UK agriculture feels the squeeze as the war in Ukraine hits home


Many are talking about the atrocities in Ukraine – but UK farmers are already fearing the repercussions of the war in Europe’s largest granary, says Andrew Livingston.

2021 Near Kharkiv. Ukraine has the largest area in Europe in arable use, and is a massive producer of barley, wheat, rye, corn and countless other produce. Ukraine has a population of just over 40 million but has the agricultural capabilities to feed 600 million people. Reuters reported recently that Ukraine’s then-agricultural minister Roman Leshchenko said planted acres could be cut in half due to the war. He said farmers in Ukraine may only be able to plant about seven million hectares this year, compared to 15-million last year before the Russian invasion.

For more than a month now the UK population has been horrified as they’ve watched Russian forces invade and attack Ukraine. Twenty-four-hour rolling news and social media have meant that the data and fear that comes with war is being viewed like never before.
What the public may not know, however, are the long-lasting consequences the war will have on our own lives safely back in the UK. Fuel prices had been gradually rising since last summer, but in the last month
petrol and diesel have gone up nearly 20 pence per litre – the highest price in 14 years. The sharp rise in fuel cost is due to Russia being an oil and gas-rich country. Although it is believed that only 6% of our oil in the UK is imported from Russia, the global reduction in supply has caused the market wholesale price to increase.
Unfortunately, the war is due to have larger ramifications than just the cost to run your car or heat your home. The food you eat is already rising in price, and set to go higher; Ukraine and Russia are two of the
largest exporters of agricultural commodities.

Less supply, same demand
Due to Ukraine having the largest arable land use in Europe, the country is a massive producer
of barley, wheat, rye, corn and countless other produce. To put it into context, Ukraine has a population of just over 40 million but has the agricultural capabilities to feed 600 million people.
Mole Valley Farmers’ Alternative Feeds Trading Manager Catherine Ward explained the effect of the war: “The trade does not expect to be able to get the normal amount exported from these regions if any. So this tightens [the] supply up, but demand will stay the same, resulting in price increases in those products or replacement products.” Ward buys and sells bulk raw materials and other feed products and says that, in
the space of a month, wheat, maize and barley all went up by £100 or just under per tonne. This obviously has huge ramifications on farm, while trying to feed your animals. However, the Mole Valley employee explains that there are other issues raising costs on farm. She continued: “Others have been impacted by the increase in energy costs that have resulted from the war, which impacts on distilling and crushing plants, hitting margins and resulting in higher prices.”

Risk of shut-down in poultry
One farmer who has been feeling the squeeze on his farm in West Dorset is chicken farmer Tim Gelfs. He has 15,000 chickens across two sites and explained how dire the current situation really is: “Our feed costs in April will go up to the tune of £6,000 per month above our budgeted price, with little impact on the egg price yet.” If the price he is paid for his eggs isn’t improved he says he will just move away from chickens; fellow farmers he knows have already done the same. “I can close my chicken unit at the end of this crop
or whenever it becomes unviable. You just shut it down and then you don’t replace them – simple as
that. “I know people aren’t re-ordering pullets because the pullet price has gone up over a pound a pullet
because of the feed and fuel costs; a lot of people just shut down.

West Dorset chicken farmer Tim Gelfs has 15,000 Lohmann Brown chickens across two sites. “Our feed costs in April will go up to the tune of £6,000 per month above our budgeted price”

Feeding ourselves
This isn’t the first time that food security issues have flared up over the last few years; in March 2020, as the world shut down due to COVID-19, fears of empty shelves in the supermarket began to heighten.
The NFU Poultry rep for Dorset says that the country needs to be self-sufficient and food secure. He said: “We should be producing enough food that we can feed our country in calories every day, rather than going for 60% or 70% as that is no good if we can’t buy 30% from elsewhere. “Nowadays we will always buy food from abroad because we’ll want choice in the supermarket. But, if we haven’t got that choice, we’ve got to produce it here.”

Doubly ambitious
Currently, in the UK, the National Farmers Union plans for agriculture to be carbon neutral by 2040. To do this the countryside is going through a major transition. Crops are being removed as farmers are being paid to have wildflowers, wild animals and the public roaming in their field – but is this right? Gelfs says we need to try to do our bit for the environment. He said: “I don’t know if you can achieve both but it’s worth looking at and it’s worth exploring it.
To say that either we’ve got to produce food or look after the environment is a bit of a no no going forward because the population is going to grow so they’ve got to go hand in hand. “Whether there’s a food crisis or not at the moment, longer-term we have to balance each of them out because if we just buy our food from
abroad and we keep our countryside looking lovely and full of birds and bees, all we’re doing is exporting the problem to a different country. It’s a world problem, so we’re not actually sorting it.”

by Andrew Livingston


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