Ukraine has lost at least $1 billion of wheat that was harvested in areas controlled by Russia, according to research using satellite imagery from NASA’s food security and agriculture program.
The analysis gives an idea of what’s happening in occupied territories, where information is tightly controlled. It uses a machine-learning model detecting texture and color changes based on a time-series of satellite images to map where crops have been harvested or left unharvested.
Almost 6 million tons of wheat was collected from areas not under Ukrainian control, according to NASA Harvest. About 88% of the winter crops planted in occupied areas were harvested, while unharvested areas were mainly along the front line.
The research raises the question of what is happening to those crops. Russian ships have been exporting grain likely taken from occupied areas to countries including Libya and Iran, but it’s difficult to estimate the volumes involved as shippers are obscuring the origin of the cargoes. Russia has denied stealing grain, but officials have publicly touted the resumption of grain shipments from occupied ports.
Ukraine is a major wheat exporter and the blockade of its ports after Russia’s invasion sent prices soaring, potentially making smuggling grain more lucrative. A deal allowing Ukraine to resume exports helped ease grain prices, but they still remain historically high.
Almost a quarter of Ukraine’s wheat is grown on land Russia claims to have annexed, though some of that territory is controlled by Ukraine. NASA Harvest’s estimates are for wheat and so far exclude other crops or foodstuffs that were held in storage. The findings do not indicate what happened to the crops after they were harvested.
The NASA Harvest team calculated that farmers harvested 26.6 million tons of wheat this year in Ukraine, several million tons more than other leading forecasts.
The top prosecutor in Switzerland -- a leading commodity-trading hub -- has warned that the commercialization of looted raw materials could constitute a war crime.
Major Ukraine grower HarvEast said that all the winter crops it planted on its land in Donetsk region had been collected by occupying forces this summer.
“This year, winter wheat gave a very high yield for this region due to favorable weather conditions,” Chief Executive Officer Dmitry Skornyakov said. “Everything that was harvested on our fields was stolen and exported from Ukraine.”
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