Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

By Garland West January 13, 2022 | 9 MIN READ

The Dirt

The 100,000 Russian Troops at the Ukraine border continue to worry everyone, from the politicians, diplomats and military leaders at the front lines of the international debate, all the way down to the average citizens of countries worldwide. Ukraine today is a major player in the global food system – and an increasingly important factor in the global competition to create long-term food security. 

Global Food

Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

Food Security

By Garland West January 13, 2022 | 9 MIN READ

The Dirt

The 100,000 Russian Troops at the Ukraine border continue to worry everyone, from the politicians, diplomats and military leaders at the front lines of the international debate, all the way down to the average citizens of countries worldwide. Ukraine today is a major player in the global food system – and an increasingly important factor in the global competition to create long-term food security. 

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What is at issue here? Why is Ukraine valuable?

The current tensions can be traced to a complex combination of geography, history, and geopolitics.

Ukraine is more than just the second-largest country in Europe, with a total area only slightly smaller than the entire state of Texas. It exists at a critical juncture between Europe and Asia – a geographic gateway between two cultures opening all the social, commercial and other opportunities created by trade and political interaction.

, Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food SecurityTo begin, Ukraine offers an abundance of natural resources, including agricultural products such as corn and oilseeds, minerals and other staples of living. Its central location between European and Asian markets makes it a natural source of supply in both directions. Its river system and access to warm-water ports promise steady and reliable delivery.

And as any student of history will attest, such conditions attract a lot of outside interest. The roster of countries seeking to control or occupy Ukraine is a who’s-who of history: Scythians, Samaritans, Romans and many others figure into the country’s long national story.

In the 9th century, different Baltic cultures formed what came to be known as “Kievan Rus” – the first eastern Slavic state, centered in what is now the modern city of Kiev, and in the 11th and 12th centuries one of the most dominant states in all of Europe.

The name became the root word of the modern state of Russia, and by the 18th century, Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian empire. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine gained its official independence. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets in an “Orange Revolution” to demand western-style changes to national government, and in 2014 launched the Maidan Revolution to oust a pro-Soviet government.

But Russia and Ukraine have remained intertwined nonetheless, as progressive, independence-minded Ukrainians clash with a significant portion of the country’s population that retains lingering affinity for their Russian heritage and the old Soviet ways of doing things.

Official estimates say as much as 17% of Ukrainians still speak Russian as their first language, especially in the eastern and southern areas proximate to the Russian border. Unofficial observers contend as much as one-third of the Ukrainian population retain a sense of Russian identity. Regardless of the actual numbers, the Russian presence in Ukraine in both body and spirit remains very much alive.

That reality has played out in the continuing uprisings regarding election results and the unchallenged re-annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014, immediately following the ouster of the pro-Soviet government. Crimea was part of the Russian Empire since 1783, and Kremlin officials used many familiar arguments of history and residual identity to justify the militarily unchallenged occupation.

What’s behind Russia’s aggressive posture?

Modern diplomacy would hold that the rest of the world should leave it to the Ukrainians to determine their own future. But as current events and the Crimean example indicate, larger forces are at play.

From the Russian perspective, much of Ukraine remains Russian and should be reunited with their natural and preferred choice in identity. Perhaps more important to Kremlin leaders, Russia simply can’t allow a further drift of neighboring, and former Russian, countries toward the West.

Soviet (and now Russian) geopolitical strategy long emphasized the need and value of a ring of buffer states between the “Mother Country and the decadent West.” The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in an age of independence, notably still vibrant in the Baltic states. The idea of Ukraine remaining neutral or uncommitted to the West might be tolerable to Russian leaders. But a clear shift to the West by a massive and economically vital neighboring country in such a critical geographic position – through stronger economic ties, or worse, through membership in NATO – is simply unacceptable.

The fear of losing control of a country so rich in industry, agriculture and energy is a foundational geopolitical interest – and would prevent Russia’s status as a true superpower, not just in Asia but all of Eastern Europe as well.

, Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

So where does agriculture fit into the picture?

In many respects, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions mask a less visible but important issue in the Ukrainian conflict. It’s food security.

The world needs more food every day. Countries worldwide are hard at work thinking about how to assure access to enough food for their citizens. Many are actually hard at work doing something about it. And many of those see the enormous potential role Ukraine could play in that food security paradigm.

Ukraine’s most productive agricultural regions claim as much as a quarter of the earth’s “black soil.”

Often referred to as “chernozem,” this soil is built up over centuries of the growth and decomposition of grasslands, leaving a deep layer (10 inches or more) of soil rich in organic carbon. By comparison, the U.S. Midwest is down to about 3 inches. Beyond its highly fertile qualities, the unique nature of the soil often minimizes the need for extensive plowing or tilling.

, Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

As a result, the soil has maintained its fertility, making Ukraine one of the breadbaskets of the world growing corn, oilseeds, wheat, and barley.

