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Europe's lost 'breadbasket': How Russia's war in Ukraine is stoking a global food crisis

Farmers across Ukraine are unable to sow their land while also struggling to ship harvested crops out due to a Russian blockade of the country's critical Black Sea ports.
A Ukrainian army officer inspects a grain warehouse on May 6, 2022, that was shelled by Russian forces near the frontlines of Kherson Oblast in Novovorontsovka.
A Ukrainian army officer inspects a grain warehouse near Kherson that was shelled by Russian forces earlier this month.John Moore / Getty Images file

KYIV, Ukraine — Dmitriy Skornyakov is the CEO of Harvest Holdings, one of the largest agriculture firms in Ukraine. Or at least he was, before Russia invaded the country often called “Europe’s breadbasket.”

Harvest Holdings possessed almost 500,000 acres of Ukrainian farmland in 2014. They had some smaller fields near Kyiv and owned huge swaths of land around Mariupol and in the eastern Donbas region that is now the focus of the war. The majority of that land is now inaccessible: About 20,000 acres close to the capital are covered in Russian landmines, and nearly 350,000 acres in the country’s east are occupied by the Kremlin’s forces

Farmers across this country are unable to sow their land, missing a critical planting window while also struggling to ship harvested crops out due to a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s critical Black Sea ports. Meanwhile, a gas crisis and ongoing tank and artillery battles makes it a challenge to simply maintain the little land they have left.

“We’re not talking about profit anymore,” said Skornyakov, who added that his company had also tracked farm equipment stolen by Russian forces via GPS to mainland Russia and annexed Crimea. “We’re talking about survival.”

Ukrainian farmers now have an estimated 22 million metric tons of grain stuck in storehouses. Their race to plant new crops while also shipping this vast contribution to global food supplies has become a matter of urgency for officials from Europe to Africa, fearing that Russia may not just have struck at the heart of Ukraine’s economy but might be weaponizing food to help fuel a worldwide hunger crisis.

Kyiv Ukraine with Phil McCausland
Ivan, a farm manager at AgroRegion, in a field of winter wheat near Velyka Starytsia, Ukraine.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

With few good solutions — one option put forward appears to be a risky naval escort — the United States and its allies have sought to make it clear who they feel is responsible.

Accusing Russia of “blackmail,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said this week that the Kremlin was holding back its own supplies of grain after attacking Ukrainian storage facilities and seizing stocks, all while blockading the country’s ports.

“The consequences of these shameful acts are there for everyone to see. Global wheat prices are skyrocketing. And it is the fragile countries and vulnerable populations that suffer most,” she added in an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which countries in the Middle East and Africa rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread.

The lack of Ukrainian grain is pushing food prices up and pressing countries already facing shortages toward famine. Leaders at Davos emphasized the link between the blockaded ports of Odesa and the millions of people threatened with starvation in countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia and beyond. 

And that pain could last for years around the globe. 

Because many farmers here have missed a crucial planting window, not only can they not move the sunflowers, wheat, corn and other farm commodities they have stored, but they may not have grown much by the time the next harvest arrives.

The invasion of a country that also provided a fifth of the world’s nutrient supply for fertilizer is also having a similarly detrimental effect on crop yields in nations thousands of miles away, according to the International Fertilizer Development Center. Russia and Belarus, under sanctions in the wake of the invasion, account for 40 percent of the crop nutrient potash.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week that dwindling food supplies caused by the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and climate change could lead to global unrest. 

“If we do not feed people, we feed conflict,” he said. 

Russia denies it's at fault, however, and has sought to shift blame to the West.

The Kremlin indicated this week it was willing to lift the blockade and export its own grain and fertilizer — but only if the U.S. and its allies lift sanctions imposed in the wake of the invasion.

Wrong train wheels, no planes and backed up automobiles

A Ukrainian explosive disposal unit had to dig out a missile from a farm field NBC News visited this month near Kyiv before farmers there could lay seed. Trenches and foxholes were still dug into parts of the land. 

Farm workers had maintained a schedule of eight hours of work, eight hours of service in territorial defense, and eight hours of sleep when Russian forces advanced toward the capital. Locals with Kalashnikovs still maintain strict checkpoints near fields and agricultural infrastructure. 

While the Kremlin’s forces are long gone, there is still a lingering fear that Russian missiles will target grain storage and farm fields to further undermine the Ukrainian economy, Taras Ivanyshyn, the investment director of Agro-Region, a major agriculture company, said along a dirt road that abutted a field owned by his company. 

But there’s not much they can do about that. The main challenge now, Ivanyshyn explained, is moving the tons of grain stuck in their stores.

