19 July 2023

Ukraine, soil damage already amounts to $15 billion


The FAO and the World Food Programme have launched an initiative to demine agricultural land in Ukraine. Meanwhile, experts sound the alarm about war contamination

by Matteo Cavallito


Restoring Ukraine‘s agricultural sector, badly damaged by the consequences of the Russian invasion. That is the goal of a joint initiative by the FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP), which are committed to clearing farmland of mines and all other explosive remnants of war. United Nations agencies will work together with the Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD), a Geneva-based non-governmental organisation active in mine clearance.

The plan, announced in recent weeks by the UN, once again brings into the spotlight the issue of the environmental consequences and further long-term human fallout of the conflict. War, the UN recalls, has dealt a severe blow to cereal and oilseed production in the country, which has fallen by 37% in 2022.  The hope is that land reclamation will ensure the recovery of agriculture, also for the benefit of international markets.

The Operation

Using satellite images, the experts involved will identify and map the areas to be dismantled. Demining operations will be followed by soil analysis to assess blast contamination. At the same time, says an official statement, “FAO and WFP will survey small farmers and rural families to determine their needs for restarting agricultural production and will provide direct in-kind or cash support where possible.”

“Making the land safe and free of explosive remnants of the war is the first step to rebuilding resilient and prosperous rural communities in Ukraine, who have been on the frontlines of this war,” said Denise Brown, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the country. The project, which will be carried out in cooperation with the local authorities and the Ministry of Food in Kiev, has a budget of USD 100 million.

Danni e perdite del settore agricolo e del comparto allevamento in Ucraina. Fonte: FAO, 2022 file:///D:/cc3311en.pdf Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO licence (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Damage and losses of the agricultural and livestock sector in Ukraine. Source: FAO, 2022 Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO licence (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

The agricultural crisis in Ukraine

The effects of the Russian invasion on Ukraine’s rural economy have long been a focus of attention. At the end of last year, the FAO revealed in a report that one out of every four households in the country’s agricultural sector was experiencing a reduction in or even an interruption of production following the outbreak of the conflict. In some regions, the proportion of households forced to cope with this phenomenon rose to 40 per cent.

Family farming in Ukraine, FAO stated, covers a total area of 3 million hectares, almost one fifth of the total cultivated area. In the first six months of the war alone, the total damage and losses to families already amounted to almost USD 2.25 billion. 1.26 billion of this amount was registered in the crop sector, 980 million in the livestock sector.

Health risks

The risk, however, is that the consequences of the fighting may be felt for a long time even after the war is over. In August 2022, a study by Christ Church University in Canterbury, UK, pointed out an analogy between the soil contamination phenomena taking place in the country and those experienced by Western Europe during the First World War, the consequences of which would be visible even today. According to the research, published in the European Journal of Soil Science, the impact of the conflict could cost Ukraine crop damage for at least 100 years.

More recently, Edmund Maser, director of the Institute of Toxicology at Kiel University in Germany, pointed the finger at the heavy metals contained in munitions. The expert, quoted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, emphasised that the spread of these elements poses a danger to human health.

Soil damage already amounts to USD 15 billion

Maser also explained that removing the surface layer of soil in the areas most affected by the fighting is technically possible but requires time and a lot of economic resources. According to experts from the Sokolovsky Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, also quoted by DW, some soil samples from Kharkiv in the east of the country already show high concentrations of lead and cadmium.

These elements have a negative effect on soil bacteria. In fact, they inhibit the development of crops and the supply of micronutrients, thus reducing the plants’ ability to resist disease. According to researchers at the Sokolovsky Institute, the total damage to Ukrainian soil would amount to $15 billion. But this would be only a preliminary estimate at the moment.