The war in Ukraine is terrible for a lot of reasons, but maybe the biggest is the disruption the war is causing on food production around the world. Ukraine has often been called “The Breadbasket of Europe” because of its fertile soil that produces massive amounts of wheat, corn, and other grains. In this video, we take a look at why Ukraine’s geology makes them the breadbasket they are, and how the current war will impact the millions of people who rely on that food.
This is the Ukrainian Flag. You’ve seen it in a lot of places lately. A very simple design, a blue field over a yellow field, the colors taken from the coat of arms of the city of Lviv. (le-view)
But it used to be quite different. It used to look like this…
Okay, maybe it’s not all that different, but this was the original national flag adopted by Ukraine in 1848 when they wanted independence from Austro-Hungarian rule. But in 1918, they flipped it to its current orientation. And they did it for one specific reason. Because they wanted it to emulate the blue sky over a field of yellow wheat.
This is how important wheat is to the economy of Ukraine, it’s literally emblazoned into their national symbol.
Ukraine has often been called the Breadbasket of Europe, and for good reason, they’re one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, exporting food to dozens of countries.
So the sight of Russian tanks driving through these wheat fields is more than just darkly symbolic. It’s potentially crippling a food producer that hundreds of millions of people rely on.
All of which begs several questions. Like, why is Ukraine such a huge food producer in the first place? Is this increasing the price of food and leading to food shortages? And how will this affect geopolitics around the world?
You know, the geopolitical thing shouldn’t have been the final question there, that’s not really what matters, what matters is are people going to starve because of this?
So let’s start with a short primer on the war and where things are right now, obviously this is a fluid situation so it’s possible things have changed by the time this comes out.
Also, there’s mountains of videos on YouTube following this story so I’m just going to hit the highlights.
Let’s start in 2014.
That’s when Russian troops invaded and took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used the pretense that he was protecting the rights of Russian citizens and speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine.
Two months later, pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk (don-etsk)and Luhansk (loo-hansk) regions in eastern Ukraine held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine.
This led to armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian military, that eventually fizzled into an ongoing stalemate. That is, until February of this year.
That’s when the fighting escalated between separatists and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Putin used that as an excuse to invade, claiming that genocide was taking place in the Dombas region, and Russian forces began building up along Ukraine’s border.
And the Russians finally launched their assault on Ukrainian territory on February 24.
This was followed by a series of sanctions from Western nations against Russia, with Russian oil and gas being restricted from European nations like Germany, and new European nations like Sweden and Finland showing interest in joining NATO.
It has not exactly been the rout that Putin was expecting and has turned into a long, protracted conflict.
More than 6.9 million people have fled the country, according to the UN refugee agency’s data portal.
The country’s estimated population before the war was 44 million, making it the seventh-largest country in Europe.
In terms of size, it’s the second-largest country in Europe at 603,550 square kilometers (233,031 square miles).
For comparison, it’s slightly smaller than Texas, half the size of South Africa, and two-and-a-half times the size of the United Kingdom.
And with all that land, as I was saying before, they export more than one-quarter of the world’s wheat.
Wheat, by the way, is the world’s second most-produced grain after corn, which they are also major exporters of.
Corn, also spring barley, potatoes, sugar beets, fruits, and sunflowers.
Ukraine is actually the world’s largest producer of sunflower oil, which goes into a lot of foods. Like, SO many foods.
Okay, so… why? Why is Ukraine such a prolific producer of produce? How did they become this basket of bread?
Well part of it is just the sheer size. I mentioned how big Ukraine is earlier, but they make good use of it – 71% of the land in Ukraine is used for agriculture.
Ukraine farmers grow wheat throughout the country, but central and south-central are the main production zones.
The other part is the climate. Ukraine’s climate is similar to Kansas in the US, but it’s a little drier and cooler during the summer and wetter during the winter.
So it’s like Kansas on steroids. Carry on my wayward son. Carry on.
But there is one more secret weapon in Ukraine’s agricultural arsenal… Chernozem. (a beat) What the hell is Chernozem?
Chernozem is basically a type of soil that is packed with insane amounts of nutrients.
It’s a Russian word that means “black earth” or “black soil.” Because it’s black.
And it’s black because it’s rich with humus (hue-mis). Not hummus (pic of hummus)… Humus (pic of humus)
Humus consists of complex molecules and organic acids that formed after plant parts decomposed and were digested by organisms in the soil.
Humic acids are great at retaining water and nutrients, like calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. And can help bridge dry seasons.
