Amid the carnage, bloodshed and death in Ukraine, a new tragedy looms, as businesses in the war-torn country grow fearful they may soon have to start throwing away the food the world needs. desperately needs.
Ukrainian business leaders are hoping that Vladimir Putin will lift a blockade on the Black Sea ports before the harvest begins in a few weeks and the silos already full of grain begin to reach capacity.
Russian and Turkish defense ministers discussed a potential humanitarian corridor to allow grain out of the country by sea, but no deal was reached and time is running out. Further discussions are scheduled for Wednesday.
It came as Britain’s Agriculture Secretary Victoria Prentis called for an immediate investigation into allegations that Russia stole grain.
She told the International Grains Council (IGC) conference in London that she had heard firsthand serious allegations of grain theft from sources in the southern region of Kherson, Ukraine. Ukraine has accused Russia of selling the stolen food to Turkey, an allegation the Kremlin denies.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers and logistics companies are fighting an increasingly desperate battle to export food by road and rail, amid soaring fuel prices and shortages of trucks and drivers – including many are now fighting Russian forces on the front line.
This week the US accused Mr Putin of using food to ‘blackmail’ the world after the Kremlin said it would only consider opening a humanitarian corridor if Western sanctions on Russia were lifted.
The winter harvest, which begins in July, could see storage capacity depleted unless ports open. With that outcome would come the prospect of a further spike in the prices of commodities such as wheat, of which Ukraine is a major exporter.
If a deal is not reached, the world is likely to see a wave of hunger in parts of Africa and the Middle East in particular, the UN has warned.
Anastassia Sobotiuk, director of MHP, one of Ukraine’s leading agribusinesses, said many producers are now only able to export “insignificant” amounts of grain by truck and rail.
“The biggest problem that all exporters or logistics companies face is the shortage of diesel in Ukraine. The price jumped around 70%,” Sobotiuk said.
Transporting goods by rail is “very difficult” as Russian rockets continue to destroy infrastructure, including tracks and bridges. Crossing is even more complicated because Ukraine uses a wider Soviet rail gauge than neighboring countries, which means that goods have to be removed and reloaded at the border.
“For companies like ours, it takes longer to deliver the products either to the border of Ukraine, or to the end customer, or to the port, because new routes have to be developed in this case,” Sobotiuk said. .
MHP has chartered a vessel capable of transporting 6,500 tons of vegetable oil from the port of Reni to the Danube. But it takes five days to fully unload, and the road is prone to delays.
The limited number of safe roads outside Ukraine are overloaded with trucks frequently forming lines several kilometers long. Meanwhile, there are not enough trucks or drivers and it currently takes up to five months to train and fire new ones.
According to MHP estimates, only 10% of licensed vegetable oil trucks and 5% of grain trucks are currently available.
“Today it is not so visible, however, during the harvest period, from July, it will become a real problem. Grain must be delivered to storage and then delivered to ports, but many drivers who would do so struggle. ”
Ukrainian agribusinesses often struggle to find enough drivers during the busiest season between September and November, but the problems are expected to be much worse this year.
Newly harvested grain and a backlog of millions of tons in stock must both be moved with fewer workers and major logistical problems caused by the war.
International efforts are intensifying to alleviate the situation and open Ukrainian ports, but so far progress has been limited.
Ukraine and Poland reached an agreement last month to reduce food checks at the border, which the companies say has improved the situation.
The MHP calls for more border veterinarians and phytosanitary staff working 24/7 rather than eight hours a day on weekdays.
Food exporters are also calling for agreement on a “green” corridor, or fast-track customs lane that will allow for crucial products like poultry, meat and vegetable oils. “The whole world needs it,” says Sobotyuk. “People need food.”
Alex Lissitsa, president of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club and managing director of food company ICM, reported widespread destruction and theft by Russian forces which he said were so coordinated they had to be ordered by the Kremlin.
Many fields are not maintained because they are in areas currently or previously occupied by Russian forces, meaning they could be mined, Lissitsa said.
“Farmers are scared and they don’t know what to do. There is no domestic market for their products and without income they cannot start preparing for the new season.
Mr Lissitsa said the country urgently needed a huge amount of fuel to help transport goods by road as well as increased efforts to reduce bureaucracy at the border.
Despite the dire situation, like many Ukrainians, he remains adamant that the country cannot negotiate with Mr Putin.
“What Putin says and what he does is totally different,” Mr Lissitsa said.
Or, as Ms. Sobotiuk put it, “How can you trust a terrorist? »