Race to salvage Ukraine wheat stocks trapped by Kyiv fighting

Fears of low stocks in Middle East, with 20 million tonnes of grain trapped in warehouses by invasion

An agricultural worker drives a tractor on a wheat field near the village of Husachivkam, near Kyiv, in April 2020. Reuters
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Millions of tonnes of Ukraine wheat desperately needed in the Middle East are going to waste in warehouses caught up in the fighting around Kyiv, The National can report.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it a key national priority that a seeding programme will start in the coming days to ensure grain is growing despite the Russian invasion.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said the consequence of President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression” would extend far beyond Ukraine, which was the “granary of the world” providing half of the World Food Programme’s wheat.

“As humanitarian needs are already at an all-time high, the Kremlin-made war threatens food security across the world,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

A Ukrainian service member holds a light anti-tank weapon at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region. Reuters

Global stocks are 31 per cent below the five-year average due to a poor harvest and the pandemic. Prices that were already very high have now increased a further 30 per cent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There are fears that the shortage of wheat could lead to social unrest in countries heavily dependent on Ukraine’s food exports.

If the tonnes of grain stored in north Kyiv and the southern ports of Odesa and Mariupol are not exported there could be serious geopolitical consequences.

The potential wastage was highlighted by a major grain dealer to Orysia Lutsevych, of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House think tank.

“There is a massive problem in the north of Kyiv where the warehouse people cannot get access to the grain that’s there because there is a battle raging” she told The National. “This has a huge implication for grain traders. They cannot get it out. They cannot deliver it to customers. They cannot comply with contracts because they have no access to the warehouse. That impacts people in Ukraine and outside Ukraine.”

A man rides a bicycle as black smoke rises from a fuel depot used by the Ukrainian army after a Russian attack on the outskirts of Kyiv. AP

There are more than 20 million tonnes of corn and wheat waiting for export from Ukraine's recent harvest, with nearly all of it prevented from leaving the Black Sea and Sea of Azov ports as well as that trapped inland. It could be a $6 billion loss for a trade that was worth $27 billion to the country last year.

Despite the war raging on Ukraine’s eastern and southern frontiers, as well as around Kyiv, there is a determination in the government to get crops planted during early spring.

“This is the priority of the government,” said Ms Lutsevych. “They will be planting those national programmes to ensure that this season happens and they are already providing support and ensuring that where it is possible the planting happens.”

Ukraine’s main wheat growing areas are north of Kyiv and in the south-east near Kherson and Odesa.

The harvest from those crops will be urgently needed. The UN Food Programme gets half of its grain from Ukraine to feed 125 million of those experiencing hunger.

Other places are running low on stock. Iraq’s agriculture minister said this week that the wheat stockpile was down to a three-month supply. It is understood that Egypt has around four months' worth left.

With most of its wheat coming from Ukraine, the economic crisis in Lebanon could intensify.

Ramadan is also seven days away, leading to further concern in the Middle East over food consumption.

But there is some hope that India might potentially open up its massive stockpile and countries such as Australia will substantially increase grain and fertiliser exports.

Updated: March 26, 2022, 4:31 AM