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Russia has blocked 20 million tons of grain from being exported from Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over 20 million tons of grain like corn and wheat are trapped in Ukraine because of Russia's ongoing blockade of its ports. It's a deepening crisis for Ukrainian farmers and a threat to global food security. As Wailin Wong and Darian Woods from our daily economics podcast The Indicator explain, getting the grain out by other means comes with challenges.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Roman Slaston is the general director of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, and he's a farmer himself.

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

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: 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.

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

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.

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.

WONG: So that's the train option, which Roman says transported more than half the grain in April.

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.

WONG: 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. Roman says he's heard about this, too.

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

WONG: 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.

SLASTON: They definitely need money to buy fuel, to pay salaries and, yeah, to buy spare parts for combines, et cetera, et cetera.

WOODS: So here's how the math breaks down. Before the war, Ukraine was exporting five to six 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, one 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.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

WONG: Wailing Wong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.