In one of his speeches to encourage the resistance against Russia, Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, warned last week that the war is also being waged in the countryside. In a month, the sowing of cereals begins, essential products to guarantee that the population has food to endure a conflict that is expected to last a long time. “The mission of local authorities is to convince people to go back to work in the agricultural sector. The more hectares are planted, the stronger our position will be,” explains Igor Shevchenko, director of international relations at the Vinnitsa Chamber of Commerce. This province, 190 kilometers from the kyiv front, the second national agricultural producing area of wheat and sunflower, will be key to the future of Ukraine.
In the regions close to the Dnieper River – the geographical line that marks the division between the east and the west of Ukraine – the proximity of the conflagration imposes serious difficulties on the Ukrainian agricultural industry to work at a normal pace. The United Nations Food Organization (FAO) estimated in a report from early March that up to 30% of Ukraine’s crops could not be farmed due to the impact of the war. That is why a province like Vinnitsa, still far from the front line of the conflict, is mobilizing to ensure that the country does not lack reserves of essential products such as flour, sugar, barley, salt or buckwheat.
The coordination between the Ukrainian government and agricultural companies works as if it were one more division of the army. In the grain silos of the Epicentr-Agro group, in the village of Vedichani, the security team is made up of half a dozen men. Access to facilities is protected as if it were essential infrastructure. In each village in the region there are local patrols, armed checkpoints and roadblocks. The Vioil company, a national leader in the production of sunflower oil, denied EL PAÍS a visit to its oil processing plant alleging that the police do not allow access to anyone other than the operators for fear of possible Russian sabotage.
Ukraine ranks alongside Russia among the world’s five largest grain producers, according to the FAO. It is the fourth world exporter of corn and the fourth of wheat. 40% of international sales of sunflower oil come from Ukrainian companies. The global fear of shortages and rising prices of these products responds not only to the inevitable reduction in this year’s harvests, but also to the Zelensky government’s ban on exporting these foods, with very few exceptions. Yes, limited amounts of corn and sunflower oil can be exported. In the latter case, according to the regional management of the leading company in Ukraine, Vioil, the biggest drawback is that the ships that transport the oil from the port of Odessa – 350 kilometers away – to the international markets cannot sail through the blockade of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.
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The FAO warns that the global increase in food prices may be between 8% and 22%, and that the malnourished world population may grow between 8 and 13 million people. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warned on Monday that the situation is particularly serious for the supply of wheat in 18 African countries.
The fear does not come only from the situation in Ukraine: Russia is the largest producer of fertilizers on the international market. Russian billionaire Andrei Melnichenko, founder of the sector giant Eurochem, called on Monday in an interview with Reuters for an end to the war, because it will cause a serious famine. “Fertilizers are becoming less affordable for the agricultural sector because of the war,” Melnichenko said. “Now we will see an inflation in food prices in Europe and a probable shortage in the poorest countries.” Melnichenko, also a major businessman in the coal sector, is one of the oligarchs most affected by the international community’s sanctions on Russian assets.
The headquarters of the Vinnitsa Chamber of Commerce is an imposing 110-year-old mansion in the Central European style, built when the city was under the rule of the Russian empire of the tsars. Its wide stairs of worn marble lead to offices with high ceilings, huge stoves and diplomas hanging on the walls. In Shevchenko’s office, on one of the shelves, a Ukrainian and a Spanish flag shine. Last February, a week before the Russian invasion began, they held a meeting with a Spanish delegation for agricultural cooperation projects. The economic importance of this city of 375,000 inhabitants is made clear by the presence of an international airport, bombed by the Russians on March 6. Connections abroad, especially with the European Union – the main foreign market – are so common, says a local representative of Epicentr-Agro, that the football team of the squad travels to other countries to play amateur tournaments. On Friday, March 4, they had to travel to Madrid to spend a weekend of sports and tourism. The war frustrated him.
During the interview with Shevchenko, sirens sounded in the street warning of a possible air attack. In the Chamber of Commerce they do not follow the mandatory instructions, that is, run to the shelter. “We have gotten used to the situation,” explains Shevchenko. “The shock initial halted production. Now we have entered a new normality, there are already enough soldiers and what we need is to resume productive activity.”
While the farmers begin to fertilize the fields, in the offices of the agricultural consortiums the priority is to find new transport routes to export, if the harvest is finally propitious, if the necessary reserves are guaranteed and if the Russian expansion is contained. Shevchenko is confident that “in the short term” international sales will resume. At stake are the nearly 13,000 million euros that Ukraine invoices annually with the export of cereals and derivatives, according to the FAO.
But far from the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, in the municipality of Yampil -10,000 inhabitants- its mayor, Sergei Gadzhuk, affirms that at the moment the question is not even raised: “We do not think about exports, we have other urgencies”. The mayor of this town watered by the Dniester River assures that they have everything necessary for sowing to start in April, hands available to work hard and enough diesel reserves for the tractors: “Now we have to think about holding on and ending this war , the rest is secondary”.
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