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Millions of acres of Ukraine's farmland are going unplowed this year


The war in Ukraine has forced farmers to abandon millions of acres of their most valuable land. That's according to a new analysis from NASA-backed researchers. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on why so many fields are going unplowed this year.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: NASA's Harvest program uses satellite imagery to monitor agricultural production all over the world. They've been watching this fall as farmers in Ukraine harvest their crops, and what they see is startling.

INBAL BECKER-RESHEF: Somewhere between 6.5 and 8.5% of Ukraine's total cropland has been abandoned, which is a massive amount of land.

BRUMFIEL: Inbal Becker-Reshef is the program's director. Many of these fields lie near the 700-mile-long front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

BECKER-RESHEF: The area along the front line is some of the most important croplands in Ukraine.

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BRUMFIEL: The unplanted fields stretch well beyond the anti-tank trenches and minefields both sides have set up in this brutal land war. Why? In a word, it's artillery. Patrick Hinton is an artillery officer in the British Army who studied the war. He says both sides are firing lots of rounds.

PATRICK HINTON: Thousands of rounds a day, hundreds of thousands a month.

BRUMFIEL: And those shells can land miles behind the front lines.

HINTON: That's a pretty big swathe of land where metal could fall from the sky at any moment.

BRUMFIEL: Becker-Reshef says despite losing this land, Ukraine managed to hold its agricultural output steady this year. Good weather and pure gumption are behind that success. But she estimates Ukrainian farmers lost around $2 billion because of the fighting. And as the war drags on, she thinks the costs will compound. Even if the fighting stopped, she says...

BECKER-RESHEF: That abandoned land is very likely to be abandoned into the long term due to shelling, due to mining, due to contamination.

BRUMFIEL: And that means less food grown in a nation known as the breadbasket of Europe. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.