Why is Ukraine called the “breadbasket of Europe”?

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Covering an area of ​​603,700 km², it is divided between several types of landscapes, the vast majority of which is arable land with 413,000 km² available. Agriculture is even a symbol of its flag: yellow represents a wheat field and blue represents the sky, separated by a horizon line. Its strategic location between Europe and Asia, its position and access to the Black Sea guarantee its openness to world markets and flows. After several years of poor performance after gaining independence in 1991, the country has gradually become one of the largest producers of agricultural products and is currently one of the leading exporting countries.

Ukraine, one of the richest soils in the world

This is the main asset of the country’s agriculture: Ukrainian land is considered one of the richest soils in the world. Ukraine, 50% covered in soil called “chernozem” or “chernozem” – literally “chernozem” in Russian – is considered by some to be an agricultural paradise. As can be seen from his translation, chernozem is black soil, consisting of earth rich in organic matter and biological activity. Despite being used for several centuries BC, Ukrainian chernozem revealed its potential only in the middle of the 19th century with a detailed analysis of Russian scientists and Vasily Dokuchaev, considered the father of soil science. He describes a soil with a predominance of deep accumulations – from a few centimeters to several meters – of humus (earth formed as a result of the decomposition of plants) from steppe vegetation (grass), in a temperate continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. “It is through the simultaneous action of climate, age, vegetation, topography and bedrock that this soil can be formed”– explains Vasily Dokuchaev in his book “Russian Chernozempublished in 1883. The parent rock from which this soil originates varies geographically, so it may have multiple and distant origins. “. Consisting mainly of silica and calcium carbonate, the loess corresponds to fine sands, very well sorted, in particular by the wind, structuring the Ukrainian chernozems, giving them a very high porosity.

The cultural abilities of this soil are numerous, its properties give it naturally rare fertility. Its advantages lie in good concentrations of elements necessary for plant development, such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and mineral elements, as well as, as mentioned above, in high porosity, necessary for good irrigation of the soil with water and ease of tillage. In addition, the flat relief characteristic of the Ukrainian steppes makes the soils more homogeneous, making it possible to cultivate large areas.

Chernozem field in Ukraine (source: SPUTNIK VIA AFP)

However, the historical management of Ukrainian land may have a negative impact on its quality and properties. This increasing soil degradation is due to inadequate irrigation, significant salinization, chemical pollution and, above all, significant erosion of the surface soil layer. This water (sediment draining by water) and wind (wind) erosion is estimated at ten tons of eroded soil for every ton of grain produced. Currently, research is underway to solve this problem and ensure the sustainability of the fertility of Ukrainian soils.

Ideal climate

As in France, the Ukrainian climate meets all the requirements for the development of efficient large-scale agriculture. Its mid-continental and temperate conditions are favorable for the cultivation of grain crops with average annual temperatures ranging from 6 to 10°C, depending on the region. However, there are large differences between the seasons and different regions of the country with average temperatures ranging from 7 °C in winter to 19 °C in summer, very similar to the French average. Precipitation follows the same continental and temperate pattern, averaging between 450 and 650 mm per year.

Maps of average annual temperature (°C) and precipitation (mm) in Ukraine between 2005 and 2012 (Source: Agricultural Policy Report APD/APR/02/2016)

Well-thought-out agricultural policy

Since gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine has faced a number of challenges in managing its agricultural land. The country has failed to capitalize on the richness of its soils, which has made life very difficult for farmers and low yields. But over the past ten years, the untapped potential of the Ukrainian agricultural sector has been unlocked through pro-agricultural policies and financing, in particular through the simplification and refinement of the land lease/sale system, as well as significant improvements in cultivation equipment and techniques. Yields are rising and production records continue to be broken every year. In terms of exports, Ukraine today ranks among the top exporting countries in the world, exporting over 40% of its production, and is establishing itself as a leader in the soybean and sunflower oilseeds sectors. In world markets, Ukraine is pushing its way to major importing countries such as China, Egypt, India, Turkey or the European Union in order to conquer more distant markets such as the United States.

Export curves for wheat in France and Ukraine (source: FAOSTAT, March 21, 2022)

Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ukraine is the “breadbasket of Europe”, but the conflict with Russia nevertheless risks seriously slowing down its dynamics.

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