Ukraine has a plan to start exporting its wheat again—but there’s a huge catch

May 10, 2022, 9:00 AM UTC

For months, wheat shipments from Ukraine have been blocked by the Russian army, which has implemented blockades in critical Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. To avoid the world growing hungrier, Ukraine is turning to friendlier neighbors to help get its wheat out of the country.

To get around the blockades, the Ukrainian government is now pursuing agreements with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland to help ship global markets the wheat using their ports. Ukraine would, of course, first have to get the wheat over land across its border. 

Should the plan be successful, it would be an important boon to Ukraine’s economy, and more wheat on the global market could alleviate a looming world hunger crisis. The United Nation’s World Food Programme has already warned that keeping Ukrainian grain in the country could result in 44 million people worldwide falling into starvation

“We’re running out of time and the cost of inaction will be higher than anyone can imagine. I urge all parties involved to allow this food to get out of Ukraine to where it’s desperately needed so we can avert the looming threat of famine,” David Beasley, executive director of the WFP, said last week.

But damage to Ukraine’s railroads and complications caused by how those railroads are built mean that getting the wheat to ports outside of the country will be a significant challenge.

Ukraine’s wheat solution

Ukraine was the world’s sixth largest wheat exporter in 2021, accounting for 10% of the global market share. 

But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, grain shipments of all kinds—including barley and rye as well as wheat—have been blocked from exiting Ukraine. Nearly 25 million tons of grain are currently sitting unused in Ukrainian storage facilities. Of this, up to 12 million tons of wheat destined for global markets could fail to leave Black Sea ports because of the blockades.

The blocked exports have already sent prices for the staple grain soaring, which international organizations warn could lead to a hunger crisis in several countries that are dependent on the crop. Many African countries are especially vulnerable, according to the global NGO Human Rights Watch, with Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Tanzania just some of the nations that have become highly reliant on Ukrainian wheat.

The possibility of Ukraine shipping its grain through international ports was first proposed on April 13 by Latvian President Egils Levits, during a joint briefing with the presidents of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia in Kyiv. 

“We talked with Mr. Zelensky that Latvia can help export grain from Ukraine so that the flow could go through Latvian ports. We called our governments after the meeting and we will take further steps to make this effort a success,” Levits said at the time.

The idea has gained momentum since then. On April 25, Ukrainian Agrarian Policy and Food Minister Mykola Solskyi visited Latvia to further discuss the proposal and examine the country’s ports and logistics infrastructure. On April 29, Solskyi discussed the initiative with Polish and Lithuanian officials.

After weeks of negotiations, officials from these countries appear ready to open their ports to Ukrainian wheat. 

“We put an offer on the table, if Ukraine wants, they can use it. They can use our seaports,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week.

The plan to export Ukrainian wheat through foreign countries seems to be in place, but officials remain wary about one key obstacle that could still derail the whole thing: infrastructure, and the difficult logistics of getting Ukrainian wheat to foreign ports at all.

The challenge of getting wheat out of the country

There’s a reason Ukraine was so reliant on shipping and Black Sea ports to get its wheat out of the country. Moving Ukrainian grain by land into Europe can be tremendously difficult.

Ukraine has been unable to export its grain to European markets partly because of differences in how its railways are built. Ukraine’s track gauge, the distance between two rails of a railway line, has long shared Russian specifications, which are wider than most other railway tracks in Europe.

This means that for Ukrainian grain to be transported by train to most of Europe, it first must be unloaded at borders and placed on carriages fitting European track gauge requirements, a time-consuming and expensive task.

Lithuania and Latvia share the same track gauge as Ukraine, so getting wheat to their ports should be relatively straightforward. But in Poland, where Ukrainian wheat could be shipped out through as many as three large seaports, track gauges follow the European measurements.

“The potential of the port is of no doubt [but] railroad tracks may cause concern. In Poland, the gauge is narrower than in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia,” Lithuanian Agriculture Minister Kęstutis Navickas said in an April statement announcing the partnership.

Even shipments to Lithuania and Latvia are far from certain, as the Ukrainian railway system has suffered heavy damage during the war. Throughout the war, the Russian army has bombed railways in the country to cut off weapons shipments from Europe, causing severe delays and electrical power outages

Getting Ukrainian wheat out by rail is the easiest option, but it will not be easy, and the parties are exploring alternatives as well, including moving wheat by truck.

“It’s possible to deliver it by truck from Ukraine into Poland, that’s also a solution,” Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland, told the Wall Street Journal last week.

A quick solution is needed, as Ukraine has already planted 7 million hectares worth of crops for its summer harvest. With the country’s grain storage already at capacity, it may not be able to afford harvesting these crops without an export deal in place.

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