As the world is recovering from the pandemic’s aftermath and states grapple with restoring their economies, another geopolitical conflict is sending shockwaves through the global political dynamics—the Russia-Ukraine war. The conflict has shaken the global supply chains, dominoly affecting the agriculture and energy industries. It has exerted pressure on grain production, disturbing the food production and distribution mechanism. Having borne the brunt of Russia’s powerful war machine in Ukraine, global supply chains remain a victim, particularly affecting those nations that heavily relied on these two states to import sunflower, maize, and wheat.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is particularly vulnerable to the far-reaching consequences of war.

Impact on Food Security: A Comprehensive Overview

Known as the bread baskets of Europe, Ukraine, and Russia are responsible for one-quarter of wheat exports, 17% of maize exports, and 75% of sunflower oil exports worldwide. While Ukraine alone is the 5th largest wheat exporter, holding 25% black soil and an advanced agriculture sector in Europe, Russia is one of the largest exporters of fertilizers and fuels. As per the 2022 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, at least 50 countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for 30 percent of their wheat imports. When Russia Invaded Ukraine, it blockaded its coastline and captured ports like Mariupol and Berdyansk while bombing others, including Olvia and Mykolaiv. It waged attacks on agricultural lands, labor, and infrastructure. The Ukraine Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food(MAPF), Kyiv School of Economics(KSE), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Bank(WB), and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development released their assessment in 2022 stated that since the invasion almost 84,200 agricultural equipment were damaged or destroyed, 4 million tons of oil seeds and grains while 9.4 million tons of wheat and other products were either stolen or destroyed in the war. Together, all these have led to poverty and hunger worldwide, especially in third-world states of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that heavily rely on Ukraine’s exports. With the disruption of the supply line, the prices of commodities have risen, creating problems in the regions already needing humanitarian assistance.

In East Africa, successive droughts have made states more vulnerable to international markets where prices of fuels, fertilizers, and grains are so high that states can’t afford them. The lower international yield in Asia Pacific has resulted in even more costlier domestic commodities.  The World Food Program estimates that a total of 349 million people across the world are facing food scarcity. Before War Ukraine was selling 5 million tons of grains per month. After the invasion in March, it only supplied 200,000 grains, while in June, it managed to sell only 1.5 million tons amid the war through small ports or railways and trucks that, upon reaching the market, were costlier and unaffordable than expected due to the high cost of energy and fuel. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that the war would increase the number of malnourished people from 8 million to 13. 

Regional Ramifications: MENA Nations in Crisis

With the help of international governmental bodies like the UN and states like Turkey, a Black Sea grain agreement was made with Russia in July 2022 to allow safe passage for grain export to the world. Since then, 33 million tons of grain have been sold in the markets, resulting in declining grain prices. Still, within a year, Russia tore up the grain agreement in July 2023, and once again, the ominous specter of food supply and high prices looms large over parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The increase in the price of fertilizers affects agricultural production, and the rising energy costs are impacting imported goods. In October 2022, 141 million people in the Arab world were exposed to food insecurity, according to the IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva.

The states included in the MENA region are facing shortages in essential goods along with the surge in cereal prices.

Countries such as Algeria and Morocco, which are less dependent on the Black Sea imports, are also facing an increase in bread prices, directly affecting the state’s budget through subsidies. The current situation would ultimately affect the region’s stability, as evident from the past. The 1980s hunger riots memories still exist in Egyptian, Tunisian, and Moroccan people. Additionally, the increase in food prices played a crucial role in triggering the Arab Spring in 2011. Many states in the region, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, and Libya, are in danger due to the existing crisis of the Russian invasion.

Before the conflict, Egypt, the biggest wheat importer in the world, got around 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Since then, the Egyptian government has seriously expanded its wheat supply. In support of this, Supply Minister Aly Moselhy declared at the end of June that the nation has enough wheat in reserve for six months after obtaining 180,000 tonnes from India. However, the agreement fell short of the initially expected 500,000 tonnes. Additionally, Egypt heavily depends on wheat to subsidize bread to more than 60 million people, and the strain grows as the economic situation worsens. Egypt used to buy half of its sunflower oil from Ukraine along with wheat. Egypt reportedly turned away two Russian-flagged ships in May 2022 that were supposed to transport wheat allegedly stolen from Ukraine.

Later in June, it was seen that the two ships were offloading their cargo at Syrian ports. Most of Syria’s wheat needs are met by Russia. Still, at the end of 2021, Russia canceled a deal to deliver 1 million tonnes of wheat to Syria due to rising prices. It was predicted that there would be a 2 million tonnes wheat deficit in Syria even before the invasion of Ukraine, worsening an already severe situation. Ukraine imports over 60 percent of its wheat from Lebanon. Long lines of people have been seen outside the bakeries due to the ongoing shortage of subsidized flour since mid-June. Moreover, the price of subsidized bread has increased by about 18 percent between February and mid-June. Additionally, in August 2021, the Beirut port explosion heavily damaged the port’s grain silos, due to which the country’s ability to store wheat has been greatly reduced.

Similarly, Sudan imports 90 percent of its wheat from the Russian state, and due to the ongoing conflict, the country has seen a 60 percent decrease in its exports. The local farmers were supposed to produce almost 25 percent of wheat to meet the country’s needs, but due to the military coup in October 2021, international aid was frozen, and the economic condition worsened; the Sudanese authorities were unable to buy all of the season’s harvest, leaving thousands of farmers with excess wheat that is in danger of rotting. Furthermore, other MENA countries that heavily depend on Russia and Ukraine for food imports include Libya, which heavily relies on Russia and Ukraine to import wheat and vegetables. Likewise, Yemen heavily depends on Ukraine for food imports, specifically grains.

Way forward:

Regarding the complexity of different countries, location-specific recommendations are required, but a holistic approach is also needed.  To minimize the effects on the food-insecure nations of Africa and the Middle East, all nations should refrain from enforcing export limits and excluding Russia from sanctions. Countries should focus on providing food subsidies to particularly at-risk populations and offer humanitarian aid through the WFP to lessen the burden of increased prices in poor states.

The food price Index of the World Bank estimated an average lower in 2023 compared to the previous year due to better crop production in July and August this year despite the non-revival of the grain agreement.

However, the success of the Black Sea Grain Agreement in supplying 33 million tons of grain in a year suggests it was a beacon of hope in these times for states that couldn’t produce crops on their own and relied on the Black Sea trade. As the alternate routes suggested by the EU that exported grain from Ukraine to Poland, the Romanian port exports less grain and takes longer. In addition, The Danube Port, which served as an alternative route to sell grain to Europe after the deal broke off, was also attacked by Russia recently.

Considering the prevailing uncertainty regarding the duration of the war, governments, and international organizations must try to halt  Russia’s attempts to weaponize food. They should collaborate to revive the deal with Russia regarding safe passage for grain export. If states fail to do so, there will be far-reaching consequences, including prolonged hunger, poverty, starvation, malnutrition, population decline, and ethnic or intrastate conflicts. These scenarios are alarming for states like Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Sudan, which are already struggling and relying on the international community for support.

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