A Global Agricultural Player: How Ukraine Can Feed The Planet

October 23, 2020

Ukraine is famous for its black soilits so-called chornozem. This highly fertile earth covers 58%of Ukraine's arable land.

Let's listen to Yaroslav Hrytsak, famous Ukrainian historian, who writes in our book Ukraine in Histories and Stories:

"The longue durée of Ukrainian lands is defined by the fact that approximately 40% of their area is covered by fertile black soil called chornozem. If we take only agricultural and arable land, this share is even higher (54% and 58%, respectively). Such proportion can hardly be found in other countries around the world. In terms of area, Ukrainian black soil can be compared perhaps to individual American states and Canadian provinces, but it is unparalleled in its depth (up to 1.5 meters).

The longue durée of Ukrainian lands is defined by the fact that approximately 40% of their area is covered by fertile black soil called chornozem.

Black soil is a part of the belt stretching from Siberia and Ural Mountains through the Volga region, Kuban, and Don, going through the majority of Ukrainian lands right up to the River Dniester, leaving behind Crimea in the south and forests in the north, and then continuing as a narrow strip along the Danube through Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

Black soil was and remains a factor that has a profound impact on Ukrainian history. In particular, this is basically the key reason for deep-rooted and durable farming on our lands. In pre-literate times, this was the land of well-developed agricultural civilization, which was named Trypillian by archeologists (based on the name of the territory where the respective relics were found -- Trypillia village).

During the literate period, the first mention about this land was left by Herodotus. In his History he devoted an entire volume to describing Scythia, the Black Sea steppe. The population of that steppe, a belligerent nomadic tribe of the Scythians, managed to do the same as ancient Greeks: to repel an attack by a large Persian army led by Darius. When writing about the Scythians, Herodotus also described farming tribes living to the north of them -- the ploughing Scythians. We do not know for sure who these tribes were. However, the Scythian steppe cut their lands from the grain markets of Antiquity. It is assumed that only after the Scythians disappeared did farming become the main type of production, and pushed animal husbandry and nomadism into the background".

This black soil richness is a big advantage for Ukraine but also a source of much suffering. Let's listen to Hrytsak:

Ukraine's status as the breadbasket of Europe was a blessing and a curse at the same time.

"Ukraine's status as the breadbasket of Europe was a blessing and a curse at the same time. It was a blessing because of the higher standards of living for the local population: when hunger was a regular phenomenon, it was easier to survive on fertile lands. It was a curse, however, because of the desire of near and far neighbors to conquer these lands and take them under their control in order to gain economic and political benefit from them. This is especially obvious in the so-called "short" 20th century -- from 1914 to 1991.

The image of millions of tons of grain harvested on Ukrainian lands in 1913 acted as a magnet for all superpowers, which started World War I the following year. But Ukraine preserved its attractiveness after the end of the war too. It is sufficient to read the letters of Lenin or Hitler in order to see the great attention that they paid to control over Ukrainian resources. Lenin saw Ukrainian lands as a necessary condition for the victory of the worldwide proletarian revolution; Hitler needed them to build the Third Reich. The Ukrainian Famine of 1932--1933 was the most articulate evidence of the existential threat into which natural wealth can be transformed. Grain became a strategically important resource, and Ukraine had to pay the full price for its "strategic value".

It is sufficient to read the letters of Lenin or Hitler in order to see the great attention that they paid to control over Ukrainian resources.

Another threat was the so-called resource trap. Countries with lots of resources develop extensively and not intensively. Why should they make the effort if nature provided everything they need so generously? Ukrainian economic historians say that from the beginning of our written history in the 9th century and right up to the end of the 19th century, the method of land cultivation did not change significantly in Ukraine. As a result, in the early 20th century three or four times more grain was harvested from the same area of much poorer lands in Moravia than in Ukraine. Moravia's agriculture had the important advantage of new agricultural machinery and mineral fertilizers.