Kyiv Ukraine with Phil McCausland
Vyacheslav, a tractor driver for AgroRegion, walks near his tractor in a field he is planting with corn on April 25, 2022 near Boryspil, Ukraine.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

Ukrainian farmers were dependent on exporting quickly and moved the vast majority of their stores through the Black Sea, he said. Those ports are currently under Russian control or blockaded by its navy. That means only a handful of small ports on the Danube River in southwest Ukraine, where the waterway flows into Romanian waters, can be used to move commodities. 

“We have a huge amount of grain that needs to be exported through ways that we’re not used to. That’s why we have queues at the land borders and the river ports are overloaded, which we’re mostly doing it through,” said Ivanyshyn, noting that the moment has caused huge price fluctuations. “I can’t disclose everything because it’s dangerous. Some of our competitors said too much and got bombed.”

Without the sea and with air travel at a standstill, there are few good options to moving the crops. Many farmers and agriculture businesses have pivoted toward shipping grain on trucks or trains, but there are many downsides: The fuel shortage makes trucks a scary proposition, trucks and trains can move only a fraction of the weight that the ships in the Black Sea can, and trucks and trains are currently getting backed up at Ukraine’s borders. 

Trucks line the highway at border crossings with countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary. NBC News witnessed one crossing with Poland this month with a line that stretched for more than 10 miles. Many drivers sat outside their trucks, chatted with one another or chain smoked as they waited. 

Trains have been a vital lifeline for Ukraine to move its supplies and people throughout the country during the war, and the movement of food is no different. 

But it’s also become a bottleneck.

Kyiv Ukraine with Phil McCausland
Corn coated with fugicide in a field being planted by AgroRegion last month near Boryspil, Ukraine.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

“It’s not just just farmers, but pretty much everybody, every commodity, including coal and mining, uses the railways,” said Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, the CEO of Ukrainian Railways’ passenger train business. “Via the rail network, we only have access to two minor ports in the Danube delta, and now with attacks on the bridges in those areas that’s also under threat.”

Still, they are working to expand capacity there and investing in new grain elevators, Pertsovskyi said. The biggest challenge they face in addressing the grain shortfalls, however, isn’t Russian missile strikes — it’s train wheels. 

Ukraine uses a different type of gauge on its trains than the Europeans, a difference of 85 mm, tied to the era of tsars and empires. That means that when a Ukrainian train gets to neighboring countries — the main route for commodities now — everything on it has to be offloaded to a European train that is compatible with European tracks, creating a logistical nightmare. 

Roman Slaston, the CEO of the ​​Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, an influential lobbying group in Kyiv, said that the gauge difference is a major pain, but farmers are still working feverishly to move their crops while also planting where they can. 

“We load on wagons much more than we can export,” he said, “and now we have huge queues — 10 days, sometimes 20 days — at every crossing border point.” 

Working toward a solution

The situation is growing more desperate. 

There are growing calls from world leaders for a solution, but that would require major changes to transportation infrastructure in Ukraine and border protocols. That can’t be resolved overnight, leading to more daring suggestions. 

Lithuania is currently leading a charge to have a naval “coalition of the willing” break the blockade with a fleet that would escort ships loaded with grain from Ukrainian ports. The Lithuanians said the proposal was endorsed by Britain when the two countries’ foreign ministers met on Monday.

But the U.K. denied it had any plans to deploy its warships to the Black Sea and noted that it would have to provide 15 days notice to the Turkish government before entry, a Black Sea maritime traffic regulation that is a matter of public record.

“Putin’s despicable blockades are preventing food getting to people who need it,” a U.K. government spokesman said. “We will continue to work intensively with international partners to find ways to resume the export of grain from Ukraine.”

A landowner counts bags of wheat on a farm in the Nile Delta province of al-Sharqia, Egypt, on May 11, 2022.
Egypt is trying to increase its domestic wheat production as the war in Ukraine has strained international supplies of the grain. Amr Nabil / AP file

But such grand ideas are fraught with geopolitical danger, so the world is currently reliant on more modest solutions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, on Tuesday in which the two “discussed potential means to export Ukraine’s grain to international markets,” according to the State Department.

The European Union, meanwhile, has been working on plans since April to help create  “solidarity corridors” to break down some of the logistical hurdles.

The aim is to establish alternative routes and links to E.U. seaports that can help ship goods farther while also providing increased storage. The European Commission put forward an action plan this month that would add to the freight stock, expand the capacity of transport networks, lift some inspection requirements and upgrade the cross-border connections.

Anna Wartberger, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said that a network of contacts for the “solidarity lanes” was being set up. Those contacts, working with national authorities, are supposed to act as liaisons to try to smooth out some of the logistic chain hiccups.  

Lithuania announced this week that it had received its first delivery of grain by rail from Ukraine as part of that new effort. 

It will now be shipped across the globe via its port on the Baltic Sea, while the millions of metric tons that remain are stuck in the middle of Russia’s war. 

“Whether they get it out is anybody’s guess,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters after meeting with the Group of 7 industrial leaders last week, “but there is going to be a heck of an effort to get it out.”