A wheat warehouse belonging to Ivan Kilgan, head of the regional agricultural association village, in Luky village, western Ukraine, Friday, March 25, 2022. AP
Last year Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, harvested a record 106 million tonnes of grain, but this year, the figure could drop 25 or even 50 percent, Mykola Solsky said in written remarks to AFP on Wednesday.
"And it's still an optimistic forecast," Solsky said.
Famous for its fertile black soil, Ukraine was the world's fourth largest exporter of corn and on track to become the third largest exporter of wheat.
Russia's war has been catastrophic for its agriculture and economy.
Several regions, especially the fertile Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Odessa in the south, are either seeing intense fighting or are inaccessible for farming.
While Solsky vowed that "Ukrainian farmers will sow everywhere where it's possible", he estimated that they can only access 50-75 percent of Ukraine's cropland this season, which could lead to food shortages around the world.
"Because of this war, there can be hunger in a number of countries," Solsky said.
Farmers off to the front
With many farmers joining the army or volunteer territorial defence units, farms are scrambling to find manpower.
"We have a shortage of workers," Solsky said.
His ministry is now trying to put in place a system of temporary military exemptions for agriculture workers, Solsky added.
Despite the war, Ukrainian farmers have already started sowing wheat, barley, rapeseed, oats, sunflowers and soybeans, but the changing military situation is forcing them to improvise.
Farmers will plant crops based on availability of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and fuel.
"Each farmer and each farm will now have to decide for themselves," Solsky said.
'Cynically striking our fuel depots'
Fuel shortage is another major concern. Before the war, Ukraine received most of its fuel from Russia and Moscow's ally Belarus, and those supplies are now off limits. Meanwhile, sea ports, another source of fuel deliveries, are blocked by Russian forces.
The situation deteriorated further in recent weeks, with Russian strikes destroying several large fuel depots, particularly in the west of the country, which until then had been relatively spared.
"The enemy is cynically striking our fuel depots, knowing that we are getting ready for the sowing season to prevent us from going through with it," Solsky said.
Ukraine has enough reserves to feed its own population, which before the war amounted to about 40 million people. To do that it has banned or limited exports of wheat, sugar, buckwheat, barley and oats as well as beef and poultry.
But agricultural exports are crucial both for the country's economy and for global food supplies.
On Tuesday, Russia was accused before the UN Security Council of creating a global food crisis with its war, which could have especially dire consequences for North Africa and the Middle East.
Before the war, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural products each month from its ports, but Russia's blockade "has essentially stopped our exports", Solsky said.
"The Russians are bombing our ports and have mined sea routes," he said. "Restoring them, after we win, will take several years."
The government is looking for ways to increase railways exports, Solsky added.