The whole world is watching events unfold in Ukraine—and here in Poland, we’re paying especially close attention.
Ukraine is our neighbor. We share a common border of 535 km. It not only separates our two nations, but also marks the eastern edge of the European Union. From my farm north of Warsaw, I know that developments in Ukraine can influence life on this side of the line.
One of our top concerns involves Ukraine’s food security. Just about everyone, in fact, has a stake in helping Ukraine realize its full potential as a granary for Europe and beyond.
As Kiev pries loose from domination by Moscow—and confronts Russia’s potential annexation of Crimea—Poland is doing its part to bring stability. Our hospitals have been treating people injured on the Maidan, the main square in Ukraine’s capital. We’re also organizing assistance in the form of food, medicine, and clothing. We’re even preparing for a humanitarian crisis, setting up camps that can house thousands of refugees.
These are short-term measures. In the long run, the people of Poland and elsewhere must make sure that Ukrainian farmers can grow their crops and export them, for the sake of both Ukraine and its customers.
Right now, Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of corn (behind the United States and Brazil) and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. It remains to be seen how the recent political turmoil affects this year’s shipments, but early indications suggest that Ukraine will continue to sell plenty of food. Even Russia’s takeover of Sevastopol, a Crimean port on the Black Sea, might not have much of an impact, say experts. Food can flow through Odessa and other ports whose status within a sovereign Ukraine is not in dispute.
Yet there’s no telling what the coming months may bring. The EU relies on food from Ukraine, and any reduction in shipments will cause prices to jump. For Europeans, this would represent an aggravation rather than a crisis, but that may not be true in other places.
Egypt is also a leading buyer of Ukrainian food, especially of wheat—and a cutoff could have major geopolitical implications. The tumult of the Arab Spring has many sources, but one of the most important involves food security. Political upheavals from Tunisia to Syria have roots in food shortages.
Desperate people do desperate things, and the Middle East would not benefit from more unrest.
Even before meeting this foreign demand, of course, the new government in Kiev must make sure that Ukraine feeds itself. This is nothing to take for granted: In the 1930s, as the Soviet Union forced farms to collectivize, it triggered a massive famine in Ukraine. Some 7 million people died in this manmade catastrophe. Many Ukrainians regard the incident as an act of genocide.
It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening again today, but then human affairs are full of catastrophes that nobody foresaw. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril.
Poland never suffered through a famine like the one in Ukraine, but my own family can point to hardship at the hands of the Soviet Union’s bad farm policies. When I was a child, my father resisted collectivization, as did many other Poles. Most of my life would pass before we finally won our freedom in 1989. I still remember helping the local election commission count votes through a sleepless night.
Ukrainians want much the same thing today: They seek a country free from the meddling of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and tied ever more closely to the EU and the rest of the world.
Their country is blessed with rich farmland that is the envy of other nations. Yet nothing guarantees that this resource will produce as much as it should. Success will require wise leaders who put fertile land into the hands of private farmers, attack corruption, invest in machinery, restore irrigation, and permit access to new seeds and technologies. Ultimately, Ukraine needs social peace and territorial integrity.
I look forward to the day when we can stop paying attention to Ukraine—a day when it’s out of the news and on the road to freedom and prosperity.
Roman Warzecha grows maize, sweet corn, rape and cherries on a family farm in the Mazowia region of Poland. Mr. Warzecha leads maize and triticale research at Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).