our fields burned in Bashtanka… So we have what we have. We’ll survive it,” she says.

The director is cautious about discussing plans. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine threw the company’s development back by a few years, and all their plans and ideas are now directly contingent on the war situation in the region.

Photo: Nadia Ivanova

“At first I planned to keep the entire team on and pay their salaries on time. Then I wanted to buy all the required spare parts, clear the fields of missiles, find fuel, and then cross the frontier: first a sowing campaign, then harvesting. We’ve already crossed that frontier. I don’t know what will happen with the sales. Today, a Ukrainian agricultural businessman’s purchasing capacity is very low,” she explains. “We worked a lot with animal farmers from the Kherson Region, but it’s been occupied. Many have reduced their head counts. For now, we’re going with the flow, because it;s unclear what will happen tomorrow. But we’re working. There was a rain, so we sowed rapeseed. I believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and I plan to sow winter crops.”

When asked what she is most afraid of today, Nadia Ivanova laughs out loud. “Me? I’m not afraid of anything anymore,” she says. And then she recalls how, in the first two months of the full-scale war, their company made cereals 24/7 and handed them out to people in the villages which even volunteers couldn’t reach. “We exchanged some of the cereals for flour, vegetables, oil. We packed grocery sets and delivered them to the villages under shelling where buses did not go. In the first two months, we handed out over 120 tonnes of our grain. Our driver and I drove there in our van. I caught myself thinking that this once-busy highway was now completely empty, not a single car. Was I afraid? No. Am I afraid now? No. We have to do our thing,” she concluded.

“Low-income countries are simply left without access to basic foods”

The biggest problem now is blocked export logistics, which is crucial for the fate of Ukraine’s agricultural sector, and therefore for the global market, says analyst Andriy Yarmak, who has 30 years of experience in analyzing global agricultural markets.

“The main threat today is the inability to resume production in the new cycle or the new season. The sowing campaign will start already in September, and we can see a radical shrinking of areas sown with winter wheat. And if Ukraine is not cleared of the invaders by spring, then areas sowed with other crops will also shrink. Then the market will focus primarily on meeting the domestic demand, not on exports like before. Ukraine can practically disappear from the map of global exporters. And this is a problem for the global market.”

Photo: Andriy Yarmak

Back in spring, Andriy Yarmak described a simplified outline of how exactly Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens the world with famine. He also explained why the food crisis will affect not only low-income population categories but also the middle class and wealthy people.

“Ukraine exports much more animal feed than food-grade grains. Animal feed is number one in our agricultural exports: corn, oil crop grist, soy, which is the main source of plant protein for animal farming,” explains the expert. “And animal farming is an industry with rather long production cycles. And if the wheat shortage due to interrupted exports from Ukraine was felt by everyone almost immediately, the consequences of interrupted animal feed exports will be felt by countries gradually. The least efficient producers in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries have already started reducing their head counts. That is, a spike in feed prices leads to rapidly decreasing head counts in places where production instantly becomes unprofitable, and then meat prices soar. In my view, in late 2022, some countries will see exorbitant meat prices.”

Andriy Yarmak adds that while grain shortages and growing bread prices cause disgruntlement among low-income populations, expensive meat irritates the middle class and rich people.

“And if both poor population categories and the middle class are disgruntled, we have a perfect setting for problems. So in September-October 2022, we may already face a new wave of revolutions and local wars in regions which are traditional markets for Ukrainian agricultural produce. Wars in that region mean a rapid reduction of income for everyone, including wealthy countries such as EU members and the US,” explains the agriculture expert. “Ukraine is the biggest exporter of protein feed in particular for the entire region. Other exporters are very far away: the US, Argentina, Brasil. And it’s plain impossible to replace Ukraine on this market.”

He emphasizes that “If we take the biggest regional player, which is Ukraine, out of the global market, a player that cannot be replaced even in five years, the price increases will be cyclical and long-term. And with these price increases, low-income countries will just gradually find themselves without access to basic foods: first bread and oil, then foods made of grain and vegetable oils, then milk, eggs, and then meat and fish.”

So yes, Russia’s war in Ukraine, particularly the blocked Ukrainian ports, expose hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to the threat of hunger,” the expert concludes.

