Can grain trains save Ukrainian farmers and avert a global food crisis?

Ukraine’s harvested crops are threatening to rot in silos or ships after February’s Russian invasion, sparking fears of worsening global hunger.

Before the war, Ukraine exported more than 5 million tons of grain every month, most of it through its Black Sea ports.

But now Russian warships are blockading these ports, making such supplies impossible and dealing a blow to the global food supply, not to mention Ukrainian agriculture.

Ukraine, its neighbors and the EU are now scrambling to find other ways to get Ukrainian grain to market, with rail emerging as a viable option despite a host of logistical challenges.

Ukraine accounts for 42 percent of the world’s traded sunflower oil, 16 percent of corn and 9 percent of wheat – and entire countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa, depend on Ukrainian imports of these products.

The Executive Director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, has warned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks turning “the world’s breadbasket into a snack” for millions of people.

Russia has said it will lift the blockade if Western sanctions are lifted, a demand that Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has called an attempt to “bribery.”

Ukraine also accuses Russia of looting its grain and trying to sell it to other countries and the UN says There is anecdotal evidence to support this charge.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has proposed creating a naval mission with a “coalition of the willing” to escort Ukrainian ships across the Black Sea. So far, given fears of an escalation of the conflict.

While the amount of grain shipped by rail in early May is about 760,000 tons, experts warn that new plans to use trains to transport the grain are only a stopgap measure.

“If you look at those numbers, I think it’s good. But to put it in perspective, there are more than 20 million tons of grain in Ukraine that needs to be shipped to the outside world,” said Harry Nedelcu, director of political and economic business development at Rasmussen Global, a think tank run by the former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was founded.

“Ukraine still controls 80 percent of its territory. So 80 percent of this farmland has been worked and the grain is there. It’s just that 90 percent of Ukrainian exports mainly go through Odessa. And this [ports] Unavailable. It’s very difficult to replace that with rail,” Nedelcu told RFE/RL, predicting that the crop problem could get even worse once the summer crop is harvested.

ghost ships

Andriy Stavnitser, co-owner of the TIS grain terminal near Odessa, says shortly after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the country’s Black Sea ports shut down, blocked by Russian mines and warships.

“There are about 80 ships stranded in Ukrainian ports. Some of them are empty. Some have cargo. Their crews are scattered all over the world. They are essentially ghost ships that cannot leave Ukraine,” Stavnitser said Current time Middle of May.

Ukraine is losing about $15 billion by not putting grain on the market, Stavnitser estimates. “This is a colossal blow to the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian farmers,” he told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

A truck is loaded with wheat near Izmayil.

In Brussels, EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean called the challenge of bypassing the Russian naval blockade “staggering” and said on May 12 that the European Commission will work with EU governments to set up effective new transport routes for Ukrainian grain.

The European Commission announced it built so-called “solidarity lanes” to ensure Ukraine can export grain and pledged billions of euros in infrastructure investments.

So far, Ukrainian agricultural goods are only shipped from Ukraine by land or by ship via the Danube, with rail being the preferred means of transport. However, bottlenecks have arisen due to the different track gauges in Ukraine, which date back to Soviet times. This means that shipments are reloaded onto new wagons at the border.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov has identified the modernization of rail infrastructure in western Ukraine as a priority on which the EU should focus. “Rail transport can partially take over the entire transport of agricultural products, especially grain,” he says said. “However, the transport of goods is difficult due to the low cross-border capacity of western Ukraine, which is not designed to handle such volumes.”

Despite the logistical backlog and the ever-present threat of Russian military strikes, more and more Ukrainian agricultural goods are being delivered sent on railroad tracks.

About 768,300 tons of Ukrainian grain were exported by rail between May 1 and 16, compared with 642,500 tons in April and 415,900 tons in March, according to the country’s state railway company, Ukrzaliznytsia, as quoted by the argus Blog covering the commodity markets.

These numbers are expected to increase further in the coming months as cooperation between Ukraine and its neighbors and partners deepens.

The problem is expected to get worse as Ukraine and the countries that transport its crops harvest this summer's crops.

The problem is expected to get worse as Ukraine and the countries that transport its crops harvest this summer’s crops.

Lithuania received its first rail shipment of grain from Ukraine for onward transport from its Baltic Sea port of Klaipeda, the state-owned railway company LTG said on May 24th. “We expect to receive a train from Ukraine each day, each carrying up to 1,500 tons of grain and other agricultural products for export via the port of Klaipeda,” said LTG spokesman Mantas Dubauskas.

And in Austria, a train with 2,000 tons of Ukrainian corn arrived on May 6th.

Standing in front of a train car decorated with the Austrian and Ukrainian flags, Austria’s Agriculture, Sustainability and Tourism Minister Elisabeth Koestinger said the shipment was the establishment of a “green corridor” for vital cargo movements between the two countries. “Grain and feed exports cannot leave Ukraine by sea. That’s why we’re creating green corridors,” she said.

Ambassador of Ukraine in Austria Vasyl Khymynets called the new land route an important symbol of Ukraine’s cooperation with its partners. “We’re looking for ways to feed the world,” he said. Khymynets added that potentially 600,000 tons of Ukrainian grain could be exported every month via various land routes.

Other countries have also started establishing their own “green corridor” routes, Koestinger said. Such land routes were used during the war to help civilians flee the fighting.

The Austrian Federal Railways are already bringing Ukrainian freight three times a week with trains that can transport up to 2,000 tons via Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland to northern Germany.

in what was described First, Czech Railways recently transported 1,800 tons of Ukrainian corn to the EU. The corn load was to be shipped to Egypt from the German port of Brake.

Romanian help?

Bordering Ukraine and also accessing the Black Sea, Romania – and in particular its port in Constanta – has also played an integral role in Ukraine’s efforts to circumvent the Russian naval blockade.

Trains, trucks and barges are used to transport Ukrainian agricultural products from small Danube ports like Reni and Izmayil in southwestern Ukraine.

But it’s time-consuming and lacks infrastructure, notes Policy Director Nedelcu. “There are some challenges because you have to transport by rail and you have to connect it to the European rail network because it’s not the same size. Then you have to drive through Romania down to Constanta. Or you can take a barge across the Danube and then it’s down to Constanta.”

Waiting times of up to 30 days at the customs border crossing at Sirets are over reportedaccording to the Romanian service of RFE/RL, and 28 days at the Halmeu crossing.

Bulgaria says it is ready to help export Ukrainian stocks from its port in Varna and is currently upgrading its infrastructure.

The conundrum could get even trickier in the coming months, when Ukraine’s summer crop of wheat, barley and corn is also set to be harvested in July and August give pressure on domestic storage capacity, UN officials have said.

And it won’t just be Ukraine reaping its harvest, Nedelcu points out, pointing to another potential problem. “We have to keep in mind that it’s not just Constanta, it’s some ports in Poland and elsewhere, but these countries will get their own crops. They also have to ship their grain. Romania also has its own grain to ship,” Nedelcu noted.

“Once the summer months come, you will basically have this challenge of diverting the grain from Ukraine, but also allowing the grain from those countries through. So, you know, that’s a challenge.”

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