“Unexploded bombs, shells and mines scattered across Ukraine threaten the lives of its people, and risk rendering fertile agricultural land unusable for years to come.” The dramatic observation was made last Tuesday by Andrew Duncan, responsible for issues related to contamination by weapons for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), visiting Kiev.

The burying of bombs, shells and mines is too fast to be able to clear mines as they go, he insisted. Ukraine will need “considerable resources to scan large swaths of affected areas, mark the location of mines and then tackle the long and dangerous task of demining.” In the meantime, “farmers are often faced with an impossible choice,” laments Andrew Duncan. “On a daily basis, they have to decide whether they want to risk their lives to cultivate their land or risk losing their income and the financial means to support their families.”

Farmers have to clear mines themselves. “There are mines everywhere and the deminers are overwhelmed,” explains Alessandra Kirsch, director of studies at Agriculture Strategies and doctor in agricultural economics. “Farmers are forced to play deminers”. On the one hand this presents “enormous risks”, on the other hand it slows down their work. “In Ukraine the farms are very, very big and everything has to be done very quickly. When it’s time to sow or harvest, they work day and night to get everything done on time. With the mines, this is no longer possible”. This is one of the reasons why Ukrainian agricultural production is expected to decline by 37% compared to 2022 and 60% compared to 2021. According to estimates, Ukraine could produce around sixteen million tons of wheat in 2023, compared to more than twenty million and sometimes even thirty million before the war.

These are not the only difficulties faced by Ukrainian farmers. They have “suffered the brunt of the increase in the price of inputs”, which forces them to use less fertilizer. There will therefore be “a drop in the areas sown and a reduction in yields”. Added to this is “very expensive access to money” and downward pressure on agricultural prices, due to the destruction of the storage infrastructure of traders, who therefore operate “almost at just-in-time”.

The weakening of the agricultural sector will affect the entire national economy, as this sector represented 15% of GDP in 2021, 20% of the active population and 40% of exports. “Agriculture, for Ukraine, is vital,” says Alessandra Kirsch. The consequences go beyond the borders of the country at war: Ukraine accounts for 12% of the world’s wheat trade, 18% of that of corn and 30% of that of sunflower. “Ukraine was selling a lot to North African countries, which absolutely need to import for their food security.” They are now dependent on Russian exports. “This is why many countries abstained during the UN vote to condemn Russia in February 2023,” says the doctor in agricultural economics. Ukrainian land is “crucial to providing an affordable supply of grain” and “feeding people on a global scale,” said Andrew Duncan.