Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has jeopardized food supplies across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region where many countries rely heavily on imports, especially staples such as wheat. Food insecurity was already a major challenge in the region as a result of climate change, water stress, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
How bad is food insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa?
Some countries in the region are more food insecure than others. Several were already in dire straits when the Russia-Ukraine war began disrupting food supplies earlier this year. In both Syria and Yemen, for example, yearslong conflicts and beleaguered economies have made it difficult for many residents to afford food even where it is available.
Meanwhile, food prices in Lebanon have risen by more than 1000 percent over the past three years, as the country’s political and economic situation has spiraled into chaos and its currency has plummeted against the U.S. dollar. The 2020 Beirut port explosion destroyed the country’s main grain silos, vastly diminishing its food storage capabilities.
There’s also Tunisia, where the government’s poor financials have impeded its ability to pay food suppliers. This has led to shortages that have rankled a population already agitated by high unemployment and political instability.
Furthermore, food supplies region-wide have suffered because of the pandemic. Wheat prices, for instance, have risen 80 percent since early 2020.
How is the Russia-Ukraine war worsening the situation?
Russia and Ukraine have been called the world’s breadbasket; they’re both top exporters of cereal crops such as wheat, maize, corn, and barley. In 2020, each sent about half the wheat they produced to Middle Eastern and North African countries, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.
The war is disrupting supplies of cereals and other goods the region needs most, such as oilseeds, cooking oil, and fertilizer. About one-quarter of Russia’s and Ukraine’s combined wheat exports and half their corn exports expected for 2021–22 are being held up [PDF]. Much of the infrastructure in Ukraine that supports trade, including ports and rail lines, has been destroyed or impaired. Ukraine has also banned exports of some grains to protect its own supplies. Moreover, the conflict will likely continue to impede farming even if the fighting ends soon; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 30 percent of crop areas in Ukraine will go unplanted or unharvested due to the war.
For Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, the timing is especially troublesome: during the holy month of Ramadan, which started in early April, families generally consume larger-than-average amounts of food after fasting during the day. Panic buying ensued across the region soon after the war broke out as publics feared shortages of supplies for these meals in particular.
The region’s poor are most at risk. They spend larger shares of their income on food and are more likely to be farmers, so seed and fertilizer shortages will hit them hardest. Those who rely on international food aid are also expected to endure further hardship; Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of the World Food Program’s wheat, maize, and sunflower oil.
How will the region cope?
The crisis has left many governments scrambling to change policies and search for alternatives. Morocco, for example, suspended some food exports to shore up domestic supplies. Egypt has several months of food reserves and received funds from the United Arab Emirates that have helped it maintain price controls on bread. It is also considering major food producers such as the United States, Australia, and India as alternative partners. Turkey could take a similar path, but it’s the Gulf Arab states—which have smaller, wealthier populations than their neighbors—that can most easily secure new suppliers. Iran signed a deal with Russia to ensure imports. Experts say that countries suffering from deep instability, such as Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, will struggle to respond effectively.
Governments will try to avoid raising bread prices in particular, analysts say. In many countries, bread subsidies are considered part of the social contract, and increasing prices could ignite unrest—the region-wide uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring followed price hikes related to poor Russian wheat harvests in 2010. Food-related unrest is most likely to erupt in countries where people are already frustrated with the government, such as Tunisia, but there have been no major protests in the region yet.