As we move into the 22nd consecutive month of the war in Ukraine, concerns persist around food security threats - both within the country and on the global scale. One of the greatest challenges for monitoring food production in the war-stricken region is the fact that ground access remains extremely dangerous. NASA Harvest and Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy continue to work together to overcome this challenge, using satellite data to assess a range of agricultural variables including planted area, harvested area, and artillery damage on farmlands. Furthermore, remotely-sensed satellite imagery has enabled NASA Harvest to be the only organization currently quantitatively assessing the agricultural impacts of the war in the Russian-occupied territories, which contain critically important croplands for global food security and agri-market stability.
"NASA Harvest is assessing the production of major grain and oilseed crops, both in controlled and temporarily occupied territories, using satellite data driven methods to obtain these assessments. NASA Harvest's research helps us understand the real situation regarding crops and the overall state of production in the temporarily occupied territories. This is an important tool that allows us to assess the nature and scale of agrarian activities under occupation," says Taras Vysotskyi, First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine.
Owing to good weather, combined with impressive farmer resilience, NASA Harvest’s satellite-based analyses have revealed a productive (relatively high-yield) season for the Black Sea region due largely to exceptionally favorable weather. Despite an overall decrease in planted area due to the war, the 2023 season did see an increase in yields and production relative to 2022 for both wheat and sunflower, two of the major export crops in Ukraine. However, a significant portion of this production was harvested in Russian-occupied territories. Dr. Inbal Becker-Reshef, NASA Harvest Director explains, “to put this in perspective, the amount of wheat alone harvested in the Russian-occupied territories in 2023, 6.42 mMT, is higher than what was harvested in the State of Kansas in 2023, the second largest wheat producing state in the US, or the equivalent of roughly 55% of Egypt’s total wheat imports, the largest global wheat importer.” This means that even though yields are up, both Ukraine and global markets are missing out on the economic and food security benefits of this productive season. “The significant lack of transparency and information regarding crop production in Russian-occupied territories is a global concern considering the vast harvests in these regions. As such NASA Harvest, in partnership with the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, is committed to continuing to shed light on the information gap through satellite-driven crop assessments,” adds Becker-Reshef.
Damaged fields, loss of irrigation infrastructure, the dangers of planting in a warzone, and the long term impacts of abandoned farmlands are also gradually coming to light. NASA Harvest preliminary analysis estimates that between 5.2 and 6.9 million acres (2.1-2.8 million hectares) of farmland have been abandoned as a result of the war since its beginning. These abandoned fields represent between 6.5 and 8.5% of Ukraine's total cropland and unsurprisingly lie along the war’s front lines. Additionally, NASA Harvest estimates that just this year alone Ukraine has seen around $2 billion in economic losses due to lost harvest on the now-fallow fields and that these lost crops could have fed upwards of 25 million people for an entire year.
Furthermore, the decrease in planted area in 2023 versus the same time last year means that farmers were not able to plant nearly as many crops as the war has raged on. The types of crops that farmers are sowing has also shifted in the context of the war. For example, we observe a significant increase in winter-crop planted proportion at the expense of summer crops in the occupied territories as well as proportional increase of sunflower area (a productive cash crop that requires less inputs and energy costs), as well as a shift to planting more rapeseed in winter crop areas in government controlled territories.
“On top of these concerns remains the long term unknowns surrounding the potential to reclaim damaged and abandoned farmlands when the war comes to an end,” explained Dr. Sergii Skakun, an Associate Professor at University of Maryland and NASA Harvest researcher. “By the end of 2022, we mapped more than 2.5 million artillery and rocket craters along the front lines, indicative of high risk of unexploded ordnance which threaten future farming.” It is worth noting though that Ukrainian farmers are continuing to harvest in some of the country’s shelled fields in spite of the obvious threat to their lives and livelihoods.
“Farmers from de-occupied territories of Ukraine create tools and methods to demine their own fields without expectations for professional help. Official demining agencies can't keep up with so much work, so farmers are desparate. They comment that it may take years until the queue for demining will reach their fields, so they sometimes demine by themselves risking their lives," says Alex Olin, NASA Harvest’s Ukraine Strategic Partnerships Manager.
NASA Harvest researcher Erik Duncan adds, "We’ve heard the stories from farmers close to the front line that harvested crops both in 2022 and 2023, while their fields were regularly shelled. Not harvesting and abandoning the fields would cause land degradation, and it may take years to restore the land back to an arable state. This is why farmers continue harvesting in dangerous conditions, using body armor and radios in order to be shielded and quickly informed if they need to back away from the front lines. In many cases, they retreat for some time farther from the front line towards the Ukraine-controlled side, and when it's quiet again, they come back close to the front line and continue harvesting." Bringing satellite imagery into the damage analysis process increases the capacity to map unexploded ordnance across Ukraine’s farmlands. The satellite imagery also provides an archive of Ukrainian agricultural lands, enabling the historical monitoring of any field in Ukraine; before, during, and after the conflict. This information is impossible to gather by any other means. Duncan explains that this is why NASA Harvest is actively working on mapping craters and potential unexploded ordnance to prepare for assisting demining organizations in the future. By incorporating this satellite-derived data, demining agencies are better able to prioritize demining efforts in support of continued agricultural production, ultimately bolstering local food production and by extension global food security.
Quantifiable and timely information derived from satellite data regarding the amount of food produced by both free-Ukraine and Russian-occupied Ukraine equips us with critical tools needed to make informed policy and trade decisions, adapt to change, and effectively manage resources. As the war rages on, NASA Harvest continues using Earth observations to shed light on the state of agriculture throughout the Black Sea region. Understanding changes in planted area, types of crops being produced, crop yields, damaged lands, and changes in farming practices due to the war help inform policy makers locally, and ultimately help to stabilize food supply and reduce market volatility globally.