Ukraine war causes food shortages in Arab countries

Egypt adopted strict measures to ensure the continuation of the subsidized bread program, which feeds 70 million people, amid the war in Ukraine, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine made life more difficult for Fadia Hamiyah, a Lebanese university lecturer who was already struggling to make ends meet in a country with a failing economy.

According to the “Financial Times”, the flour has disappeared from the shops since the beginning of March, and the price of bread has increased by 70 percent in Lebanon. “Major stores stock essential goods, and then sell them at higher prices,” said Hamiyah.

Even before the Ukraine crisis, Lebanon was in the grip of a financial meltdown, with its currency losing more than 90 percent of its value since 2019. With more than 70 percent of wheat imports arriving from Ukraine, consumers took another hit.

Hamiyah, whose monthly salary has fallen from the equivalent of $1,500 to a paltry $200, is now facing the added burden of rising bread prices and shortages of basic foodstuffs. “Every time I go to buy things for the family, I get depressed,” she said, adding, “We had to underestimate many things.”

The situation in Lebanon may be more dangerous than anywhere else in the Arab world due to the stifling economic crisis in the country. But across the region, grains and vegetable oils from Ukraine and Russia are essential to national diets, and the war has led to concerns about food security and political stability.

Although grain prices have fallen from the record high levels recorded immediately after the Russian attack, the uncertainty surrounding exports from both countries has kept wheat prices two-thirds higher than they were a year ago. Sharp rises in food prices are closely linked to social instability.

The 2007-2008 food crisis caused by drought in major wheat and rice producing countries and rising energy prices led to riots in more than 40 countries around the world.

The United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development said that the impact of high food prices and crop shortages was already beginning in the Middle East and North Africa, while the head of the Fund, Gilbert Hongbo, said: “This may cause an escalation of hunger and poverty, with severe implications for global stability.”

With the exception of the oil-exporting Gulf states, most Arab countries have weak economies, large budget deficits, and depend on subsidized food and energy. Apart from Lebanon, Ukraine is the main supplier of wheat to Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, also relies on Russia and Ukraine to buy more than 80 percent of the wheat it buys from international markets, according to “Comtrade” data released by the United Nations.

Governments across the region have sought to contain the spillover effect by trying to buy more food supplies from other producers in Europe, and rationing and imposing export bans on basic foodstuffs, including flour, pasta and lentils. Lebanon allocated all its flour supplies to the production of bread, and the government raised the price.

Economists say grain and energy importers such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco will find their budgets under more pressure as they spend more on imports and subsidies. Earlier this month, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, warned that countries in the Middle East and North Africa that depend on energy and food imports will feel the effects of the war “severe”.

And about the impact of rising food and energy prices on the country, when asked about the Ukraine war and the IMF response, she added: “I’m worried about Egypt.” “We are already engaged in a discussion with Egypt on how to target vulnerable populations and businesses at risk,” she said.

Egypt has adopted strict measures to ensure that the subsidized bread program, which feeds 70 million people, remains on track despite the war. Officials say they have enough wheat for 4 months in their granaries, and the local harvest will start in mid-April.

Egypt has tried to diversify its sources of supply, and this year plans to buy 6 million tons of local wheat from farmers – equivalent to 60 percent of the expected crop and an increase of more than 50 percent from 2021.

As an incentive, the government raised the price it pays farmers, and set a minimum amount of grain that farmers would have to sell to the state. They will also need permission to move or sell any wheat in excess of that quota. Failure to comply may result in imprisonment. On Monday, the government also set a cap on the price of unsubsidized bread, which has risen in recent week

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