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By Helping War-Torn Ukraine Get Its Grain To Market, The EU Is Accused Of Abandoning Its Own

Polish farmers block a street during a protest in Szczecin on April 3 against what they call a flood of Ukrainian grain on the local market, which they say has depressed domestic grain prices.
Polish farmers block a street during a protest in Szczecin on April 3 against what they call a flood of Ukrainian grain on the local market, which they say has depressed domestic grain prices.

Farmers in the Bulgarian city of Ruse blocked the main border crossings with Romania last week, using their tractors to stop trucks from crossing the main bridge spanning the Danube.

With banners reading, "Stop the genocide of agriculture" and "We want to be competitive," the Bulgarian farmers say that about 40 percent of their crop from last year -- mostly grain and sunflower seeds -- remains unsold and the surplus has meant they don't have another storage space ahead of this year's harvest.

The reason? Cheap Ukrainian grain and other produce that has been flooding the market, helped by the European Union waiving customs duties and import quotas, an attempt by Brussels to help its war-stricken eastern partner keep its agricultural sector running and reach markets, often in developing countries, outside the EU.

With recent protests in Poland and Romania, the Bulgarian farmers aren't the only ones who are upset -- and there is now increased pressure on national and EU leaders to address the problem, with some farmers going as far as to suggest that imports of Ukrainian agricultural goods be stopped.

It's not that European farmers necessarily lack sympathy for their Ukrainian counterparts. Daniela Dimitrova, a regional leader of Bulgaria's grain producers' union, told the AP news agency that "we stand in solidarity with Europe and its support for Ukraine," which was once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. "But the European Commission," she said, "should look at each individual member state and make farmers competitive."

Farmers in Bulgaria who grow sunflower seeds, one of the country's major exports, say they can't compete with the huge surge of Ukrainian goods flooding the market. Deputy Agriculture Minister Todor Dzhikov recently told Bulgarian National Radio that for 2021, 20,000 tons of sunflowers were imported from Ukraine to Bulgaria. In 2022, almost 900,000 tons were imported, leading to a price drop on the domestic market of nearly 50 percent, Politico reported.

Farmers drive their tractors to block trucks crossing the Danube Bridge, which marks the border between Bulgaria and Romania, in a protest in late March against the duty-free import of grain coming from Ukraine into the EU.
Farmers drive their tractors to block trucks crossing the Danube Bridge, which marks the border between Bulgaria and Romania, in a protest in late March against the duty-free import of grain coming from Ukraine into the EU.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, its military blocked or occupied Ukraine's Black Sea ports, making it impossible to export grain and other produce by sea. The UN's World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned at the time that Russia's attack risked turning "the breadbasket of the world to bread lines" for millions of people.

Before Russia's invasion, Ukraine, which aspires to join the EU, supplied 42 percent of the sunflower oil traded on the global market, 16 percent of the corn, and 9 percent of the wheat, according to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Entire countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa, were dependent on Ukrainian imports of those products. With its ports blocked and alternative shipping routes cut off, some 20 million metric tons of grain were stuck in Ukraine in 2022, before the summer and ahead of another harvest.

Mounting Crisis

To deal with the mounting crisis, the European Commission, the EU's top executive body, on April 27, 2022, proposed suspending all tariffs and quotas on exports of Ukrainian goods for one year, including farm produce. Then, in May 2022, the European Commission launched its Solidarity Lanes Action Plan, which established alternative routes for Ukrainian grain, most of which was expected to transit through the EU to markets farther afield. With neighboring states such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova, Hungary, and Bulgaria playing a key role, railways, roads, and inland waterways -- namely the Danube River -- became lifelines for Ukraine's struggling economy and its farmers.

In another breakthrough, on July 22, 2022, an agreement was brokered by the UN and Turkey to open a safe humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea, the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Since then, more than 900 ships filled with grain and other foodstuffs have left three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Yuzhne.

As of March -- when the Black Sea Grain Initiative was extended -- more than 23 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs were exported via the Black Sea, according to figures from the Black Sea Grain Initiative Joint Steering Committee. Of that total, 49 percent was maize, which had been sitting in granaries and needed to be cleared to free up space for wheat from the 2022 harvest.

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has also started shipping wheat again from Black Sea ports. "Ukraine plays a critical role in providing wheat, corn, vegetable oil, and other food to global markets. The Black Sea Grain Initiative allowed exports of more than 26 million metric tons of food commodities and helped to bring down global food prices," a WFP spokesperson told RFE/RL.

"Continued exports from Ukraine are absolutely vital for global food markets, as they help to relieve some pressure from domestic food prices around the world, which is crucial for poor people living in countries most affected by the current food crisis."

According to the figures from the steering committee, over 65 percent of wheat exported through the Black Sea Grain Initiative reached developing countries. The same figures show maize being exported nearly equally between developed and developing countries.

