Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, food production has dropped in the breadbasket of Europe as Russian forces blockade Ukraine’s ports, steal grain and destroy agricultural infrastructure.
The pattern of targeting is so widespread that Ukrainian and European officials accuse Russia of weaponising food in response to Western sanctions.
On April 9, Russian forces struck an agricultural facility in the eastern Luhansk region. A destroyed nitric acid tank sent plumes of orange smoke into the sky. Satelitte imagery showed a large bomb crater at the bombed out facility, where grain silos and other infrastructre were destroyed.
Earlier in March, the Agromol dairy farm in the Kharkiv region was targeted, with hundreds of cows killed in shelling. Workers returning to Naporivske Agricultural Enterprises outside Chernihiv at the end of March found that nearly all of the farm’s 300 cattle had been slaughtered by Russian forces.
In March US officials documented damage to six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine. “Russia’s reckless damage to these grain silos is a clear example of how Putin’s war directly affects civilians in Ukraine and threatens food security around the world,” a US official told Reuters.
Attacks on grain silos have continued since then, earlier this month Ukrainian officials shared a video of a rocket hitting a grain elevator near Synelnykove in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Ukraine’s agricultural heartland in southeastern Ukraine is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. Across the country spring planting fell 20 to 30 per cent behind last year’s efforts, Mykola Solskyi, Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister, said this month.
In some eastern areas agricultural areas are under occupation or near active frontlines but even where Russian forces have withdrawn, not all farms are in production. Many farmers and agricultural workers have fled, others are away fighting at the front. In some areas exploding munitions have burned cropland, while unexploded ordnance litters many fields.
Roads are closed in military zones, curfews restrict hours of travel, and key railway infrastructure has been targeted, all of which have affected Ukraine’s food supply network.
Damage to transport infrastructure includes 6,300km of railway lines out of action, and damage to 289 road bridges and 41 railway bridges, according to Oleksandr Kubrakov, the infrastructure minister.
“We are currently working to secure cargo delivery chains, changing the direction of trade flows due to the blockade of Ukrainian seaports and the loss of about 23 percent of the railway network,” Mr Kubrakov said this week.
Some of the damage is an inevitable consequence of the conflict, but Ukrainian officials also accuse Russia of deliberately targeting the food supply chain.
Russia has strangled Ukrainian food exports by seizing the Port of Mariupol and closing the Black Sea port of Odesa.
At the start of the month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that about 25 million tonnes of grain was stuck in Ukraine, unable to be exported to market due to infrastructure damage and Russia’s blockade of seaports.
If Ukrainian ports remain closed this will contribute to famine globally, the David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s head, has warned.
“The longer ports in the Odesa area remain closed, the more devastating this global hunger crisis will become. Is it too much to ask to allow food to flow so that millions can eat?” he said on Tuesday.
Russian forces have also stolen agricultural equipment and requisitioned foodstuffs, a potential war crime.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry accuses invading Russian forces of stealing up to 500,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain, worth up to £80 million. “This is outright robbery,” said Mr Solskyi.
Until recently Ukraine’s farms provided the world with an estimated six percent of food calories traded globally but invading Russian forces have weaponised food, according to Ukrainian and European officials.
The world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter last year, the eastern European country is also a top exporter of corn, barley, sunflower seeds, and other agricultural products. But its status as a global breadbasket has been threatened by the Russian invasion, which has driven world food prices to record levels.
For Ukrainians, weaponised food has a worrying precedent. In 1932-1933 Soviet leader Josef Stalin deliberately starved Ukraine by collectivising farms, saddling the country with unrealistically high production quotas, and dispatching authorities to seize Ukrainian grain. Millions died as a result of the manmade famine, remembered in Ukraine as the Holodomor.
Janusz Wojciechowski, European Agriculture Commissioner, drew a direct comparison with the Holodomor in March when he accused Russia of carrying out intentional attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure. “There is only one interpretation [of Russia’s actions] is that they want to create hunger and use this as a method of aggression,” he said.
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