Russia’s unprovoked war of choice on Ukraine is having consequences that extend far beyond Eastern Europe—even to the Middle East. Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region has seen its already food-insecure countries running short on products they regularly import from both Ukraine and Russia.
Breaks in the food supply chain
According to officials at the United Nations World Food Programme, millions of people across the Mideast could be driven deeper into food insecurity due to the devastation being wrought on Ukraine.
Ukraine’s government, understandably desperate to protect the food supply for its own war-ravaged population, has put a ban on exports of vital crops like grains. Even if Russia were to withdraw immediately, there would still be a long lag between withdrawal and the return of farmers forced to flee their lands. It would also take time to replace agricultural equipment and infrastructure after so much has been destroyed. And war and its after-shocks are massive disruptions to the spring planting season and autumn harvest.
Ukraine and Russia are among the major providers of farm products to the Middle East, where by mid-March the war had caused rising prices for bread and other necessities to increase still further. The wheat, other grains, and vegetable oil exported from Eastern Europe support affordable traditional diets across the MENA region.
When bread is life
In Egypt, bread is known as “aish”—“life.” The world’s largest importer of wheat, this country of more than 100 million people has in recent years sourced about 70 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s supply. Egypt is also dependent on Ukrainian exports for more than 50 percent of its supply of sunflower oil.
Egypt is an example of a country that must recalculate how to feed its own people in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The nation is taking what the Financial Times called “drastic” means to prop up the subsidized bread program that feeds almost three-quarters of its population.
Damaged infrastructure means food insecurity
At least 60 percent of Lebanon’s imports of wheat also originate in Ukraine or Russia. What’s more, after a mid-2020 explosion in Beirut that destroyed grain silos, the country has lost much of its ability to warehouse food reserves. Only about a month’s worth of grain can even be stored near the port.
All this means that middle-class professionals in Lebanon are discovering that they can’t find flour on grocery store shelves. They’re also seeing merchants charging higher prices. In the face of the soaring cost of bread, many people in Lebanon have watched as their wages plummet amid the country’s ongoing financial crisis. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value over the past few years alone.
While Lebanon, given its already fragile economy, is an extreme case, the growing shortages are affecting people throughout the Mideast, sharpening existing anxieties about maintaining food security and social and political stability. Experts point out that the people around the world who are already on the brink of food insecurity—like those in dozens of MENA nations—will be the most affected, although richer countries can also expect shortages and higher prices.
Violence affects food supplies
Countries like Syria and Yemen, where there are preexisting conditions of civil war, population displacement, and damaged or destroyed infrastructure are in an equally dire situation. Yemen’s people, already struggling with widespread famine, get more than half their daily calories from bread. More than one-third of the country’s supply comes from lands around the Black Sea.
“The world’s breadbasket”
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Ukraine contains within its borders about one-third of the most fertile soil on earth. The Black Sea region in and around Ukraine is responsible for about 12 percent of the world’s food exports.
Ukraine in particular is known for its “black earth,” the highly arable lands that have earned it the designation as “the world’s breadbasket.” Farmers use this rich soil to produce an abundance of cereal crops like corn and barley, in addition to wheat. Sunflower oil and other oilseeds also grow particularly well in Ukraine, and the country serves as a major source of poultry.
The situation is made even more critical due to the fact that much of Ukraine’s wheatfields are located in the east, which as of mid-March were bearing the brunt of Russia’s onslaught.
New visions for food independence
As a means of shoring up political stability, many Middle Eastern leaders are calling for increased support for domestic agriculture to provide independent food supplies for their countries. Noting that dependence on foreign imports makes their societies especially subject to soaring prices and the instability that comes with them in times of shortages, civil society leaders from a number of Arab countries have long argued in favor of crop production for domestic consumption rather than export.
Given that the climate in the Middle East hangs in the balance between temperature and weather extremes and is highly sensitive to water scarcity, achieving full food self-sufficiency may be a tall order.
Greater regional investments in technology to better manage land and water resources, and to give the greatest boost possible to agricultural production, will be necessary. Israel’s advanced techniques for irrigation, desalination, and crop production have already drawn the attention of its neighbors, and some collaborative cross-border projects have taken place. Given all that, it might no longer be unrealistic to think that global crises like the one in Ukraine might boost Arab-Israeli cooperation in ways that promote the well-being of all the region’s peoples.