12 September 2022

Ukraine will have to deal with war damages to agriculture for a century (at least)


Ukraine farmland could suffer the same consequences as the soils of northern France, which are still contaminated with the munitions waste from World War I. A severe problem for the global food supply chain

by Matteo Cavallito


The impact of the war could cost Ukraine crop damage for at least 100 years, British newspaper The Independent has suggested quoting a research published in recent weeks by the European Journal of Soil Science. The study, conducted by two researchers at Christ Church University in Canterbury, UK, examines the effects of contamination generated during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Consequences for the soil are still evident today and they suggest a problematic post-war scenario for Ukraine’s agricultural sector.

The study

Conducted at Sheffield Memorial Park, a wooded area located near the village of Puisieux in northern France, the study started with the collection of soil samples at the battle sites. The researchers’ goal was to assess alterations in chemical properties in craters formed as a result of the explosions. The results showed abnormal concentrations of some elements.

“There has been enrichment of soil Pb by 72–78 mg/kg, equivalent to more than four times the top baseline value,” the study says. “Soils have also been enriched with 27–31 mg/kg Cu, or 2.5 times the top baseline value. For copper, every sample was above the baseline value. Although two thirds of samples were below the baseline for lead, some had concentrations 100 times greater than the baseline.”

A soil battered by a billion and a half bullets

More than a century after the fighting-which took place in the summer of 1916-the soil continues to show the effects of contamination. It is estimated, says research co-author Naomi L. J. Rintoul-Hynes, that 1.45 billion munitions of various calibers were fired on the Franco-German front only during World War I. “An estimated 30 per cent did not explode – many yet to be uncovered”, says the British newspaper . “In 2015, farmers in northern France were ordered to destroy the produce because of pollution it left.”

In short, the phenomenon of so-called “bombturbation” – that is, the totality of the long-term effects of explosions on the ground – is still clear today. Hence the disturbing parallel with Ukrainian soils, that could suffer the same kind of contamination. An event, the researcher adds, that “could impact food security not only in Ukraine, but potentially on a global scale.”

Infographic: Why the War in Ukraine Threatens Global Food Security | Statista Source: Statista

Global damage

Fears are related to the region’s importance for food production. In 2019, Ukraine, home to nearly a quarter of the global black soil, the most fertile type of soil on the Planet, overtook Russia to become the leading exporter of wheat with nearly 50 million tons placed on the market. This compares on the occasion with a total harvest of 70 million tons.

Since Russian invasion, however, the government in Kiev has released extremely worrying estimates of expected harvests by 2022. Assuming that the country may be able to sow just 7 million hectares, less than half of the 15 million projected before the war.

Today, the Independent recalls, “Forty per cent of the World Food Programme’s wheat supplies come from Ukraine. About 22 million tons are stranded awaiting export.” The country also “produces a whopping six per cent of all calories traded in the international food market.” Ukrainian land generated “about 80 millions of metric tonnes (MMT) of wheat, corn and barley in 2021″ A halving of production, or a deficit of 40 million tons, “is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years.”