By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Ukraine is a sad country. That's not my opinion -- well, actually it is, but setting that aside for the moment, it's also a finding of the UN's most recent World Happiness Report, which combines massive quantities of research to rank 156 nations by happiness. Ukraine is No. 87, just a bit happier than Latvia and slightly more miserable than Ghana.
Such deep gloom is no surprise. In a ranking of 224 countries, Ukraine's birth rate is No. 202, while its death rate is No. 2 (behind only South Africa). People are dying almost twice as fast as they're being born. In theory a country can counter that population-draining effect by attracting immigrants, but Ukraine is doing the opposite: People are moving out faster than they're moving in. Thus the population is shrinking, while corruption, political turmoil, and instability have hammered the economy so badly that it's still smaller than it was when the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. If you lived there, you'd be unhappy too.
So why would a foreign CEO care about Ukraine? For a few reasons, of which the largest may well be food. Americans of a certain vintage learned in elementary school that Ukraine is "the breadbasket of the Soviet Union," and it's still a breadbasket. Grain is in Ukraine's soul; the country's flag, a band of blue over a band of gold, symbolizes a clear sky over a field of grain. Ukraine can't consume nearly as much food as it produces. As food becomes a more contentious global issue with the world's population growing richer and more numerous, sad, shrinking Ukraine becomes more important -- economically and geopolitically.
That's why Sam Allen and Ray Lane, the current and former CEOs of Deere (DE), and Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar (CAT), have all told me how critical the country is to their strategies. It's also why those companies plus Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, DuPont (DD), Mondelez (MDLZ), Monsanto (MON), and other U.S. agribusiness companies have operations there.
Perhaps most important, it's why China last year negotiated an extraordinary 50-year deal to rent 5% of Ukraine -- 7.4 million acres, about the size of Massachusetts or Belgium. China consumes some 20% of the world's food, a share that is increasing fast, but it has only 9% of the world's arable land, a share that is declining as urbanization takes over more farmland. The country needs a piece of the breadbasket. China's official government news agency has published articles warning of threats to the country's "grain security."
Vladimir Putin is well aware that Russia and the West aren't the only players that want a degree of influence over Ukraine.
We'll see lots of political and military news from Ukraine in coming days, and almost none of it will mention the country's significance for the world's food supply. Let's remember that that issue is always lurking in the background.
Major U.S. corporations like IBM and Walgreen are sending retirees and current employees to health exchanges, a sign of major changes to American health care.Sep 20, 2013 9:44 AM ET
A look at how the Fastest-Growing Companies list has fluctuated over the last decade and a half.
By Shannon Green + Nicolas Rapp with L. Michael Cacace, Douglas G. Elam + Kathleen Smyth
The fastest-growing companies list has always offered a revealing mix of past (which industries have been hot) and future (which seedling might become the next Apple or Genentech, both of which appeared on the list for years). So MOREAug 29, 2013 8:03 AM ET
China's construction giant Sany has ambitious plans for the U.S., and other Chinese companies are watching. But its tactics are rubbing some people the wrong way.
By Nin-Hai Tseng, writer
FORTUNE -- In the middle of March 2011, anyone who was anyone in the multibillion-dollar construction equipment industry gathered in Las Vegas for Conexpo/Con Agg, the industry's massive five-day trade show. Held every three years, the event is a sight to MORENin-Hai Tseng, Writer - Jun 17, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Thanks to prudent planning, the industrial equipment giant came blazing out of the downturn. Now, with its sales and stock soaring, Cat is expanding aggressively to stay on top. By Geoff ColvinMay 12, 2011 5:00 AM ET
|Regulators pave way for Internet "fast lane" with net neutrality rules|
|Analysts offer no apologies for missing Apple's Q2 2014 earnings beat|
|Facebook profit triples on mobile growth|
|What stumps Warren Buffett? Minimum wage|
|Apple shares soar on increased buyback|