The first step towards sustainable agricultural production in Ukraine
Prior to February 2022, Ukraine was known as the "breadbasket" of Europe, growing enough food to feed 400 million people through exports, equating to one-tenth of the wheat and half the sunflower oil sold globally. Today Ukrainian farmers are still working tirelessly to supply food both within Ukraine and also to export, with the world's focus on the UN-brokered grain shipments deal to allow exports without risk of bombing.
However, due to the war the underlying soil that underpins agricultural production has been degraded to a varying extent across the country. This war degradation can be from obvious causes like mines and bomb craters but can also be due to compaction (from tanks travelling over the land in unsuitable conditions), chemical pollutants (like diesel or heavy metals from shelling) or even just leaving the soil bare which can lead to erosion. As farming during wartime is ongoing, assessment of soil health and remediation should also be immediate and ongoing.
Farmers need to know the level of soil degradation that has occurred on their land both in terms of human health and quality of food within the supply chain, but also to understand what crop yields to expect and look at ways to improve them. This is important both in terms of crop health but also for sustainable agriculture.
If degradation reduces yields to make farming the land unprofitable support will be needed to remediate this land to be able to use it in the future. Links between the Royal Agricultural University and Sumy National Agrarian University began in 2020, with discussions of dual degrees and twinning of the institutions.
This was only made possible as part of the UUKi UK-Ukraine twinning scheme in 2023. Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Cormack Consultancy Group (CCG), in partnership with Universities UK International (UUKi), established twinning in the hopes of reducing ‘brain drain’, and to further support universities in Ukraine to come out of the crisis with increased resources and skills. As part of this programme, Sumy and RAU have developed a research programme to assess war damage to soil and what this means for the future of agriculture in the region.
Soil health has been the focus of research in recent years as it switches the emphasis from alleviating degradation to improving the soil based on the ecosystem services that it provides. A healthy soil is defined as one that has the continued capacity to function - whether that be to produce food within agriculture, for water filtration and storage or for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.
Understanding how to improve and maintain soil function is key to building resilient farming systems that are sustainable enterprises in the long term