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Middle East Faces Severe Wheat Crisis Over War in Ukraine

Middle Eastern and North African countries rely heavily on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The current war could lead to a severe food crisis in a region already under pressure.
Ukrainian and Russian wheat has been crucial for the Middle East's food security

Ukrainian and Russian wheat has been crucial for the Middle East's food security

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions imposed on Russia has European nations worried about access to the Russian gas on which they have long depended. The conflict has increased pressure on energy resources, driving up the prices of oil, gas, coal and other commodities.

But the war in Ukraine could hit more than just energy supplies. Global food security is also at risk. In particular, it could disrupt the wheat supply chain in several Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries.

Russia is the world's top wheat exporter and largest producer after China and India. And Ukraine is one of the top five wheat exporters worldwide.

Several MENA countries are highly dependent on these exports due to the prominent role wheat plays in their regional diets.

Lebanon, for instance, imports 60% of its wheat from Ukraine. Egypt is the world's top wheat importer, with around 70% of its wheat coming from Russia and Ukraine. Half of Turkey's wheat imports and 80% of Tunisia's grain also hail from these two countries.

Timing dilemma

Some parts of Ukraine currently under fire by Russian troops play a pivotal role in the country's wheat production and export. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), most of the Ukraine's wheat crops are concentratedin the southeast. Blocking access to the Black Sea could disrupt the supply of wheat to the MENA region.

The Black Sea is of strategic importance for Ukraine's wheat supply chain as exports to the MENA region are exclusively shipped by sea, David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), told DW. 

"The wheat that people are currently trading comes from the harvest of July 2021. That is before the invasion. Around one quarter of the harvest is still available over the next three months," Laborde said. "But the fact that people can't operate in the port can create a shortage for countries such as Egypt and Lebanon."

How the war will affect food security in the MENA region depends on how long the conflict lasts.

If farmers in Ukraine aren't able to cultivate and harvest wheat crops by July 2022, the supply chain will be interrupted. But even if they do, there's no guarantee they will be able to use any infrastructure to transport grain to the ports.


Dependency on Ukrainian and Russian wheat

The market price of wheat could become a systemic problem for poorer countries in the MENA region. It has already risen 35% since Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Cash-strapped Lebanon has, at most, one month's wheat reserves and is seeking alternative import agreements from various countries, Lebanese Economy Minister Amin Salam told Reuters following the invasion.

Turkey said it wouldn't be hit by a grain shortage for now as it imported most of its share last year. But the country has started to cut further wheat purchases due to soaring prices.

The Tunisian government has reportedly prohibited public officials from commenting on wheat imports, which makes up around 80% of the country's wheat reserves.

Top importer Egypt still has reserves, but it is already seeking alternatives from other countries.

The invasion has prompted Syria to start rationing wheat. And the World Food Program (WFP) has called the war in Ukraine "a countdown to catastrophe" for Yemen, which heavily relies on grain imports.

The conflict will affect the whole region, according to Mounir Khamis, an expert in wheat supplies to the Middle East and CEO at AIDCO, a Lebanese-based company focused on the sale of agricultural forage equipment. Importing wheat and other grains from North or South America takes time and is extremely expensive due to shipping costs, he told DW.

"Romania, Russia, and Ukraine border the Black Sea. So it's easier to load ships to Lebanon and other MENA countries," he said.

Although MENA countries could diversify their supplies by trading with Western companies, transportation delays could cause a severe shortage. Some MENA countries grow wheat themselves, but domestic production doesn't fully cover overall demand.

"For instance, Beqaa Valley is the only region in Lebanon where wheat is cultivated," Khamis said. "Furthermore, farmers grow only hard wheat, which is not suitable for making bread."

The consequences of the wheat crisis

People won't immediately feel the increasing price of wheat, food policy expert Laborde told DW, as many MENA countries have subsidies in place. But governments could start rationing or increasing the cost of wheat-related items at some stage. Such moves could lead to social unrest in countries already feeling an economic squeeze.

While Egypt is likely the MENA country most exposed to the fallout of the Russian war in Ukraine, it could still be a major blow to other North African countries. With access to the Mediterranean Sea, they could try to import grains from other countries. But such alternatives can't fully replace Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports.

The search for alternative wheat suppliers will be anything but easy for MENA countries

The search for alternative wheat suppliers will be anything but easy for MENA countries

 Asked whether economic sanctions on Russia could affect the wheat market, Laborde said it depended on how they were implemented and whether they hit Russian-affiliated wheat companies.

Global food security was in jeopardy even before the conflict, Laborde explained. The world experienced a rising number of crises last years and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many people's lives, reducing incomes in the developing world in particular.

"The Russia-Ukraine conflict leaves us with a gloomy situation as we don't know if the next wheat harvest and planting season is going to happen at all," said Laborde. "The world can't afford yet another production and trade obstacle."

Edited by: Kristie Pladson

Courtesy: DW

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