FEATURE STORY

Soil Fertility to Increase Climate Resilience in Ukraine

December 5, 2014


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A Competitive Edge

Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, is known as the region’s breadbasket thanks to its black “chernozem” soil, which is highly fertile and rich in organic matter called humus. Covering more than half the landmass of Ukraine, chernozem soil offers exceptional agronomic conditions for the production of a large range of crops, especially cereals and oilseeds.

Such highly favorable agro-ecological conditions give the agricultural sector in Ukraine a highly competitive edge, which is supplemented by its advantageous geographical location.

Ukraine’s proximity to large and growing neighbouring markets – the Russian Federation and the European Union – and access to deep sea ports at the Black Sea, provide direct access to world markets, especially large grain importers in the Middle East and North Africa.

Soil Erosion

Despite the favorable conditions, however, a major challenge for Ukraine is soil erosion. Over the decades, chernozem soil across the country has been increasingly degraded by poor land management and subsequent soil erosion. It is estimated that over 500 million tonnes of soil are eroded annually from arable land in Ukraine, resulting in a loss of fertility in over 32 million hectares of soil.

The detrimental impacts on crop production and the economy in Ukraine cannot be overstated: for each dollar of added agricultural value generated, one-third is lost through erosion – with ten tonnes of soil eroded for each tonne of grain produced.

There is strong evidence that soil erosion in Ukraine is accelerating, leading to major natural damage in other ways too, such as siltation of rivers, harbors, and dam reservoirs (which feed hydroelectric power stations). But, the problem is more acute in some areas than others: in the south-east of the country, for example, soil has been eroded to the extent of desertification.


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Distribution of Chernozems in Europe and typical Chernozem profile.


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Soil erosion in Ukraine is visible from satellites. Source: Google Earth


Climate Change

Global climate change is also having an impact; compounding the effects of soil erosion. For example, organic matter – the “glue” that keeps soil particles together and helps soil hold water – is being impacted in such a way that the capacity of soil to retain moisture is being reduced, which is critical during especially dry years.

In addition, over the past 15 years, drought events in Ukraine have been increasing – both in intensity and in frequency – due largely to a changing climate. Droughts now occur on average once every three years, causing a significant decline in crop productivity. The impacts are particularly felt by highly productive areas of the country, such as the Steppe area in the south which currently produces 50% of the grain for Ukraine.

While climatic conditions are generally favourable in Ukraine, climatic variability – which is expected to increase with climate change – is a considerable risk for agriculture.

Climate Smart Agriculture

Excessive land tillage is known to be a major driver of soil erosion. The practice of conservation agriculture, on the other hand, is seen as a sustainable and effective alternative. No-till conservation agriculture reduces soil erosion, maintains soil fertility, enhances drought resilience and significantly reduces production costs by minimizing fuel consumption.

Large scale adoption of climate smart agriculture such as conservation agriculture, combined with effective soil erosion technologies, can potentially have significant benefits for Ukraine, and indeed for the world.

At the national level, for example, conservation agriculture on 17 million hectares of land could help generate income of US$ 4.4 billion – equivalent to 34 percent of agricultural GDP. Without counting global environmental and food security benefits, this outcome would almost counterbalance the depletion in natural capital of US$ 5 billion caused by soil erosion in Ukraine.

Ukraine: Soil Fertility to Strengthen Climate Resilience is a recent FAO-World Bank report that takes a close look at these important issues and provides recommendations on how to better address the challenges of soil erosion, excessive land tillage and climate change in Ukraine.

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The full text of the report with additional detailed estimates, figures and analysis can be accessed online on Issuu, or downloaded as a PDF from our website. Overviews are also available in Ukrainian and Russian languages.