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Russia-Ukraine war has effect on produce around the globe

Headshot of John Giles, Divisional Director of Promar International.

We have all been appalled, and at times, distressed by watching events unfold in the Ukraine.

The current situation between the Ukraine and Russia has been simmering for some time. If you go back in history, the relationship between the two countries has always had its tensions. Historically, in the Soviet era, Ukraine’s “job” was to feed the Russians. Russia, in return, provided energy to Ukraine.

This contra type trade was still carried out for much of the period immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, glasnost and perestroika, but the potential for conflict was very much self evident. Ukraine wanted to be seen as a modern European country.

The Black Soils of the Ukraine (in the agricultural sector) are well known and have given the country the name of being the “breadbasket of Europe.” We probably know less about the horticultural sector.

So, what does the Ukraine produce in terms of fruit? Lots of apples is the short answer. In a normal year, around 1 million tonnes are harvested. There is also substantial production of other fruit, such as berries, some stone fruits (20,000 tonnes) and grapes (mainly used for wine, but which have declined significantly in more recent years).

Ukraine is also a major potato producer – in fact the world’s fifth biggest producer after China, the Russian Federation, India and the U.S. Around half of the country’s 1.5 million hectares of potato farms are historically located on the black soils of the forest-steppe zone in central

Ukraine, although the best yields are obtained in the Polesye wetlands of the north.

Total production is in the region of 20 million tonnes per annum. About 95 percent of potatoes though are grown by households on their small scale holdings. Only 5 percent of potato production is carried out professionally using modern technologies and with selection of recognised varieties etc.

Ukraine also has an emerging production of berries, including strawberries (62,000 tonnes), raspberries (35,000 tonnes), black and red currants (26,000 tonnes) and blueberries (3,000 tonnes). Exports of over 50,000 tonnes are made to some 90 international markets.

Most of their exports go to other Eastern bloc countries, and in particular, Poland, but also to other markets, such as Moldova and Belarus. In recent years, efforts have been made to diversify international markets to include Europe and some success has been achieved with the berry sector.

This trade however will have come to a stop after what has happened in the last few weeks. So, what do you do with a million tonnes of apples? The damage to the physical infrastructure of the country will only get worse and so increased domestic consumption will be limited.

Farmers will be left with crops that they can’t sell, even if it can be harvested. Anecdotally, we have been told that many farm workers have left jobs to go and fight the Russians. This will only add to the misery in the rural areas. For urban consumers, fresh food will become scarcer and more expensive.

Fruit producers in Latin America and South Africa are concerned about the closure of the Russian and Ukrainian markets and the impact this will have on their exports. There are ways still into these markets, via countries such as Turkey, but it will almost inevitably lead to downward pressure on prices or diverting produce to other international markets at short notice.

This might include the U.S. There is a danger that markets around the world get over supplied with consequences for prices at a time when all input costs are soaring be it for transport, packaging, labor or energy.

What might happen going forward is still of course unknown. This is a fast moving situation. What seems for sure though, is that the resilience of the international supply chain is going to be tested like never before in recent memory.

We had maybe begun to think in the UK that the combined impact of Brexit and COVID had done this for us already. We were wrong.


John Giles is a Divisional Director with Promar International, and he has worked in the past in both the Ukraine and Russia, as well as in several other Russian republics and across Eastern Europe.