Soils that aren’t humus-rich lose nutrients when rain or irrigation water sinks them down deep below a plant’s roots. Humus keeps it in the topsoil.
There are several theories about how this soil was formed.
Swedish mineralogist Johan Wallerius introduced the first theory in 1761, saying that plant decomposition was responsible for chernozems.
Russian scientist Mikhail Vasil-yevich expanded on this theory in 1763 by adding that animal decomposition also helps form the black soil.
German botanist Peter Pallas offered another theory in the late 18th century in which he believed the soil was formed by reed marshes.
In the 19th century, British geologist Roderick Murchison suggested that Jurassic marine shales formed the soil.
Russian geologist Vasily Dokuchaev (duck-oo-cha-ev) published a book that same century that stated he believed various factors like a region’s climate, its topography, and its vegetation formed chernozems.
However it was formed, chernozem accounts for 1.8 percent of Earth’s total continental land area, and it’s focused in two large concentrations called the Chernozem Belts.
One belt is located in the Eurasian Steppe and includes several countries like Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.
The other belt is in North America. It encompasses the Great Plains, stretching from Kansas to Manitoba, Canada.
Combined they add up to 2,299,998 square kilometers (888,034 square miles) of land, but Ukraine is just lousy with chernozem, it makes up 68 percent of the country’s soil.
So yeah, combine that with the favorable weather conditions and now you know why Ukraine is so rich in agricultural exports.
It’s a valuable resource. And it’s made them a target for a long time. Which brings us back to the current conflict.
In May, Ukraine reported a decrease in grain exports, while wheat prices reached record highs.
According to Ukraine’s agriculture ministry, its exports were down 64 percent that month compared to the same timeframe last year.
The U.N. estimates that about 20 million tons of harvested grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports due to Russian blockades.
Executive Director for the U.N. World Food Programme David Beasley didn’t parse words when he tweeted in May:
“Failure to open the ports in Ukraine will be a declaration of war on global food security, resulting in famine, destabilization of nations, as well as mass migration by necessity. It is absolutely essential that we allow these ports to open because this is not just about Ukraine; this is about the poorest of the poor around the world who are on the brink of starvation.”
To make it all worse, Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of shipping stolen grain from Crimea to destinations like Turkey.
And Ukraine Grain Association Chief Mykola Gorbachov has said that if exports are unable to resume from the country’s ports, the July harvest will be severely impacted.
He said Ukraine’s grain exports could be limited to 20 million tons next year, down from 44.7 million last year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a warning in June during a Time 100 Gala, saying:
“We cannot export our wheat, corn, vegetable oil and other products that have played a stabilizing role in the global market. This means that, unfortunately, dozens of countries may face a physical shortage of food. Millions of people may starve if Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea continues.”
The U.N. World Food Programme issued a report in June stating that this could cause a population of 323 million to fall into famine.
It’s worth mentioning that they rely on Ukrainian food to help with relief efforts in famine stricken areas.
But anyway, back to modern day, one last thing to cover is the geopolitical consequences of all this…
Because one country’s loss is another country’s gain. And which country is out to exploit th– I mean stands to benefit from this?
That’s right, Bob. China.
China has actually been really good about storing food reserves for a long time. Currently they have enough to feed the whole country for a year and a half, even if the rest of the world stopped producing food.
So they could fill the gap with their reserves, in exchange for various resources and clout with the countries they help.
But China may actually have its own wheat problems right now.
Strict Covid lockdowns and floods have disrupted its winter wheat harvest. So they may need to use these reserves.
Now, China can buy as much wheat as it needs, but this could increase wheat prices, making it unaffordable for poorer countries.
But if China’s not in a position to take advantage of it, India just might.
They’ve had a series of bumper harvests which led to a surplus of wheat, which they have offered to fill the demand if necessary.
So maybe there’s a safety net of some kind, but prices are likely to go up.
We are kinda going through a perfect storm of problems right now. Like I said, China’s still feeling the effects of the pandemic, combine that with a major conflict in an agricultural center, and we don’t even need to go into the nuclear sabre rattling Putin’s been doing (laugh manically) Wouldn’t a nuclear war be perfect right now!
The point is… will people starve? And that’s an actual possibility. It looks like the gap will be made up by other countries eventually, the systems will adjust. But adjustments are not always easy.
I feel like the same could be said about society in many ways right now. We are adjusting as we transition from one technological era to another. This isn’t going to be easy.
All we can really do is just hold on. And take care of each other.