Ukraine war and Middle East food sovereignty

In the backdrop of the global food supply chain crisis, dedicated efforts need to be made

Arhama Siddiqa April 23, 2022
The writer is a LUMS and Warwick alumna and a Policy analyst focusing on the MENA region

From the richest to the poorest countries, rising food prices continue to be the cause of much bane and blight, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Two years later, just as the world had almost come to terms with the effects of the pandemic, the Russian-Ukraine conflict erupted.

Events in these countries have conferred many challenges to global food security, since both countries have a prominent role in international food production and supply. Together they provide 19 per cent of the world’s barley, 14 per cent of wheat (Russia being the largest exporter of wheat, Ukraine, the fifth largest) and 4 per cent of maize, making it a cumulative total of more than one-third of global cereal exports. Moreover, they account for more than 52 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil export market and are lead source of global fertiliser.

The current Russia-Ukraine face-off is creating shockwaves is the food logistical network without sparing anyone. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region — one of the world’s most food insecure areas — was already enmeshed in a toxic combination of three Cs: conflict, climate change and coronavirus. Since the start of the conflict, imports from Black Sea ports have halted which has caused much distress in many of the MENA countries which are heavily dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine. For instance, Lebanon sources more than 50 per cent of its wheat from Russia. The country’s grain silos were destroyed in the Beirut blast in 2020 and presently the current infrastructure can only hold about one month’s supply of wheat.

Since World War II, Gulf countries have been painfully aware of their food import dependence. For the West, oil has since long been used as a weapon by MENA countries. In similar fashion, food trade has left an unconscious emblem of fear in the Arab world because for quite some time, food has been used to further geopolitical goals. For instance, the grain embargo in 1980 against the Soviet Union had implications for the Middle Eastern countries in the forms of reduced availability of food aid and a rat race circling around international diplomacy and petrodollar recycling.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the cost of a basic food basket marked an annual increase of 351 per cent in Lebanon, followed by Syria, with a 97 per cent and Yemen with 81 per cent. The World Food Programme (WFG) has already been forced to reduce its food rations in Syria and Yemen. Further reductions risk pushing people towards starvation.

The war has also generated fear that much of the international aid, which is critical life support for many in the Arab world, will be diverted to Ukraine where more than 3.7 million people are war refugees. This actuality threatens to macerate both household and government budgets alike and raises the prospects of mass popular protests — the likes of which have not been seen since the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011.

In the backdrop of the global food supply chain crisis, dedicated efforts need to be made to secure and preserve production and marketing activities so as to ensure that there is no impediment in the global supply chains. This will in turn provide a security cover for all inter-connected logistical systems and infrastructure globally. Furthermore, before any steps to secure domestic food supply are taken, governments must be cognisant of the impacts such actions will have on international markets. In tandem with this, there should be greater transparency and information on global market conditions so that informed decisions can be made.

In short, when food, which is a basic right and should be affordable, becomes out of reach, it will drive people to the streets.

Needless to say that by domino effect the wave will eventually seep into every corner of the world.

History is full of examples that a protracted war has no winners.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2022.

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