Setting the Record Straight on Ukraine’s Grain Exports

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High-level policymakers have recently asserted that Ukraine’s grain and oilseed exports are meeting and exceeding pre-war export levels. Data show that this is not the case. Ukrainian farmers deserve credit for sustaining Ukraine’s agriculture sector throughout the war and for significantly increasing Ukraine’s grain and oilseed exports in recent months. But overstating the nature of Ukraine’s agricultural exports risks implying that Ukraine’s agriculture sector has rebounded. On the contrary, the sector is suffering from system-wide attacks throughout the war, and significant investments are needed across all aspects of Ukraine’s agriculture sector in order to restore Ukraine’s economy and return Ukraine’s exports to global agricultural markets.

Q1: What happened after Russia terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative last July?

A1: Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) last July was met with international outcry. Ukraine’s allies and its food-importing trade partners feared a worst-case scenario for global food security and for Ukraine’s economy, with its farmers once again unable to export via Ukraine’s deepwater Black Sea ports. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stressed that “there’s no possible way, just mathematically, we’re going to get as much grain out now as we were going to be able to get out through the grain deal if it had been extended.”

These worst-case scenarios have not played out. Global food prices, including grain prices, maintained a steady decline into 2024, in part due to increased agricultural exports from Ukraine. In mid-August 2023, following the cessation of the BSGI, Ukraine announced the Ukrainian corridor, a route passing through the territorial waters of North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s member states of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, which has enabled Ukraine to resume high volume shipments of agricultural products since October 2023.

Q2: Have Ukraine’s agricultural exports reached pre-war levels?

A2: In February 2024, Ukraine shipped a wartime record of 5.2 million metric tons of grains, oilseeds, and other farm products from its Greater Odesa ports under the Ukrainian corridor. Due in large part to the corridor’s success, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) raised estimates of Ukraine’s overall marketing year (MY) 2023/24 grain and oilseed product exports, including wheat, coarse grains, oilseeds, vegetable oils, and protein meals, by 7.3 million metric tons from January to April of this year.

However, determining whether Ukraine’s agricultural exports have reached “pre-war levels” is a complicated task that requires consideration of more than monthly export volumes. Even with the Ukrainian corridor’s success, the latest estimate of Ukraine’s MY 2023/24 grain and oilseed product exports total 63.77 million metric tons—over 2 million metric tons below both MY 2021/22 and the MY 2022/23, both of which were affected by Russia’s invasion. And even with monthly exports reaching a wartime record in February, Ukrainian grain exports have yet to exceed the volume of grains exported immediately prior to the invasion.

Photo: CSIS

The pace of wheat exports, specifically, during the current marketing year remains below the two wartime seasons.

Photo: CSIS

Commonly cited estimates of Ukraine’s pre-war agricultural trade assume grain exports at 60 million metric tons per year, averaging to 5 million metric tons per month, with over 90 percent of this departing from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. While this may be accurate for the MY2020/2021 season that saw smaller harvests, it does not reflect the larger picture of Ukraine’s agricultural exports in the years leading up to Russia’s invasion: Ukraine exported 67.52 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds in the MY2018/19 season and 74.09 million metric tons in the MY2019/20 season, according to USDA data. The average monthly exports for the three years preceding Russia’s invasion was 5.33 million metric tons, still slightly above the 5.2 million metric ton monthly wartime record set in February.

Furthermore, the high volume of agricultural products departing Ukraine through the corridor reflect the export of grains and oilseeds whose export had been delayed due to the war, and not the production and export of a greater amount of product than pre-war. It is true that in defiance of widely held expectations, Ukraine’s agricultural exports have increased substantially in recent months—but they are not at or exceeding annual pre-war exports. Ukrainian minister of infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov confirms as much in a Facebook post last month, stating that Ukraine has almost reached—but has not yet met or exceeded—pre-war export volumes from the Greater Odesa ports.

Q3: What remains obscured by these export figures?

A3: Grains and oilseeds produced in occupied territories are no longer a part of Ukraine’s export equation, and production across Ukraine-controlled territories continues to face considerable challenges as the war enters a third year. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, USDA estimates of harvested area in MY 2023/24 have declined 32 percent, 27 percent, and 37 percent from MY 2021/22 levels for wheat, corn, and barley, respectively. While areas farmed with oilseed are expected to increase in the MY 2024/25 season, the net area of land farmed with major crops has decreased by 19.5 percent in the past two years. Further, Russia’s recent strike on two food export terminals in the Black Sea port of Pivdennyi is the 39th attack on the Odesa region’s port infrastructure alone. The impacts of Russia’s well-documented, targeted campaign against Ukrainian agriculture have been immense: Ukraine’s agriculture sector has incurred over $80 billion in losses and damages since Russia’s invasion, according to the Kyiv School of Economics.

Given these pervasive and ongoing challenges to Ukraine’s agriculture sector, the question remains of how Ukraine has the supplies to export such high volumes of grain and oilseed products. Following the invasion, Ukraine built up considerable grain stocks as Black Sea trade routes were under blockade. With these routes open under the BSGI and Ukrainian corridor enabling higher-volume exports, Ukraine’s grain stocks have gradually returned to pre-war levels. With the stock surplus actively contributing to recent, higher volume exports, Ukraine is expected to resume exporting its current year harvest as it had prior to the war.

Photo: CSIS

Ukraine’s future exports are therefore expected to decline from current levels due to reduced and occupied farmed area, damaged or destroyed production facilities, and the fact that Ukraine has exported most of the stocks that were built up during the early months after the invasion. 

Q4: Why does this matter?

A4: Recognition of the success of Ukraine’s government, armed forces, diplomats, and international partners in securing the Ukrainian corridor is an important and deserved show of confidence from U.S. policymakers. However, overstating the nature of Ukraine’s grain exports, even unintentionally, risks implying that Ukraine’s agriculture sector is recovering to pre-war functionality and understates the war’s continued threat to Ukraine’s economy and global food security. Revitalizing Ukraine’s agricultural economy and restoring its role as a major global food supplier require increased investments across all aspects of Ukraine’s agriculture sector, with the goal of sustaining pre-war export and production capacity in the future. This has proven to be a much larger and more complex challenge than securing a vital, but singular, Black Sea trade route.

Emma Dodd is a research associate with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Caitlin Welsh is the director of the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program at CSIS. Joseph Glauber is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Global Food and Water Security Program at CSIS.

Emma Dodd
Research Associate, Global Food and Water Security Program
Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Joseph Glauber
Senior Adviser (Non-Resident), Global Food and Water Security Program