This article is part of our special report Food sovereignty and the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine urgently needs help to safeguard food production as global shortages loom, then-agriculture minister Roman Leshchenko warned in an address to EU lawmakers, where he denounced large companies for doing business with Russia while doing little to support Ukraine.
Just one day after Leshchenko spoke to the European Parliament’s agriculture committee via videolink on Tuesday (22 March), the Ukrainian government announced that he had resigned.
According to national media, he cited health problems as the reason for stepping down and has already been replaced by Mykola Solsky, who had chaired the parliamentary committee on agricultural and land policy for the past two and a half years.
Leschenko’s appearance on Tuesday, as well as the one in front of the EU agricultural ministers on Monday, were cut short by air raid alarms. According to participants of Monday’s meeting, Leshchenko told the ministers that two of his friends, who happened to have been farmers, had just been killed.
“Today, we have a war, a full-scale, brutal and cruel invasion of the territory of Ukraine – the breadbasket of Europe that has proven a guarantor of global food security,” Leshchenko told the lawmakers.
Russia’s war on Ukraine comes just as the spring sowing season is about to begin, but in large parts of the country, work on fields and in stables has become extremely dangerous because of shelling, while farms are suffering from a lack of key supplies, the minister warned.
Russia “exports holodomor”
“Brave Ukrainian farmers are starting a sowing campaign wherever they can. They are sowing under heavy shelling, in dangerous, occupied, and mined areas under the risk of losing their lives,” Leshcenko said.
As the war threatens food production in Ukraine, a major exporter of key foodstuffs like wheat and oilseeds, it thus leads to rising food prices in Europe but also brings an acute risk of global food shortages that would hit some of the world’s poorest countries hardest, he warned.
“This is exactly what Russia wants,” he said, adding that it was Moscow that “made the Holodomor, the great famine of the 1930s in Ukraine, happen. (…) Now, it exports the Holodomor to the whole world”.
The reference to the Holodomor, the intentionally engineered famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33, was also echoed by EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski during a press conference on Wednesday.
International companies continue trade with Russia
Leshchenko’s emotional speech left many MEPs struggling to regain composure. “What can the EU do to help?” a number of party coordinators in the committee asked.
According to the minister, one key area where Ukrainian farmers need help is plant protection.
While the country still has relatively good stocks of seeds and grains, herbicides and fungicides in storage are running “critically low”, he said, lambasting the actions of a number of large companies in this area.
“Many international companies trading these products are continuing to work with the aggressor country, while they are putting harsh conditions for shipments to Ukraine and will ship their product here only on 100% prepayment,” he said.
This, in turn, means insurance companies are not willing to insure the shipments anymore, Leshchenko warned.
“For plant protection, this means: we are at zero, we do not have anything.”
Meanwhile, fuel shortages also pose significant problems for farmers.
“The fuel we had stored for our spring works, we have actually given to the military,” the minister said. “Another problem is that the oil basins where the agrarians were keeping their fuels have already been bombed in different oblasts.”
Meanwhile, the EU has committed to stepping up aid to secure food production and supply in Ukraine.
“Food security in war-torn Ukraine is of great concern,” the European Commission stated in its new communication on food security, published on Wednesday (23 March).
The communication outlines the way the EU is supporting Ukraine to “develop and implement a short- and medium-term food security strategy to ensure that inputs reach farms where possible” and Ukraine remains able to feed its citizens and eventually regain exports markets.
Almost three weeks ago, Ukraine decided to halt exports of key foodstuffs like wheat and sunflower oil to secure domestic supply.
Moreover, the Commission is working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Western Ukraine “to support small farmers and secure agricultural production”, while EU farming organisations are providing assistance to Ukrainian farmers, the communication said.
The Commission also assessed that “Russia seems to be deliberately targeting and destroying food stocks and storage locations” – an assessment that is shared by Leshchenko, who cited the deliberate sabotage of livestock farming as an example.
“We know that in some of the territories that are already occupied, they are creating hunger conditions for animals,” he said, adding the occupying forces were cutting power and feed supplies.
“Three million chickens have already died – this is an ecological catastrophe, a food catastrophe,” he concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]