We must help Ukraine avert a global food crisis before it’s too late

A man wearing a black suit stands in a green field of wheat.
AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty
Ivan Kilgan, head of the regional agricultural association village, shows his fields of wheat, in Luky village, western Ukraine, Friday, March 25, 2022.

Just some days ago, I returned from my second trip to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Many of the long hours of the train trip to Kyiv and back to Lithuania are inevitably spent looking out the window at the seemingly endless fields of tilled black earth that — despite the war — are beginning to show the new cultured green of spring crops.  

A shocking amount of the world’s most productive farmland is here in Ukraine. Ukraine is a major world food supplier. Focused on the war and the immediate effort to help Ukrainians fight and win, another crisis has been overlooked: ensuring Ukraine can still feed the world even though Russia wants to stop them.  

Every field that I saw through the train window was tended. Many of them, from what I could see, by elder people. 

Ukraine is a nation at war. Almost everyone who can fight is away fighting. Everyone who could save their children and elderly from shelling left the country. And everyone who remained — they are working to keep Ukraine and its industries running however they can.  

Older Ukrainians, attached to the land, are working the soil for the next harvest. I can’t think of a more powerful symbol of how Ukrainians feel about the future. There is work to be done. They will be there for the next harvest. And the one after that.  

From last year’s harvest, Ukraine still has in its silos close to 30 million tons of grain. Despite the war, bombing, and labor shortages — and many fields inaccessible or contaminated with unexploded ordinance and the debris of battle — this year’s harvest could bring in millions more. To put this in perspective: Egypt, the biggest wheat importer, is importing 13 million tons per year; China, 9.64 million tons. To add, Ukraine is a major exporter of corn, sunflower and rapeseed oil and other vegetable fats, and more. Half of the grain for the United Nation’s World Food Program comes from Ukraine.  

All these products are needed globally, there is no replacement, and it is obvious that the lack of Ukrainian goods will be felt in every country, by everyone. Sure, not everyone will feel this impact the same way. In America and European countries like Lithuania or Germany, goods will still be available. We will feel the price hike, but maybe government assistance will offset the cost for the most vulnerable parts of society. 

In the countries of Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, where dependence on food imports is very high and government subsidies are not easily available, the populations will face scarcity and rocketing prices for what is available. In areas of conflict, the most vulnerable will face the worst deficit. Much of the world could face a food crisis that will not end until the war in Ukraine is won.  

For now, Russian disruption in Ukraine is impacting production far less than transport. Ukraine exports so much food, it has specially designed infrastructure to handle this harvest and export. Much of this centers on Ukraine’s ports, which are now blockaded by Russia to suffocate Ukraine.  

The world needs Ukrainian food, therefore we need to help Ukraine export what it produces. Last year’s harvest must be moved or this year’s harvest can’t be stored. The loss of either crop from the global supply will impact prices and availability. Knowing it will come to market will quell uncertainty and avert a crisis.  

A lot of contingency planning is being done to find alternatives, but — on paper or in reality — none of them are close to enough.  

Rail traffic to Poland looks like a viable option, but, due to technical decisions from czarist times, the railway gauge in Ukraine differs from that in neighboring Poland and Romania and much of the European Union. That means that in order to export anything by rail, each carriage needs to change its gauge or be unloaded/reloaded. That is costly and takes a lot of time. This also means only a very limited amount of grain could reach a Lithuanian port by rail, for example, because the gauge change would need to happen twice, once on the Ukrainian-Polish border and again at the Polish-Lithuanian border.

No gauge change is needed to transit through Belarus to Baltic ports, but to get less than a third of Ukraine’s grain to market, it’s hard to know if the concessions demanded by President Alexander Lukashenko — who has made his country a participant to the war by allowing Russian troops to stage and attack Ukraine partly from Belarus — would be worth the risk of giving him leverage over the world’s food supply. 

Transit by truck cannot begin to match the need, even with special transit permissions that are being considered. It is costly, and there are already diesel shortages in Ukraine. 

Even with every collective alternative considered, only a percentage of Ukraine’s accumulated harvests could go out. It is something but still not enough.  

The only way to get Ukrainian food fully back into the global food supply is to allow Ukraine to use the port of Odesa for agricultural exports. Odesa’s port is made to handle the volume, and get it out to the world. Now, it remains under threat of Russian attack, it is cut off by Russian blockade, and it is rendered unusable. This situation has to shift. There is no other way to feed the world.  

The countries who consider the looming global food crisis a serious challenge — and who neither believe that Russia should have the right to cut off Ukraine nor that Russia should profit from increased prices on its own grain exports to fund the slaughter of Ukrainians — should guarantee a safe passage of ships from Odesa across the Black Sea to the Bosphorus.  

Yes, this might require a naval presence to guarantee that civilian ships carrying grain are not attacked by Russia’s Black Sea fleet and that Russian ships do not run the corridor to take Odesa. And yes, we should also ensure that Ukraine has midrange missiles that can continue to defend Odesa from a Russian assault.

But it is a non-military endeavor, and it is not escalation to guarantee food supplies. If we are serious about averting a crisis, this is what needs to be done. Odesa must be opened. Ukrainian grain must flow. Russia must not be allowed to starve the world to choke Ukraine.  

One of the biggest disasters of the 20th century — one that far too many still do not know about — was when Stalin enforced a policy of famine on Ukraine to erode their identity and force them to comply with Soviet integration and objectives. During the Holodomor — death by hunger — millions and millions of Ukrainians were starved to death. They were starved to death while their fields remained the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. They were starved to death while they harvested the grain for Stalin. 

Coming from Lithuania — another formerly captive nation that suffered from Stalinist terror — I know what it means that the older Ukrainians toil in the fields during the war Putin brought to Ukraine. They grow the grain for Ukraine and its people and its future. It is about national pride and dedication, and it is about history — the terrible stories of what it took to survive when Moscow starved Ukraine. 

This time it is Putin with a weapon of starvation, and he aims it at the world’s most vulnerable through his war in Ukraine.  

During Holodomor, the West looked away. We still don’t know the stories — but Ukrainians do. And planting the crops, tending the fields and bringing in the next harvest — for Ukraine’s survival, for its prosperity — is as much an act of defiance and service as fighting in the war.  

We say never again. Let’s say never again to Russia. This time we have a chance to mean it. Ukraine is leading, and we must help carry it through. We must end the blockade of Odesa and Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and get Ukraine’s bread to the world.

Gabrielius Landsbergis is Lithuania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Tags Alexander Lukashenko global food crisis Politics of the United States Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine wheat UN world food program

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