Millions of tons of grain are stored in Ukraine and are in danger of going to waste. Because of the Russian blockade, the ports are closed. An alternative should be trains. But overland transport faces huge obstacles.
In peacetime, Ukrainian wheat was loaded onto bulk carriers in Black Sea ports. 80 percent on Panamax ships - so named because they had to fit through the Panama Canal. They are about 300 meters long, 32 meters wide, with a draft of 12 meters - and hold 60,000 to 80,000 tons of corn or wheat. Because of the Russian war of aggression, the ports are blocked. Twelve percent of the export wheat is missing on the world agricultural market - import-dependent countries are threatened with food crises.
Traders have now found a way through Poland for a fraction of the grain. Now 80 percent of Ukraine's wheat would have to go this route, said the Russian ambassador to Poland. The Baltic Sea ports of Świnoujście and Gdynia have the rail connection and the appropriate loading terminals - but as the operator OT Logistics told the agency "Bloomberg", the capacity of 1.6 million tons per month is fully utilized. Ship the neighbor's stocks - up to 25 million tons? Impossible.
This is how Poland becomes the gateway to the world for grain - and at the same time the eye of the needle. Various land routes are taken for truckloads via Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia. But even that is difficult, the infrastructure at the borders and transhipment points is quickly overloaded, and the queues are kilometers long. "If you want to bring 18 million tons of grain out of the country in the next few months, trucks with 25 tons each can only be used as a support," warns Christof Buchholz, head of the "Der Agrarhandel" association in Hamburg.
Because that is the goal: In the next six months, export quantities are to be doubled from the current 1.5 million tons of wheat to 3 million tons each. With the delivery of old contracts in the warehouses, the urgently needed space for the next harvest should be created. "However, we don't see how that can be done," says agricultural trade expert Buchholz.
A proposal by the EU Commission on how alternative export routes can be organized to counter impending food crises has now been discussed by the agriculture ministers for the first time. Even after that, the well-sounding "solidarity corridors" seem a long way from taking shape. Federal Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir also emphasized the importance of grain exports so that Russia's President Putin would not be successful with hunger as a weapon of war. However, beyond an appeal for rapid and unbureaucratic EU aid for the countries bordering Ukraine, he remained vague.
Poland also received a lot of thanks at the meeting, as did Brussels for the proposed action plan. However, the main problems that the expert Buchholz cites have not been addressed: sluggish and exaggerated checks on grain shipments in Poland - and a blatant lack of coordination. "We have full support from Member States," said Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Woiciechowski. "Fields are being bombed, but farmers till the fields. We have set up a platform where information and action can be exchanged."
Christof Buchholz also took part in such telephone conferences. But it's not enough to name national contacts, he says, or to inquire about Deutsche Bahn's cargo capacities. Could inland shipping help more to export via Italy, via Trieste? In Germany, too, his association is exploring capacities for transport, handling and interim storage. There are opportunities to ship the grain via the ports of Rostock, Kiel or Hamburg to countries in North Africa and the Middle East where the need is most urgent.
"But if nobody coordinates all of this, nothing will happen," says Buchholz. Not even a national coordination office or a staff unit has been set up. "We miss concrete proposals from Berlin." Özdemir and foreign office chief Annalena Baerbock would have announced full-bodiedly that they would do everything to accelerate exports. "But so far nobody has brought logisticians, inland shipping, freight forwarders or port operators together to see: What can you do?"
The association currently sees the narrowest bottleneck in the border formalities of the Poles - and less in the logistically difficult different track widths of the tracks. "There are no trucks and drivers on the road, and there are no tractor units and drivers on the rails. But the biggest problem lies in the handling at the Ukrainian-Polish border," complains Buchholz. Veterinary certificates would have to be presented for each wagon, certifying that goods are free of salmonella. But grain is actually not a risk product at all. "That causes long waiting times, trains stand for up to ten days."
In contact with the Polish authorities, the umbrella organization has tried to clarify how unnecessary the controls are. One does not understand why the authorities are not more flexible. Especially since the EU is in the process of suspending import duties and quantity quotas for Ukrainian goods. In its action plan, Brussels is also appealing to the states to urgently simplify all formalities for crossing the border. EU legislation does not require any veterinary or phytosanitary certificates, it even states - neither for imports nor for transit.
The German agricultural traders had already suggested the latter. Traders could declare goods as goods in transit and seal them accordingly. However, one does not know who could enforce this. A week ago, Warsaw and Kyiv agreed on simplified procedures for grain exports. That could bring improvement.
According to the state railway company, almost 770,000 tons of grain came closer to their destination outside Ukraine in the first half of May - after 642,000 in April. DB Cargo, which supplies the war-torn country with relief supplies, also brings several thousand tons with its subsidiaries in Poland and Romania on the way back every day - and to various seaports, according to group circles.
They are also working on expanding the network with other modes of transport, private railways, freight forwarders and shipping companies. In coordination with the federal government - the Ministry of Transport is now responsible for the implementation of the solidarity corridors - DB Cargo wants to organize further orders and train journeys, says division board member Sigrid Nikutta. In the face of an impending famine, the group assumes social responsibility. "The goal is viable connections to the seaports of the North Sea and the Black and Mediterranean Seas."
Normally, Ukraine exports around five million tons of grain a month. The ports of Mariupol, Kherson and Berdyansk are now under Russian control, and the port of Mykolaiv is badly damaged. As long as this situation persists, the trade expert Buchholz is certain: Most grain has to be transported in whole trains. However, there is still a problem: many of those involved are reluctant to take the risk. It is difficult for traders to insure train transport on Ukrainian territory. German and other insurance companies refused. "Now we are waiting for the EU Commission to see whether it can give security guarantees."
This text first appeared on "Capital"