Ukraine's Agriculture Minister on Wheat Exports "We Have To Overcome the Blockade of Our Ports – Immediately"

Ukraine's seaports have been occupied, blocked or destroyed, with millions of tons of wheat and grains waiting to be shipped to Europe. In an interview, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi describes the consequences for the global market.
Interview Conducted by Thore Schröder
Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi: "Because of the blockade, we will soon need large parts of our harvest ourselves, for the production of biofuel for our own needs."

Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi: "Because of the blockade, we will soon need large parts of our harvest ourselves, for the production of biofuel for our own needs."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Minister Solskyi, before the war, 95 percent of Ukraine’s grain was exported through Odessa, Mykolaiv, Mariupol and other seaports. These ports have since been destroyed, occupied or blocked. How is it possible to get the grain out of the country?

Solskyi: There are three ways: Since the blockade, we have been exporting smaller quantities to Europe, 40 percent via Danube River ports, 40 percent by train and 20 percent by truck.

DER SPIEGEL: But can the grain be transported quickly out of the country using those routes? Before the war, an average of 5 to 6 million tons were exported on ships each month.

Solskyi: In March, we were able to export only 200,000 tons using alternative routes, but by April, we had increased it to about 1 million. And in May, we expect 1.5 million. If we exhaust all means available to us, we will hopefully reach a monthly export of 2 to 2.5 million tons.

DER SPIEGEL 23/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2022 (June 4th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: How can that total be reached?

Solskyi: We need more trains carrying only cereals, and these must have priority on European railways. To achieve this, the transfer of grain from Ukrainian wide-gauge trains onto European narrow-gauge trains must be accelerated. We need longer operating times on the Danube Canal, higher travel speeds for ships and faster customs clearance at the borders.

DER SPIEGEL: There are currently around 25 million tons of grain in Ukrainian silos and storage facilities. What should be done with it?

Solskyi: We need 5 million tons for ourselves. The rest has to go. We do have a storage capacity of 50 million tons, but the main harvest starts in July, and then 70 million tons of winter wheat comes after that.

DER SPIEGEL: What if the farmers are left sitting on the grain?

Solskyi: So far, many have still been able to cover their operating costs, including sowing and fertilizing, from their reserves. According to our forecasts, however, those reserves will be exhausted in July. If the farmers don’t sell anything, they don’t earn anything, and then the farms come to a standstill.

DER SPIEGEL: What would that mean for the Ukrainian state?

Solskyi: That would mean that we would have to help them. That would cost us at least 6 billion euros this year alone, for just half a season.

DER SPIEGEL: And what happens to the grain in the silos?

Solskyi: If stored properly, it will keep for years. There are also ways to store large quantities in special bags and tents, meaning not just in silos. But the lack of capital would persist. Ukrainian farmers would probably grow more sunflower, rapeseed and soybeans instead of corn and wheat in the future, because these crops have less volume, making it easier and therefore cheaper to transport. But that would change the entire market.

"To win the war and thus permanently overcome the blockade of our ports and export our grain unhindered, we need arms supplies, but we also need the sanctions currently in place.."

DER SPIEGEL: Will wheat prices continue to rise?

Solskyi: Prices on the world market are already very high, but they will grow really extreme in July. Many people in Asian, Arab and North African countries still believe that the problem of this war will somehow take care of itself. Some countries also have grain reserves. But these will be used up in two months and the war will still be going, with no new grain coming from us. The pressure will increase significantly around the world.

DER SPIEGEL: As a result of the Russian invasion, 30 percent of Ukraine’s cultivated land is now occupied, destroyed or has been rendered unusable by unexploded ordnance. How much longer can your country hold out?

Solskyi: There will be further changes in agricultural production. Because of the blockade, we will soon need large parts of our harvest ourselves, for the production of biofuel for our own needs. Crop land for cereals would be lost. So, we have to overcome the blockade of our ports – immediately.

DER SPIEGEL: Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to the German chancellor and the French president over the weekend that the naval blockade be lifted in return for an easing of sanctions against Russia. Could that be a solution?

Solskyi: We are opposed to any easing. To win the war and thus permanently overcome the blockade of our ports and export our grain unhindered, we need arms supplies, but we also need the sanctions currently in place.

DER SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, Russia is making a lot of money from the increased prices for its own grain, in addition to selling stolen grain from Ukraine. How much have Putin’s troops taken?

Solskyi: At least 500,000 tons. We know that all grain leaving the ports in Crimea comes from Ukrainian fields. Large quantities have also been brought to Russian territory, where they are mixed with their own crops and sold on the world market.

DER SPIEGEL: What can you do about it?

Solskyi: We take diplomatic action whenever we discover stolen cargo. For example, a load of wheat was supposed to go to Egypt, but the cargo was rejected there after our intervention. It eventually went to Syria. We have to remain vigilant.