No More Butter with Bread? The Food Crisis in the Middle East


Currently, the theme of food security is a hot potato across the globe influenced sharply by the COVID-19 pandemic curtailing family incomes and causing disruptions in the food supply chain. Food insecurity has also been seriously triggered by the unprovoked war in Ukraine which began on February 24th, 2022 (U.S Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), 2022). The World Food Program projects that the current number of 276 million severely food insecure people will increase to 323 million people by the end of 2022 as a result of the aggravating impacts of ongoing social, political, and economic problems around the world (USGLC, 2022). There remains no comprehensive response to the strain the crisis in Ukraine is placing on communities that are heavily reliant on food exports from Russia and Ukraine, despite repeated warnings over a looming food crisis from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) (FAO, 2022, p. 7).



Figure 1: A farmer is examining the wheat plants' production progress in the Nile Delta, 2022


Collectively, Moscow and Kyiv’s food production provides the majority of the Middle East and North Africa's (MENA) food supply. This includes over one-third of the world's exported wheat, nearly 20% of its exported corn, and 80% of its exported sunflower oil (Graham & Pe'er, 2022). Since the beginning of the war the Black Sea, the primary way to export grain from Ukraine, has been mined and obstructed which has resulted in the destruction of its port facilities and, consequently, has created shortages of wheat trade (Associated Press, 2022). In contrast to Kyiv, production hiccups largely have had no impact on Russian exports. Rather, fewer merchants have chosen to enter the Russian market, which has led to a decline in Russian wheat exports. Although the food is exempt from sanctions, foreign banks and companies are hesitant to support trade from Russia for fear of facing penalties or negative publicity in the West (Graham & Peter, 2022). Thus, the MENA countries are being pushed to “rock bottom” and calling for the urgent prioritization of the food security agenda in the region (USGLC, 2022).


The director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Robert Mardini, expressed worry over the deteriorating global food security situation. He called for urgency as the food costs in the Middle East and North Africa are at an all-time high due to the armed conflict in Ukraine (Wells & Straziuso, 2022). According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the MENA region's inflation spiked to 14.8% in 2021, and ripped by recent events record-high food prices accounted for almost 60% of the rise in overall inflation last year, excluding the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Azour, Menkulasi & Garcia-Verdu, 2022). The value of a simple food list, which represents the minimal amount of food a family should have monthly, grew 351 percent annually in Lebanon, the highest rate in the area. Syria and Yemen surged by 97 percent and 81 percent respectively, after it (WFP, 2022). These three nations, which are heavily dependent on food imports, also reported a severe decline in their currencies. Adding to the situation's gravity, Syria's wheat crop for 2022 has also been severely impacted by drought (WFP, 2022). Consequently, the unprecedented high prices fueling the ongoing famine and the general public resentment created as a consequence has set the conditions for a politically volatile environment. Particularly as politically sensitive goods, like bread, have risen stratospherically and have a record of igniting violent nationwide uprisings in the area.





Figure 2: Man holds baguette at food protests in Tunisia in 2011


Taking a glimpse at the history of recent extensive political riots across the Middle East, namely the Arab Spring in 2011, general dissatisfaction had been partially triggered by soaring grain prices alongside with high rates of corruption, police misconduct and a lack of genuine democratic liberties (Koren, 2020). Egypt, the most populated nation in the Arab world, alone imports 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine (Turak, 2022). It is important to note that bread-related social upheavals have broken out 4 times in prosperous Egypt already as a result of the government’s refusal to subsidize food supplies in 1977, 2008, 2011, and 2017 (Graham & Pe'er, 2022). Similarly, in regressive terms, Lebanon is already years into a devastating debt and inflation crisis. Fittingly, Lebanon’s 60 percent of wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine, which also supply 80 percent of Tunisia's grain (Turak, 2022). Amer Alhussein, economic development expert and advisor for the post-conflict initiative Plant for Peace, sounds an alarm over the looming famine in Lebanon, commenting, “the current situation could very soon develop into protests and riots like the ones that took place in 2019, but with a much more violent impact given the ever-worsening standard of life and food security in the country” (Turak, 2022). In the meantime, scholars forecast a worsening humanitarian condition in Yemen and Syria, the poorest and most heavily affected countries in the region (Al-Ghazi & Nagi, 2022). The situation in Yemen is especially critical: 17.4 million Yemenis experienced food shortages in March 2022, 3.5 million suffered from severe malnutrition, and 31,000 lived in "famine-like conditions." Since the civil war started in Yemen, in 2015, the WFP has claimed that "the current degree of hunger in Yemen is unparalleled" (Blanchard, 2022).




Figure 3: A man brandishing a baguette to demonstrate the sky-rocketing prices of food in 2011


The reaction of MENA countries to the impending food crisis has been considerable, but cannot be classified as a definitive success or fail. According to the IMF (2022), some have turned to increased subsidies and price regulations to curb the inflationary consequences of rising global prices. Others are implementing targeted measures to lessen the burden on their citizens. Analysts concede that the Gulf countries have long been the largest food importers in the world, so the threat of a food crisis isn't exactly new to them. However, this time the threat is acute due to the rise of the cost of oil as it has an immense impact on food prices and it is suggested by the IMF (2022) that the challenges to food security should be handled promptly, and the poor should be shielded from the effects of high global prices (Ebrahim, 2022).


Particularly, at all phases of food production, from planting, irrigation, feeding, and harvesting to processing, distribution, and packaging, enormous amounts of oil and gas are required as raw materials, as well as for the creation of fertilizers and pesticides (Church, 2005). Fossil fuels are also necessary for building and maintaining infrastructure and machinery, including farm machines, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks, and highways, that are required to support this industry. Therefore, it is essential to note that one of the major consumers of fossil fuels is the food industry which responds positively to any oil price fluctuations (Church, 2005). As a response, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is achieving a level of water self-sufficiency that has made large-scale agricultural possible by creating superior irrigation systems and desalination operations (Dana, 2022). The UAE continues to invest in agritech startups to secure its food supply. While Saudi Arabia, as a result of a strategy launched in 2008 to invest in farmlands abroad cultivates food outside of its borders and recently delivered that it is expanding agricultural investment activities abroad (Dana, 2022). In addition, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, three nearby nations, are providing Egypt with more than $20 billion in help to its economy (Lalljee, 2022). As the WFP (2022) has declared that consistent financial assistance from the international community is essential for low-income nations, it has stated that now is precisely the moment for states to be more generous, donate and share.


Figure 4: A girl in Syria holding bread


Due to its reliance on importing food from abroad, the MENA region is experiencing unexpected high prices: it is currently unable to provide its citizens with basic nutrition. In order to stop the humanitarian and food crisis, the war needs to be aborted completely. However, this does not seem to be the feasible solution. From the approach undertaken by Saudi Arabia and UAE, diversifying the food suppliers in the MENA region, reaching as many agreements with foreign grain crop growers as possible and investing in agritech startups would help to reach food security. Also, specially when referring to the lower income countries of the region, who may not have the financial flexibility to implement the aforementioned strategies effectively, targeted monetary donations could offer a feasible solution. These negotiations' success and their timely and efficient implementation is crucial in order to prevent a future food crisis. Definitely, there seems to be no more butter with bread for the Middle East.

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