After expecting that the grain would be transiting through the EU, for many farmers in the bloc, it's simply too much. They argue that Ukrainian grain is flooding their domestic markets, undercutting local producers, its cheap price proving too tempting for local buyers and traders. It's not just grain, but other Ukrainian foodstuffs that have benefited from the relaxed customs duties and import quotas, including eggs, poultry, sugar, and apples.

"In the framework of the solidarity lanes, the EU market has opened to Ukrainian imports, resulting in an unprecedented flow of Ukrainians' products to Eastern Europe. This sudden and significant influx has created tension locally," explained Farm Europe, a think tank focusing on rural economies in the EU.

Zdenek Kubiska, chairman of the board of the Czech Association for Commodities and Feed, said that Ukrainian grain began flooding EU markets after the Black Sea Initiative was launched. According to Kubiska, who spoke to the iDNES news website, some Ukrainian crops are not reaching developing countries as planned but ending up in the EU, namely Spain and Italy. Kubiska blamed middlemen in Turkey, where the Ukrainian grain is first shipped, for sending it on to the EU rather than countries in the developing world.

A cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain is seen in the Black Sea near Istanbul.
A cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain is seen in the Black Sea near Istanbul.

The claims that profiteers in Turkey were to blame were echoed by Jan Dolezal, the president of the Agrarian Chamber of the Czech Republic, who told iDNES that they were taking advantage of the situation. "Considering that agricultural commodities are not imported into the EU by farmers, but by traders, this is not actually helping Ukrainian farmers, who themselves receive a fraction of the real price," Dolezal was quoted as saying.

Those charges were downplayed by the World Food Program (WFP). "It is true that some [WFP-chartered vessels] go to Turkey for the wheat grain to be milled into flour. However, all the food is then shipped on to our operations in countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Yemen," the WFP spokesperson told RFE/RL.

Regardless of whoever is responsible, EU farmers' anger is only growing. Brussels is trying to de-escalate the crisis and, on March 20, offered a total of 56.3 million euros ($61.6 million) in compensation to affected farmers, of which Bulgaria would receive 16.7 million euros and Poland almost 30 million euros, amounts that not only farmers, but also government officials in their respective countries say aren't enough. For farmers in Romania, the offered compensation is even less, at 10 million euros.

In a bid to dampen farmer anger in Poland and after hours of reportedly heated talks, Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk announced on March 29 that farmers and traders will receive some 1.2 billion zlotys ($281 million) in compensation for losses, although it was unclear how much was coming from the EU and how much from Poland's state budget.

Despite telling the Polsat News channel that Ukrainian grain imports to Poland had dropped over the past two weeks, the under-fire Kowalczyk stepped down on April 5, citing the European Commission's plans "to extend duty-free imports for Ukrainian grain until June 2024."

Knives Out

The knives are out for Kowalczyk's Romanian counterpart. Dacian Ciolos, a former European commissioner for agriculture and now a lawmaker in parliament, has demanded the resignation of Agriculture Minister Petre Daea for the "disastrous" farmer aid deal negotiated with Brussels.

"Romanian farmers are being wronged due to the political irrelevance in negotiations at the top of the Agriculture Ministry and the inability of the administration to support the interests of the Romanian agricultural sector with arguments and relevant figures," Ciolos said in a statement.

In response, Daea said his ministry had provided all the requested data but did not have a say in the final amount of 10 million euros that the EU has agreed to grant Romanian farmers.

Feeling the heat at home, political leaders in impacted EU states are pushing Brussels to do more.

In a March 31 letter, seen by RFE/RL, addressed to the European Commission and its leader, Ursula der Leyen, the prime ministers of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria said the channels meant to ship Ukrainian grain to global markets are not operating as had been planned.

They urged the EU's top executive body to consider the urgent purchase by the 27-member bloc of the surplus crops and to provide financial support, including money to build storage facilities for excess grain.

A European Commission spokesperson told RFE/RL that Brussels is aware of the scope of the problem. "The commission recognizes that these additional imports are causing pressure on agri-food supply chains in these countries, leading to oversupply, decreased demand, increased storage costs and eventually reduced local prices," the spokesperson said, adding that the 56.3 million euros aid package is likely not the last. "In parallel, the commission is working on a second support measure of a similar magnitude targeted at frontline member states."

For many of the European Union's farmers, though, it might be too little, too late, with growing calls to shut the door on Ukrainian agricultural imports.

Romanian agricultural producers are planning what they say will be a nationwide strike on April 7 to push this demand, and reports in Bulgarian media say their counterparts are planning to offer their support.

Acting Bulgarian Agriculture Minister Yavor Gechev said on March 29 that Bulgaria will request changes to the EU's current duty-free imports of agricultural goods from Ukraine.

In one year, Gechev said, Ukraine's sunflower imports have increased twentyfold. "No market can absorb such additional quantities," he said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, and RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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