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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

How to restore Ukraine’s black earth

The country needs an organic revolution
7 October, 2008 - 00:00

An ineffective agrarian policy based on the theory of chemical farming has led Ukrainians, the owners of the “breadbasket of Europe,” to buy staples at world prices or consume imported foods. The fact that Ukrainian markets are saturated with foreign products, like cucumbers, tomatoes, or corn that taste like plastic, is the sign of an agricultural crisis.

At the same time, the world food crisis is opening up prospects for agricultural Ukraine because, according to experts, our lands can feed up to 300 million people. This can be achieved by implementing a series of measures, the first of which is to restore the fertility of our soil. In the last 100 years soil fertility has dropped to two percent. Today, Ukraine’s famous black earth, called chornozems, with a humus content of 10-12 percent, can now be seen only at the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris.

The Day interviewed Yurii VOZNAK, a corresponding member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and one of the developers of the organic revolution as the foundation for the strategy to revive Ukraine.

Dr. Voznak, you say that soil is a living organism. The fact that Ukraine’s chornozems now contain one-fourth to one-fifth of the humus content they had at the turn of the 20th century means that its immunity has deteriorated. Under these circumstances, agriculture automatically becomes totally dependent on machines and chemical technology. What solution are you proposing?

“About two centuries ago, when machines were developed, people felt they were more powerful than nature because it took them seconds to destroy the things it had taken Nature thousands and even millions of years to create. For a nation that wants to survive, the solution is simple: today’s slogan “from the field to the table” needs to be complemented by the slogan “from the table to the field.”

What does this mean?

“Eighteen years ago Ukrainian soils fed 20 times more people than today. In 1990, 257 million tons of organic matter (manure and compost) was put into Ukraine’s fields, but in 2007, only 13 million tons. Every year millions of tons of organic waste (from the field to the table) are accumulated and burned, become silted up, etc. Ukraine now has between 1 and 1.5 billion tons of organic matter that can be used to produce high-quality, environmentally-friendly organic fertilizers (from the table to the field). No mineral (chemical) fertilizers can compensate for the catastrophic loss of organic matter (carbon-containing substances) in the soil. With every passing year, incompetent farmers apply increasingly greater quantities of chemical substances in order to get a good harvest (and revenue). It’s like a drug addict who needs a bigger dose every time. But what about the health of people who consume these products?”

What should we do to ensure that the foods we eat are not harmful to our health?

“Seventy percent of a person’s immune system is in the bowels. We are what we eat, drink, and breathe, the people we associate with, read, sing, etc. This is our living environment. As soon as you lose it, you begin to die slowly. The simplest (and cheapest) way to test the quality of food products is to get a cat or dog, preferably from a rural area, to taste them. Genetically modified fruits and vegetables all have the same ripeness, size, and color, as though they were produced by a stamping press. Of course, the best way is to grow food products on your own plot of land, but if you don’t have one, get together with your family and friends and plant for a week in the springtime and gather the harvest for one week in the fall-it pays off.”

In your article “An Organic Revolution, or the Loss of Economic Independence,” you call for organic farming as a solution to the land infertility crisis. You also propose introducing the principle of organic agricultural production (the number of livestock should be proportional to the area of land) and argue that if Ukrainians have three to four cows for one hectare of land, they will become the world’s richest nation. Today there is one cow for every three or four hectares. How can we increase the number of livestock?

“In organic agricultural production we could use the principle ‘from the field to the table and from the table to the field’ (livestock has its own kind of ‘table’). Also, a certain proportion between the number of cattle or other livestock and area under cultivation is one of the prerequisites to profitable farming. In the spring of 2008 I was involved in amending the Law of Ukraine “On Organic Production,” which has already been passed in the first reading. If this law is adopted with the suggested amendments, organic production will, in time, become a powerful locomotive of Ukraine’s economy. The number of livestock is not hard to increase to previous levels if there is enough fodder. A cow is born in nine months, and a pig, in three months, three weeks, and three days. You do the arithmetic. So how ridiculous was it when, after one month in office, one of the ministers of agrarian policy said on television: “We have succeeded in increasing the number of pigs significantly.”