Russians purposefully destroy farms

There are currently about 40,000 farms working in Ukraine. Small and medium-sized enterprises produce over 80% of agricultural produce, of which up to 30% is used for the domestic market and up to 70% is exported. Some of the farms have suffered as a result of the war, have been destroyed, have ended up under occupation, or have been forced to stop their operations. Russians are purposely destroying farms. The evidence for this is the number of bombed farms in different Ukrainian regions. Here are just a few examples.

In early March, Russian soldiers killed 110 cows at the Naporivske dairy farm in the Chernihiv Region. They shot cows and calves as entertainment. On March 20–21, Russian jets bombed a farm in Anysiv, also in the Chernihiv Region. The air strikes killed hundreds of animals, injured several people and killed one person. Almost 80 young calves, 60 newborn calves and over 40 cows burned alive or died of shrapnel wounds—about a half of the farm’s head count. On April 1, the Russians shelled the Agromol dairy farm in the Kharkiv Region, many of the animals died. On April 11, 4 million chickens died at the biggest poultry farm in Europe in Chornobayivka, Kherson Region. Russian occupiers damaged the local power station, as a result of which the automated feeding system was turned off and all the birds died.

According to Taras Vysotsky, the First Deputy Minister of Agricultural Policy and Food of Ukraine, 15% of all animal farming in Ukraine has already been destroyed as a result of the Russian war. The Milk Producers Association predicts a potential reduction of cattle head count by 8-10% by the end of 2022, particularly because some of the animals die due to shelling. As Ukraine had 3.11 million cattle in 2021, their head count can be reduced by as many as 300,000.

The Russian shelling of a dairy farm in Kharkiv Oblast. Source: UA Animals

“The main plan for now is to survive”

In early July, Roman, a 51-year-old farmer from the Kharkiv Region, posted an announcement online: “Please help me evacuate cows from an area near active hostilities. Four cows and one calf need urgent transportation for safekeeping or for sale. Location of the animals: Kharkiv Region, Izyum District, Andriyivka Village.”

Roman (he has asked not to share his last name for safety reasons) has been keeping a small family farm for over 30 years: five cows, ten pigs, chickens and turkeys. He sells milk, cheese, poultry meat and pork. He sold all his produce at the local market before the war. He says: “People used to buy my milk for their children, and now their children buy it for their own children.”

The first air bombs were dropped on Andriyivka on the second day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Planes flew by, there were six explosions, but we were spared from casualties by miracle. In the village, the bombs hit the grain storage and the military base nearby. We were hiding in the cellar. But when it got quieter, I ran to my cattle right away. I started reassuring my cows, ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, it’ll be OK,’” recalls Roman.

He says that the cows didn’t take the first bombings well, they were scared, anxious, they had stomach issues for a week. But then they began to adapt to the new reality. “I was next to them, talked to them,” says the farmer.

When he speaks about his cows, he smiles. “My dear cows, Lypka, Malva, Berizka, Chili and Travka, are high-yield milk cows. They give 10,000 liters of milk per year each. We had 50 three-liter jars of milk every day, we processed about 150 liters of milk every day. We made cheese and sour cream, hard cheeses, bryndza, suluguni,” says Roman. “We kept poultry for eggs and some for sale. Broiler chickens and turkeys for meat. On Thursdays and Saturdays, I’d go to the market to sell my produce, I had regular customers.”

Now the market is closed. The village infrastructure has been destroyed, many houses have been damaged. “We don’t know where they will strike and when. We take the cattle out to pasture at our own risk. We’ve been living in horror for six months. We planted the garden under shelling, we weeded and watered it under shelling, and now we need to harvest it under shelling, but we’re afraid to go out,” shares Roman. “When a shell is coming at us, we drop to the ground in the middle of the garden, in the middle of the street, at the pasture. It’s all so horrible.”

When bombing intensified in summer, the village started experiencing prolong power outages. The milking equipment wasn’t working, so the farmer and his wife had to milk five cows three times a day by hand. “We lit a candle and milked them in almost complete darkness. It was suffering,” he says. “And we had to keep the dairy somewhere so it doesn’t spoil, but the fridges weren’t working. But most importantly, a missile or shrapnel could have killed or wounded the cows at any moment.”