This important agricultural production advantage has made Ukraine a significant factor in the global agricultural system – despite some lingering problems with how the production system is managed.

A Snapshot of Ukrainian Agriculture

  • 33% of total population engaged in agriculture (17.5 million)
  • 80 million acres arable land (#10 globally, #3 as % of all available land)
  • Average topsoil carbon content: 2.3% of weight (US 1.5%, Argentina 1.5%, Brazil 1.2%, Australia 0.6%)
  • Crops 72%, animals 28% of all ag output
  • 45,000 ag enterprises (55% gross output), 4 million farming households
  • $22.2 billion in ag esports 2020 (45% of all exports)
  • #1 exporter of sunflower oil, #4 in corn and barley, #6 in wheat, #7 soybeans (2017)
  • Major export partners: #1 Russia, #2 China, #3 Poland
  • Imports fish, fruit & nuts, tobacco and various other food ingredients, roughly half from EU, one-quarter from Asia
  • Major import partners: #1 China, #2 Russia, #3 Germany, #4 Poland (energy)
  • 10-12% of GDP (3rd largest economic sector); estimated 9.3% Covid year 2020
  • Largest export category (2x larger than next category, metals)

– Sources for data: National Investment Council of Ukraine; International Trade Administration;

The transition from the state-managed approach of the old Soviet Union days has been a difficult and often frustratingly slow process. Despite ambitious plans to modernize the system to capitalize on the country’s enormous natural advantages, political resistance to change remains firmly in place in select areas, notably among some officials still rooted in the philosophy of the old Soviet-controlled system.

Civil unrest and outright street battles between independence-minded progressives and traditionalists still clinging to a Russian heritage haven’t helped attract investment or accelerate comprehensive change.

But the protracted political back-and-forth can’t mask Ukraine’s enormous productive potential – and the role the country could play in meeting the food security goals of major international players, such as Russia and China. In addition to the geopolitical ambitions of so many countries, the attractiveness of Ukraine as a major source of food needs can’t be overstated.

, Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

Studies by academicians and various international organizations vary in their estimates of just how much untapped potential resides with Ukraine’s agricultural sector. One analysis reported by the International Trade Association placed just the country’s total grain output potential at 140 million tons – more than 60% above current levels. Improvements in production of food and feed grains could pave the way to similar explosions in productivity in the production of oilseeds, animal proteins, vegetable crops – and more.

In other words, despite all the problems created by its political and sociological history, Ukraine is a significant factor in the global agricultural picture.

The productive potential still present in the country has attracted the active interest of any number of people, commercial organizations and governments concerned with long-term food security.

Remember, nations can exert control through many means, not just the use of military force. Economic ties also can bind nations together, and both Russia and China have been actively seeking to use economics as well as troops as a key part of their foreign policy agenda. Note that over the past three years, Russia has quietly assumed the role of Ukraine’s number-one trading partner and largest export market. China is number two.

How does this affect me?

Political disputes and threats of conflict are nothing new, and it’s easy to dismiss something unfolding halfway around the world from our dinner tables. But we all have a stake in how this is resolved. Make no mistake, Russia and China are searching to expand their borders and food security cannot be taken lightly. If Russia succeeds in dominating Ukraine, when and where does it stop?

From Russia’s perspective:

  • National security
  • International standing
  • Practical economics: access to energy, food, minerals
  • Food security

From the West’s perspective:

  • National sovereignty
  • Human rights and self-determination
  • East-West balance
  • Investment/economic opportunity

And for the food consumer…

The immediate risks to the average food consumer are small. Our global food system continues to function well overall. As important as Ukraine is on the global food system, any significant disruptions to the global food picture are unlikely.

The bigger risk is long-term consequences of outright conflict and punitive economic sanctions. Conflict in any part of the Middle East could easily lead to further complications in unraveling the supply chain issues still lingering post-Covid. Higher energy costs in particular would work through the food system (and the entire economy), raising the prices we pay every day.

There’s also the risk of unintended consequences. Past international disputes have led to punitive actions that proved counterproductive in the long term. For instance, Germany halting the Nor Stream 2 pipeline, which brings natural gas from Russia to Europe, could influence natural gas prices around the world.

Restrictions on the flow of money and goods are double-edged swords. Ask any farmer how well past trade embargoes and trade restrictions have worked for producers and rural communities – and how those costs rippled back through the food system. Food consumers need to call for cool heads to prevail in international disputes, for everyone’s sake.

The Bottom Line

The threat of conflict between Russia and the West stems from many complex factors, with very high stakes not just for Ukrainians but consumers everywhere.  No one wants armed conflict. But politicizing the marketplace, disrupting trade, penalizing financial investment and restricting other tools needed to develop the Ukrainian economy and generating greater political stability could be damaging as well. Leaders on both sides must tread softly, for everyone’s sake.