“The fertility of Ukrainian chornozems is lost due to moldboard tilling and the excessive application of chemical fertilizers and plant-protecting substances. The biodynamic system of the fertile soil layer with a pH of 5.5 and organic content at 2.5 percent does not function-the land is bled dry. Soil’s ‘favorite food’ is organic matter that has undergone fermentation, i.e., humus. The application of raw waste and manure is harmful because they contain many disease agents and the seeds of weeds.”

So the reason is the lack of high-quality organic fertilizers?

“In Ukraine 60 percent of the population live in the countryside (small towns and raion centers are also rural areas), and half of the residents of Kyiv and other cities take off for their country cottages and garden plots from spring until fall. Nevertheless, there is no industrial production of cheap high-quality, environmentally-friendly organic fertilizers. The fertilizers that are available on the market are 10 times more expensive than mineral fertilizers.”

How much investment and time are needed to launch production?

“According to the design and budget developed in cooperation with UkrNDIahroproekt, the construction of an organic waste-processing plant with an annual output capacity of 20,000 tons of high-quality organic fertilizers would cost 4.2 million hryvnias (at 2006 prices). The ministry came to the conclusion that we need to have up to 40 plants in each oblast, i.e., a total of 1,000 across the country. It takes nine months and up to one hectare of land to construct a plant like this.”

Have you requested support from the Ukrainian government? If so, what feedback did you get about your research?

“The implementation of industrial production in our country was launched as a socially significant program in the fall of 2001 by the Department of Strategic Planning and Development in Agriculture of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences for National Progress (now the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences). After obtaining positive results of experiments, we got the relevant departments of the Ministry of Agriculture involved. They checked all our data and in the spring of 2004 submitted the project to the government. The deputy agriculture minister stepped in as well. But this involvement was brief. A repeated request from the agriculture ministry to the government in 2005 was never answered. Not so long ago Prime Minister Tymoshenko commented on the infertility of Ukraine’s soils on a TV news program, using words like mineral fertilizers, crop rotation, melioration, soil acidulation, and re-tilling. This proves that things haven’t changed one iota and that her advisers lack professionalism.”

Can powerful lobbyists of transnational corporations that manufacture chemical products stand in your way?

“Ukrainian manufacturers of mineral fertilizers have better sales markets outside the country. I believe that our main lobbyist will be the will of the people headed by one government or another.”

What should the state’s policy on the use of agricultural land be? What would you advise agricultural officials?

“In a nutshell, agricultural land should be split among farmers. The concept of the “agribusiness sector” has a different meaning in Ukraine today, compared to The Days when land was state-owned. Ukraine’s agribusiness does not have a foundation-natural fertile soils. We expend tremendous amounts of state funds on combating consequences. No one is preventing the state from leasing land from peasants according to written agreements in which the state accepts responsibility for improving soil fertility and involving these same peasants or city residents in farming. This would be beneficial for the people, the state, and the soils because private renters usually do their business in a lopsided way.”

Many Ukrainian scientists believe that we need to sell agricultural products, not land. The price of land could be included in the price of these products. Scientists are calling on the government to enlist science in order to justify this version of the agricultural market. What is the price of our soils, and what compensation should each citizen who owns land receive according to the Constitution?

“Pardon this comparison, but agricultural lands have been priced as one would set a price for a child according to his weight in kilograms. After the land is ‘cured,’ one hectare will provide abundant sustenance for three to five people on a permanent basis.”

Ukraine has joined the WTO. Is this a good opportunity for us or will we fall short of requirements and be swallowed up in the competitive world?

“The WTO countries are subsidizing ‘green agriculture.’ Organic production in Ukraine will not require subsidies, and no other business would be as profitable. In order to launch this process throughout the country, in 2003 we needed to have 10 million hryvnias and in 2006, 18 million. But in 2009 we will need 32 million. Of course, the government has to join this undertaking.”

What kind of recommendations or advice would you give to Ukrainian farmers, officials in the agriculture ministry, and successful farmers?

“Ukraine has thousands of problems. For every thousand there are 100 people who can discuss them on a professional level. Ten of them know how to solve them, and out of these 10 only 1 person will accept responsibility for the end result.

“We are living in a country of ‘collective irresponsibility,’ a country that has ‘branches’ of power without ‘roots’ and a ‘trunk.’ I think that the ‘root” is our customs and the ‘trunk is our fertile soil. What do you think?”

By Hanna HOPKO