The landscape of western Ukraine feels like the land that time forgot.

In the patchwork of tiny fields local farmers work as they have for generations - hay is cut with hand scythes, the carts which bring in the harvest and the ploughs that work the land are horse drawn.

It is a bucolic scene seemingly untouched by the struggle, violence and revolution which have so dominated the country's history.

But now - once again - forces from far beyond these fields are at work. The world is getting hungrier and the old "wheat basket" of Eastern Europe is offering new opportunity.

You could call it the latest foreign invasion. No tanks this time, but a state-of-the-art agricultural army is on the move.

In large swathes of the country fleets of ultra-modern combine harvesters are bringing in the harvest from new mega farms.

Food security

But it is not Ukrainian money and know-how which is driving this agricultural revolution. It is foreign governments and companies.

The Libyans are negotiating for land here, as are the Russians and others.

Many governments are looking to secure land overseas as a way to ensure the food supply to their country does not fail.

In this part of Ukraine it is the British, in the form of the company Landkom, who are making moves which are transforming the landscape, investing millions in machinery and infrastructure.

This year the company will harvest 60,000 tonnes of wheat from Ukrainian land holdings totalling some hundred square miles.

The company, like so many others, seems to have calculated that if predictions of global food shortages prove accurate over the coming decades, there will be big money in food production.

The founder and CEO of Landkom is a former RAF man turned entrepreneur, Richard Spinks.

Mr Spinks is clearly immensely proud as he watches thousands of tonnes of wheat being harvested in the fields he has leased.

Most of the agricultural land in Ukraine is broken up into tiny plots, each allocated to a family.

Mr Spinks explained that the field we were standing in would have originally been split into 190 different holdings.

Landkom's success has been to negotiate thousands of lease deals to put together huge new farms.

'Land grabbing'

It is a sensitive issue, since by taking long leases on huge amounts of land the foreigners are actually taking control of Ukraine's famously fertile soil.

We met people in Ukraine who are unhappy about the situation. They do not reject technological advances but believe overseas investors should back Ukrainian farmers rather than setting up new "foreign" enterprises in their country.

"Every human being is a patriot of their own land, so yes it would be nice to have our own companies, we'd love that, but for right now it is what it is, whoever has got the money, they control the gain," says Stepan Ryzna, a local small holding farmer.

Others go further, condemning the deals done by foreign companies as a "land-grab", as rich countries and corporations snap up huge swathes of land in poor, developing countries.

Professor Tim Lang, one of the British government's leading food security advisers, is one such critic:

 "I feel sorry for Ukraine, here it is, it was colonised by the Russians, it was the grain basket for many, many years, it went downhill and now it is being asset stripped again by the West," he says.

"You could say that it is good for the Ukraine, that it is getting inside investment from rich countries, that its productivity will go up, that since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has not had the requisite investment, that at least under Stalinism there was a huge amount of that sort of investment - you can paint that picture - but I'm not convinced by that."

Jeremy Cooke
BBC Newsnight, Ukraine


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