The agrarian character of Ukrainian lands had an impact on Ukrainian national culture. On the Ukrainian national flag, for example, one can see a yellow image of a wheat field under the blue sky. Ukrainian modern culture willfully positioned itself as the peasant culture. This corresponded to reality to a large extent: after it almost lost its elite in the modern era because of Polish or Russian assimilation and acculturation, the Ukrainian nation became a peasant nation.

At the turn of the 20th century, approximately 90% of Ukrainians were peasants, and approximately 90% of peasants on Ukrainian lands were Ukrainians.

At the turn of the 20th century, approximately 90% of Ukrainians were peasants, and approximately 90% of peasants on Ukrainian lands were Ukrainians. The majority of Ukrainian civil and public figures of the modern age were either born under a thatched roof or were only one or two generations away from it. They glorified rural virtues -- hard work, goodwill, and hospitality. To a large extent, they were right. The traditional agrarian society, despite its difficult living conditions, created a feeling of familial warmth and protection -- unlike the modern world with its individualism and cold rationality. Yet, what Ukrainian intellectuals did not write or wrote too little about, was that the traditional society also meant patriarchal control over women and a high level of xenophobia. Young people got married not because of love but for their parents' convenience, the main reason being to preserve or multiply land belonging to the family. Marriage with an outlander, even coming from the same village, was ruled out.

Very often something that used to be an advantage in a traditional society became an obstacle for transition to a modern society. At the turn of the 20th century, a Ukrainian peasant faced a choice: to go to the city to get a job there at a factory or a mine, or to emigrate with his family to a far-away land, to America or the Far East in order to settle down on new lands and continue to live a traditional way of life. Facing this dilemma, Ukrainian peasants more frequently chose the latter. Other ethnic groups mostly went to the cities and to factories; these were mostly Russian peasants on Ukrainian lands in the Russian Empire. The choice as to where to migrate depended not so much on ethnicity but on the way a household was run. Peasants from the black soil (Ukrainian) belt wanted to move to other lands. Those who lived on poorer (Russian) soil and usually had to look for additional means of subsistence went to work in industry."

In 1930s, black soil was one of the reasons why Stalin ordered confiscation of crops from Ukrainian peasants to fund Soviet industries. This led to an artificial famine (the Holodomor) of 1932-1933, which left at least 4 million Ukrainian peasants dead.

Today's Ukraine, thanks to its independence, can use its land for the advantage of people. It has delicious cuisine and its agriculture is booming. Ukraine can be a key contributor to global food security. It is among the top food exporters to the EU. Its agri-exports are growing fast reaching over $22 bln in 2019, expanding into new markets in Europe, Asia and Africa. It is also famous for its organic food, vital for our health.

"The post-modern era," -- Yaroslav Hrytsak adds -- "or late modernity era if someone prefers this name -- erases clear boundaries and makes previous divisions problematic. Today, we cannot say for sure whether Ukraine is an ethnic or a political nation: it combines elements of both. The main question is, around which ethnic nucleus -- Western Ukrainian-speaking or Eastern Russian-speaking -- will the Ukrainian political nation unite itself.

However, even this question fails to convey the complexity of the Ukrainian situation. About 10-15 years ago, a "third Ukraine" emerged: a Ukraine of the center, both geographical and political. A large part of it is Russian-speaking, but its political aspirations are connected to Ukraine's integration into the European Union. The best symbol of the "third Ukraine" is the capital city of Kyiv, the heart of two Maidans.

The best symbol of the "third Ukraine" is the capital city of Kyiv, the heart of two Maidans.

Agriculture has also been transformed. From a symbol of something traditional and underdeveloped, it has grown to be one of the most advanced and profitable industries in the world, which suffers from an environmental crisis and lack of national products.

Ukrainian black soil thus regains its value. In the end, it had never lost it."

So, perhaps Ukraine is another "sleeping giant" able to feed the planet?

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