Ukraine's agricultural revolution

BBC News | 24 August 2009

Jeremy Cooke

BBC Newsnight, Ukraine

The landscape of western Ukraine feels like the land that time forgot.

In the patchwork of tiny fields local farmers work as they have for generations - hay is cut with hand scythes, the carts which bring in the harvest and the ploughs that work the land are horse drawn.

It is a bucolic scene seemingly untouched by the struggle, violence and revolution which have so dominated the country's history.

But now - once again - forces from far beyond these fields are at work. The world is getting hungrier and the old "wheat basket" of Eastern Europe is offering new opportunity.

You could call it the latest foreign invasion. No tanks this time, but a state-of-the-art agricultural army is on the move.

In large swathes of the country fleets of ultra-modern combine harvesters are bringing in the harvest from new mega farms.

[caption id="attachment_7144" align="alignright" width="226" caption="Richard Spinks' company is centred in fertile western Ukraine"]Richard Spinks' company is centred in fertile western Ukraine[/caption]

Food security

But it is not Ukrainian money and know-how which is driving this agricultural revolution. It is foreign governments and companies.

The Libyans are negotiating for land here, as are the Russians and others.

Many governments are looking to secure land overseas as a way to ensure the food supply to their country does not fail.

In this part of Ukraine it is the British, in the form of the company Landkom, who are making moves which are transforming the landscape, investing millions in machinery and infrastructure.

This year the company will harvest 60,000 tonnes of wheat from Ukrainian land holdings totalling some hundred square miles.

The company, like so many others, seems to have calculated that if predictions of global food shortages prove accurate over the coming decades, there will be big money in food production.

The founder and CEO of Landkom is a former RAF man turned entrepreneur, Richard Spinks.

Mr Spinks is clearly immensely proud as he watches thousands of tonnes of wheat being harvested in the fields he has leased.

Most of the agricultural land in Ukraine is broken up into tiny plots, each allocated to a family.

Mr Spinks explained that the field we were standing in would have originally been split into 190 different holdings.

Land grabbing: “ I feel sorry for Ukraine... it was colonised by the Russians, it was the grain basket for many, many years, it went downhill and now it is being asset stripped again by the West ” Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University

Landkom's success has been to negotiate thousands of lease deals to put together huge new farms.

It is a sensitive issue, since by taking long leases on huge amounts of land the foreigners are actually taking control of Ukraine's famously fertile soil.

We met people in Ukraine who are unhappy about the situation. They do not reject technological advances but believe overseas investors should back Ukrainian farmers rather than setting up new "foreign" enterprises in their country.

"Every human being is a patriot of their own land, so yes it would be nice to have our own companies, we'd love that, but for right now it is what it is, whoever has got the money, they control the gain," says Stepan Ryzna, a local small holding farmer.

Others go further, condemning the deals done by foreign companies as a "land-grab", as rich countries and corporations snap up huge swathes of land in poor, developing countries.

Professor Tim Lang, one of the British government's leading food security advisers, is one such critic:

"I feel sorry for Ukraine, here it is, it was colonised by the Russians, it was the grain basket for many, many years, it went downhill and now it is being asset stripped again by the West," he says.

"You could say that it is good for the Ukraine, that it is getting inside investment from rich countries, that its productivity will go up, that since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has not had the requisite investment, that at least under Stalinism there was a huge amount of that sort of investment - you can paint that picture - but I'm not convinced by that."

Greater development

This assessment draws an angry response from Mr Spinks:

"He needs to come and he needs to get his story straight before he makes opinions which are unfounded. First of all we lease every hectare of land, secondly we pay our lease payments, thirdly we don't bully people to lease us their land - they choose to lease us their land.

"The reasons they choose to lease us their land has nothing to do with money - it is an emotional desire to see their region go forward, that's all."

And it is clear that many Ukrainians do want to see greater development.

Vasili Pryza, head of the local farmers' union, told me he is not against foreign investment, but that ultimately it must be for the good of the Ukrainian people, not for overseas corporations:

"In this region we are looking for people who will treat the land properly. We are looking for investors who will invest in things that are in our interest.

"It doesn't matter to me if you are English, Chinese or American if foreigners do what is good for this place. That is just my personal opinion."

Global trend

Hearts and minds are crucial here and Mr Spinks knows it. Landkom makes frequent donations to the local hospital, its corporate logo visible on the ambulance it funded.

"The key to the whole thing is, and if you get this right I think then you win, that it has to be better that we are in the community than if we're not, than if we went away," Mr Spinks explains.

But it is difficult territory which brings up big questions, and it is a global trend - Arab countries are buying up huge swathes of Africa, the Chinese are in Cambodia, and so on.

To some the idea of rich, powerful countries acquiring land in poor, underdeveloped ones is highly questionable.

But while some call it "new colonialism" and "asset stripping" others defend the practice as a way of introducing new agricultural technology where it can make a real difference to the global food supply.

And, if the warnings of global food shortages are accurate, the basic terms of this debate may shift.

The ethical emphasis then may not be on preserving the culture and autonomy of individual nations, but on increasing the food supply to a ravenous world.

Watch Jeremy Cooke's report in full on Newsnight on Monday 24 August 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.
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  • 24 August 2009
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