COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, US — Ukraine farmers in 2022 harvested fewer tonnes of wheat than in the record-setting previous crop year, but close to the recent five-year average volume, according to analysis of satellite imagery by NASA Harvest.
That imagery has eased concerns about how much wheat and barley was harvested in war-torn Ukraine, one of the top global suppliers, but spotlighted how much grain is inaccessible in fields due to war in the Black Sea region. Calculations show 26.6 million tonnes of wheat were harvested this year in Ukraine, down 19% from a record 33 million tonnes in 2021, but comparable to 27.9 million tonnes as the average of the recent five crop years, NASA Harvest said.
An estimated 22% of the wheat was in the eastern part of Ukraine and unavailable for export due to war according to satellite maps showing the distribution of unharvested wheat in August 2022 that were compared with the front line of fighting as reported by the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
“Satellite data enables us to provide rapid agricultural assessments that are critical for markets and food security,” said Inbal Becker-Reshef, director of the NASA Harvest program. “Knowing the actual level of production in Ukraine contributes to lowered uncertainty and price volatility in food markets. This is a growing focus for the Harvest team, and we’re working on developing and launching a new agricultural rapid response center that will focus on that.”
Analyzing satellite data is one of the only safe, reliable ways to track crop progress in a war zone due to the risks on the ground. Satellite observations and modeling from the commercial satellite company Planet, NASA, and the European Space Agency are used to assess planting, growth, and harvest of key commodity crops. In satellite images, unharvested wheat fields are seen as dark brown compared with light brown areas signaling leftover plant debris after wheat has been cut.
At the same time, Ukrainian officials were able to monitor the harvest in traditional ways to some degree.
“The actual data we are gradually receiving directly from the fields in the territories controlled by Ukraine are very close to the estimates obtained in cooperation with NASA,” said Denys Palamarchuk of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine.
The analysis indicates 94% of Ukraine’s winter crop was harvested, including 88% of winter crops in areas currently under Russian control in the wake of that country’s military extending its incursion into Ukraine beginning in February 2022. Some global commodity analysts in late summer had cautioned 20% to 30% of the country’s crop might be left in the fields.
A United Nations-backed humanitarian grain corridor from Black Sea ports has allowed approximately 5.4 million tonnes of grain to be shipped from Ukraine since its inception, the Ukraine Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food said in November. About 5.8 million tonnes of wheat harvested from areas not under Ukrainian control is worth at least $1 billion, NASA Harvest said.
A NASA Harvest adviser and Institute for Food Policy Research senior research fellow, Joseph Glauber, said easing demand for global wheat and increased supplies helped stabilize global wheat prices over the summer.“But this doesn’t mean the food crisis is over,” he said. “International food prices remain high by historical standards, markets remain tight, and high price volatility continues — especially for wheat.”