How Ukraine is attempting to export its supply of grain to the world : The Indicator from Planet Money Russia's blockade of Ukraine's seaports have stopped 20 million tons of grain from getting exported. Today, how Ukraine is trying to get its trapped grain to countries that rely on these crucial food supplies.

How to get 20 million tons of grain out of Ukraine

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1102277441/1102526934" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

There are more than 20 million tons of grain trapped in Ukraine right now, tons of wheat and corn that in peacetime would be loaded onto cargo ships at ports on its southern coast on the Black Sea, then transported to places like Egypt, Pakistan and Lebanon.

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

But today that grain is sitting in silos. It's unable to get out of Ukraine and into the countries that rely on these crucial food supplies. Russian warships are stationed off Ukraine's ports. And there are reports of mines in the Black Sea that make it too dangerous for commercial ships to operate.

WONG: The war has cut off Ukrainian grain exports and deepened a worldwide food crisis. And the longer that grain sits in storage, the worse the crisis, not just for Ukrainian farmers, but for global food security. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. On today's show, how Ukraine is racing to get grain out of the country and spinning up new wartime supply chains to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: Ukraine is called the breadbasket of Europe because of how much grain it grows and exports. Roman Slaston is the general director of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club. It's a trade association representing over 100 agricultural companies. And he's a farmer himself. He has a hectare of land where he grows potatoes.

ROMAN SLASTON: We need to feed our people. And we need to produce food and export to other countries.

WOODS: But Roman says that when the war broke out, farmers jumped into action. They sent grain to the Ukrainian military and to people who are under siege in blockaded cities. They also gave diesel to the war effort, which is fuel that they were saving for the spring planting season. And some of these farmers also left their farms entirely to join the Ukrainian military.

WONG: Another huge wartime disruption for Ukrainian farmers was Russia's naval blockade. Almost all of the 60 million tons of grain that Ukraine exports every year is shipped out via ports like Odessa. And commercial activity at those ports was basically shut down as soon as Russia invaded.

SLASTON: We are not able to use our regular or normal way of transportation. We have grains, our farmers have grains but can't export, can't sell it.

WOODS: In these last few months during the war, Ukraine has been setting up new logistics and transportation systems for its trapped grain. The crops can't leave via ships from Black Sea ports, so Ukraine has to find new water routes using river barges on the Danube River to Romania.

WONG: But mostly the grain is traveling by land, getting transported by railway and trucks to other European countries. These land options, though, have challenges. Let's take trains first. The problem here is something called rail gauge or track gauge. This is the width between the two rails of track. And it turns out the Ukrainian track gauge is wider than what's used in its European neighbors. This wider gauge is left over from the Soviet era.

WOODS: So a train carrying Ukrainian wheat can't just travel into, say, Hungary on the same track. It has to stop at the border at a special terminal, and the cargo has to be reloaded onto a different grain car that fits the European standard. Or a big machine has to come. It has that lift up that train car and switch out the wheels for ones that can run on European tracks. Either way, it is a very cumbersome process.

SLASTON: Of course, it takes time and takes also additional cost to make such reloading. But at the moment, I have no choice with that.

WONG: So that's the train option, which Roman says transported more than half the grain in April. The European Commission has also agreed to free up more vehicles and prioritize Ukrainian grain shipments in its railway systems. So switching from ships to trains has been a big part of solving this logistical puzzle.

WOODS: Another major piece of the strategy is using trucks. The issue here is that drivers need special licenses to haul cargo internationally, and customs procedures and sanitary checks on the borders are causing delays. It's a lot of red tape.

SLASTON: We need to improve procedures on the border, make it quick and fast because at the moment, on average, our track drivers wait for 7 to 8 days at the border just to cross it.

WONG: So trains and trucks, that is the transportation part of the problem that Roman and other officials are scrambling to figure out. Then there's another issue, one that doesn't have to do with railway track widths or customs paperwork.

WOODS: The Ukrainian government says that Russia is stealing grain. One report from CNN tracked a ship with stolen grain leaving a port from Russian-controlled Crimea traveling to Syria. Roman says he's heard about this, too.

SLASTON: They steal grain and transport it to Crimea and then - or load on ships and transport to countries which do not ask about origin or the grain, you know.

WONG: European and American officials have described the Russian blockage of Ukrainian grain as a war tactic, like Russia is holding wheat and corn exports hostage in a bid to destabilize the global food supply. At a news conference last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock didn't mince words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING0

ANNALENA BAERBOCK: (Speaking German).

WONG: She said, "this great and looming hunger is not collateral damage. It's a deliberately chosen instrument in a hybrid war that's being waged right now."

WOODS: Then, earlier this week, the Kremlin said that Russia was willing to work with the Turkish government on allowing ships to travel safely through the Black Sea, possibly including shipments of grain. But it's unclear what that would look like if it even happened.

WONG: And if the 20 million tons of grain don't get moved out of Ukraine to the countries that rely on those exports, it's dangerous for both global food security and Ukraine's farmers. They need the money from exports to pay for future planting and harvesting. Because of the war, banks aren't extending their usual credit lines, and suppliers are demanding 100% payment upfront.

SLASTON: In two months we will have start harvesting wheat, barley and rapeseed and (inaudible). They definitely need money to buy fuel, to pay salaries, and, yeah, to buy spare parts for combines, et cetera, et cetera.

WOODS: The upcoming harvest brings up a final problem - storage. Farmers are going to need somewhere to put their new grain, and the silos at the moment are filled with all that wheat and corn that can't leave.

SLASTON: We at the moment forecast a shortage of storage with a whole new crop. So in October, November, when we will come to harvest corn, there will be definitely some deficit of storage capacities.

WOODS: So here's how the math breaks down. Before the war, Ukraine was exporting 5 to 6 million tons of grains every month.

WONG: In March, exports were just a fraction of that - 300,000 tons. Then in April, thanks to the big scramble to put grain on river barges and train cars and trucks, 1 million tons got exported. It's been a huge challenge to get grain out of the country with a war raging. But Roman has an ambitious goal. He wants to triple that number.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: This episode was produced by Nikki Willette (ph) and Jamila Huxtable and engineered by James Willets. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.