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The battle for Ukraine — and global food security

22 million tons of grains are trapped in the country’s silos. Even with an agreement to ease a blockade on exports, the ability of some of the world’s poorest nations to feed their people remains in peril.

A view of a Continental Farmers Group grain silo, or elevator, in Western Ukraine. Every day, trucks make the perilous journey across the war-torn country in order to transport freshly harvested wheat from the facility to other countries and Ukrainian ports, where it awaits export.Photo: Jure Eržen/Delo

TERNOPIL, Ukraine —

Twenty-six thousand tons of corn, bound for Lebanon, left the Ukrainian port of Odesa on Monday. The ship is the first to leave since the start of Russia’s naval blockade of the Black Sea, which has caused soaring grain prices and shortages across the globe. Forty percent of the World Food Programme’s wheat comes from Ukraine.

Relief is not yet in sight, however. Some 22 million tons of grain remain trapped in Ukraine. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has projected that the stockpile could swell to 75 million tons after this year’s harvest, which is underway.

Harvester driver Boghdan, from Lviv, pauses in his work to survey wheat fields around Ternopil on July 21, the day before Ukraine signed agreements with the United Nations and Turkey to export its grains and Russia agreed to end its naval blockade of the Black Sea. Photo: Jure Eržen/Delo

Late last month, Ukraine and Russia signed separate agreements with the United Nations and Turkey to export millions of tons of Ukraine’s and Russia’s grains, and Russia agreed to end its naval blockade.

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The next day, Russia bombarded Odesa, a move that underscored the agreements’ fragility.

The ability of some of the poorest nations in the world to feed themselves hangs in the balance. If the export agreements hold, another 16 ships carrying half a million tons of various grains should leave Odesa and surrounding ports in the coming weeks, barring further Russian attacks that inhibit shipments.

Abroad, the wheat shortage has exacerbated food scarcity in poor countries and pushed prices for the commodity even higher. Inside the country, the surplus has pushed wheat prices so low that some family farms are resorting to selling high-quality wheat for animal feed in order to make space in silos for this year’s harvest. “For two years, we were doing well,” says 29-year-old Olexander Musiy, whose family runs a farm in the village of Kohanivka, near Ternopil. “We’ve invested a lot. We bought land, tools, machinery. We established ourselves on the market. Then the war broke out. We’re fighting for sheer survival now.”

Workers at the Musiy family farm in Kohanivka, near Ternopil, fill sacks with last year's wheat. With Ukraine's wheat prices at historic lows and with pressure to free up silo space for the 2022 harvest, the family has made the difficult decision to sell the wheat for processing into animal food for domestic sale.Photo: Jure Eržen/Delo

In the days leading up to the signing of the export agreements, photographer Jure Eržen and I gained exclusive access to Continental Farmers Group (CFG), a Saudi-owned agricultural company in Ternopil, in Western Ukraine. News of the agreements was greeted with skepticism by Georg von Nolcken, the CEO of CFG. “Ukraine hasn’t signed a deal with Russia,” he says, adding that Ukraine’s separate agreements with the UN and Turkey are “extremely shaky” given Russia’s unpredictability and aggression. “The Black Sea remains dangerous, full of mines,” says von Nolcken. There is no guarantee that a ship carrying Ukrainian wheat from Odesa will reach its destination.

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The harvest at Continental Farmers Group in the vicinity of Ternopil in Western Ukraine on July 21.Photo: Jure Eržen/Delo

CFG produces 700,000 tons of wheat for export annually, or just over 2 percent of Ukraine’s total wheat output, plus an unspecified amount for domestic use. The company is Ukraine’s largest grower of potatoes and also grows corn and barley.

“Our silos are full of food when millions are facing hunger,” von Nolcken says. “During peacetime, two trains full of wheat set off for the ports every day.” Since the start of the Russian invasion, he says, not a single train has made such a journey. The company has turned to long-haul trucking to move a small percentage of its grains. Whereas a grain car holds between 56 and 68 tons, a truck holds just 25 tons.

The Ternopil region has harvested the first tons of grain of the 2022 season. Local and corporate farmers alike have doubts about an international agreement to ease a blockade on grain shipments through the Black Sea. Pictured: Harvest time is feast time for a stork that follows the harvesters' every move. Photo: Jure Eržen/Delo

It is not just the war that is disrupting vital supply chains within and out of Ukraine. “We are in the center of a perfect storm,” says von Nolcken. “The south of Europe is burning. The consequences of climate change are omnipresent. We’re facing a period of record prices for food and energy. The entire global food system is in peril.”

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Meanwhile, a third of CFG’s 2,000-strong workforce left to fight on the frontlines. The company continues to pay their salaries.

The battle for Ukraine is also the battle for global food security.

Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning journalist, war correspondent, and playwright, and the author of seven books. Jure Eržen is an award-winning photographer for the Slovenian newspaper DELO. His work has been published all over the world. Follow him on Instagram @jure.erzen.

This story was updated to show that 40 percent of the World Food Programme’s wheat comes from Ukraine.