Then Roman decided to rescue them. He published the announcement online, and farmers from different regions, particularly from the Poltava Region and Volyn, responded to it. But at the last moment, the man became wary of sending the cattle far away with strangers. He transported the cows to a relatively safe place 50 kilometers from Andriyivka.

“I moved them to my good friends, they keep cows as well, and they also tend to their land and have animal feed. They took the cows and the calves born this year, they take care of them,” says the farmer. “I call them often to ask how my dear cows are doing. Lypka is about to calve any day now. We’re waiting.”

Now barely anything is left of Roman’s household: one pig, a few birds, and Berizka the cow. “I’ve kept her at my own risk, because I do need to feed my family somehow,” he says. “There are villages destroyed by Russians nearby. People there let their cattle run free to save them, the animals were wounded, blown up by missiles. It’s horrible what’s happening. Thank God my dear cows are alive and well.”

Roman says that they are now living in Andriyivka as a big family: his wife and him, his parents, his teenage son. And when the full-scale war began, his elder daughter’s family also moved here: their apartment in Kharkiv was bombed by Russians.

“Our main plan for now is to survive. And keep on working. We’ve been working on this land all our lives, earning our living honestly. My ancestors lived here, so why should I leave it? As long as the house is intact, we’ll be here,” says the farmer. He adds: “And as soon as the situation gets better, I’ll take my cows back. It can’t be any other way. We place our hopes in God and our army.”

“The main goal during the war is to preserve the network of farms as much as possible”

Roman’s announcement with a request to help save his cows was also posted on their page by the Family Dairy Farms project. Launched in 2017 in the Rivne Region, this project aims to develop dairy farming in Ukrainian villages. It helps establish family dairy farms and dairy cooperatives based on them, trains farmers, supports them and helps them look for grants for the development of small farms.

As of early August 2022, the Family Dairy Farm project’s participants include 167 farms from 12 Ukrainian regions. Five family farms which participate in the project are currently located in areas near the frontline, that is, places where battles or regular shelling by the Russian army take place. These are farmers from the Sumy and Mykolayiv Regions. Five farms used to be under occupation, another two are still under occupation. There is no connection with a few of the project participants.

Small farms faced a number of problems and challenges already in the first days of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. From physical danger, when both people and animals were dying under shelling and in occupation, to destruction of infrastructure, inability to sell their produce, lack of animal feed and fuel, etc.

“In the first days of the war, milk was cheaper than water (1-2 UAh per 1 liter in Eastern regions), but wholesalers and dairy plants did not want to collect it even for this price. The situation was not much different in the west of the country. As a result, farmers found themselves without a source of income,” explains Liudmyla Ivashchuk, COO of the Family Dairy Farms project. According to her, the first major challenge was the sowing campaign under the conditions of war: there were no seeds, no fuel.

Photo: Liudmyla Ivashchuk

Another challenge faced by small households was that male farmers were mobilized or volunteered to join the Armed Forces or the Territorial Defense in the first days of the invasion.

“So some small farms are held up by women. This requires mechanization of the production processes. The main goal during the war is to preserve our achievements as much as possible: our head counts, the network of farms. Because the war will be over sooner or later, and we will need to keep implementing our plans—and they include five thousand family dairy farms in Ukraine,” adds Ishchuk.

Andriy Yarmak also notes that now is the best time to increase milk processing, milk production, and especially meat cattle head count. “The global price increases will create a demand for Ukrainian produce. And the raw material, meaning animal feed, is cheap here right now, and it will remain cheap,” says the expert. He adds: “A solution to the problem of export by sea can be international military convoys accompanying food cargos from our Black Sea ports without any negotiations with Russians.”

But most of all we need to stop Russia, which is destroying Ukraine’s agricultural sector on a daily basis. Only strict sanctions and military aid to Ukraine from its partner countries will allow us to defeat Russia completely, which means saving millions of lives all over the world. Otherwise the Russian terror, including terrorizing the world with a food crisis and blackmailing it with famine, will continue. And the people of Africa and Asia will still be kept hostage in the war which Russia has launched against Ukraine.

The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.

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