Tens of millions around the world rely on the country for grain and cooking oil, but clearing live explosives from Russia’s unprovoked invasion is expensive, and even with Buffett’s philanthropy, it’s a process that can take months.
A tangle of steel and rubber was all that was left of a farm tractor mangled by a land mine in Brovary, outside of Kyiv in northern Ukraine. Thankfully, the farmer survived. But it took weeks for a crew with specialized skills, some of whom witnessed the explosion, to clear the fields and others nearby of explosives buried by retreating Russian troops.
Farms in Ukraine, known as Europe’s bread basket, provide grain and cooking oil for tens of millions of people around an increasingly hungry world. Now, in a senseless aftershock from Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault, at least 40% of the country, an area larger than the U.K., must be searched and cleared of explosives, according to HALO Trust, a U.K.-based global nonprofit which removes land mines and has worked in Ukraine since 2016. Though around 10% of that affected area is farmland, an estimated half of land-mine accidents in Ukraine stem from farm work, according to estimates from the Ukraine and U.S. governments. Toxic heavy metal from the explosive devices is often left behind.
“A lot of farmers cannot sow,” says a Kyiv-based HALO Trust worker who asked for anonymity because of possible retaliation from Russian troops. “Even just one mine renders an entire field unproductive.”
Ukraine’s soil is among the best in the world for growing nutrient-rich food. The war, however, has had a devastating impact on production. According to government projections, Ukrainian farmers this spring will likely plant more than 20 million acres — 45% fewer than in 2021. Crop exports are projected to be around half of what was shipped that year.
This comes at a time when an increasing number of the world’s people are going hungry. Today, 349 million people in 79 countries — compared with 287 million people in 2021 — live with what the United Nations calls major food insecurity. Another 900,000 are fighting famine.
The demining process is expensive and takes time. Hurrying can be deadly. Typically, a small crew identifies a contaminated area and then uses special machinery to locate, map, deactivate and destroy the mines. It can take weeks or even months at a single site. Frozen ground during winter offers further challenges. Waitlists are said to be common for farmers looking for help clearing their fields.
“The main problem is access,” the HALO Trust worker tells Forbes. “In some very contaminated fields, we started last summer and we’re still going. It depends on the size of contamination.”
The predicament has caught the attention of Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. He’s visited Ukraine five times in the past year, including a trip he’s just recently back from, and has so far donated $150 million in the country. Some $25 million of that has gone to help rid farms and open fields of land mines. Buffett has purchased demining machines, special vehicles and equipment and even brought in mine-sniffing dogs to aid the effort.
“I am not a soldier or politician,” Buffett wrote on CNN’s website in December. “But as a farmer and philanthropist who has worked on global food-security issues for more than 20 years, I know that when farms are destroyed, the damage spreads far and wide, and recovery is prolonged. People go hungry.”
Land mines not only shut down farms. They lurk in forests, where many Ukrainians venture for firewood, to cook and heat their homes as Russian attacks have knocked out electrical grids, and to forage for food like mushrooms and herbs as the war has shattered supply chains and forced more people to fend for themselves.
Yulia Stefanenko, who heads Ukraine operations for chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which has provided the country with 200 million meals, tells Forbes that left-behind explosives have caused the shutdown of production facilities that the charitable organization relies on to supply food. While visiting New York in November, Stefanenko pulled out her phone to make the point: A photo of sunflowers rotting in a field because a land mine made them impossible to harvest. It’s the biggest issue Ukraine’s food supply faces, she says.
“It’s the farms, it’s the forests,” Stefanenko says. “It could take 20 or more years to demine the whole territory.”
Crop yields are also expected to decline, even after metals and explosives are removed. When rockets hit the ground, they destroy a radius around the strike, killing off some nutrients in the soil and making the land less productive. Heavy metals also remain. Some 20% of Kharkiv’s farmland, for example, is estimated to be tainted with heavy metals, according to the Ukrainian government. That’s serious. Food produced on that land poses the threat of health problems like kidney damage, cancer, miscarriage and even death — for decades.
The cost of the country’s environmental damage — including pollution of land, air and water, as well as destruction of forests and other natural resources — is estimated at about $50 billion.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two countries were responsible for exporting 30% of the world’s cereal grains and nearly 70% of its sunflower oil. For 36 countries, they supplied more than half the grain. Some 98% of Ukraine’s grain exports were shipped via the Black Sea, which Russian ships blockaded starting in February 2022. That blockade as well as the war’s interruptions to planting and harvesting have ricocheted through the supply chain and have helped fuel a global humanitarian crisis.
Shipments of grain were eventually allowed to pass through a diplomatically negotiated shipping corridor, and vessels set sail for Ethiopia and Yemen, which are among the hungriest countries. But the deal was only temporary and shipments have not been as steady as they were before the war.
This year’s exports now depend on demining, but Ukraine’s farmers face other problems this spring. In addition to seed shortages and a high exchange rate, which makes importing machinery and other inputs more expensive, they’ll have to deal with power outages, pricey fuel and fewer storage facilities to house their crops after Russian forces destroyed many of them. Hundreds of farms in Ukraine have also been ruined or looted. Russians are said to have stolen some 4 million tons of grain.
But nothing works when farmers stop farming because they fear being blown up on their tractors.