Ukraine – its land fertile and rich – is the breadbasket of Europe, and it has been for hundreds of years.
In normal times, Ukraine is one of the world’s major exporters of grains such as corn, rye, barley, and most importantly wheat. Last year, the eastern European nation shipped nearly 20 million tonnes of wheat, making it one of the top exporters globally.
Ukraine’s wheat fields are largely in the east of the country, in areas now under Russian siege or occupation. Over the past week, Kharkiv and Kherson have turned from agricultural hubs to battlefields.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already affected much of this land and drawn agricultural workers away from their farms in order to fight for their survival or to flee.
In parts of Ukraine under siege, including the capital Kyiv, it is likely that millions of civilians, in a country that previously exported millions of tons of food per year, will suffer food and water shortages.
If the fighting continues it will decimate the agricultural workforce and destroy some of the most fertile lands in Europe. On the other side of the conflict, Russia is the world’s single biggest exporter of wheat. Disruptions to these two pillars of wheat exporters have already caused significant spikes in demand and surges in prices, threatening global food supply.
This challenge will be especially pronounced in less developed countries, where global inflation and shortages in the two years of the pandemic have already increased hunger and the risk of famine. In particular, Middle East and North African countries face an impending wheat crisis due to their heavy reliance on Ukrainian and Russian wheat.
In 2020, half of Lebanese wheat was imported from Ukraine. Lebanon is already suffering a food and fuel crisis, with families who are able to borrow forced to buy food on credit. With almost three-quarters of the population living in poverty, entire families already skip meals in order to save money, and a spike in the price of a staple product will increase food insecurity.
‘Of the 14 countries that rely on Ukrainian imports for more than 10 percent of their wheat consumption, a significant number already face food insecurity from ongoing political instability or outright violence,’ wrote Alex Smith, a Food and Agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research centre in Berkeley, California, in Foreign Policy last month.
These countries include Yemen, which has endured rolling famines since the country’s civil war took root almost ten years ago, as well as Libya, and Egypt. Each of those countries has already had to deal with the rise in food prices globally which has caused significant hardship.
‘The extent of the disruption in agricultural trade depends on the extent of the conflict,’ Smith told The New Arab.
‘If there are structural disruptions in the upcoming harvest or planting seasons – Ukraine is a winter wheat producer and will be harvesting in the summertime – either through flight from the land, destruction of equipment, or limits in terms of fuel for that equipment, among other things, then we are likely to see the worst of this food crisis.’
‘Still, disruptions are already happening,’ he added. ‘Trade through the Black Sea is currently not happening. That means more than 90 percent of Ukraine’s wheat exports are not leaving port.’
Those countries which rely on Ukrainian wheat will now have difficult decisions to make. They must assess their strategic reserves of grain and wheat – for feeding people and livestock. How much can they afford to release? What substitutions are possible?
‘Some countries have significant reserves, and some countries may not. Lebanon claims to have a month of wheat left. Egypt claims to have enough for 4 months, and I’ve also seen folks on Twitter say they have enough through November, but that’s not confirmed. Tunisia claims they have enough through June. Libya and Yemen may not have any,’ Smith said.
As for substitutions, these will need to be found, processed, and exported – all time-consuming processes with long lag-times in reaction to a rapid invasion.
‘Price increases are already baked in,’ Smith says. Disruption to the global market has led to price increases in wheat on a global scale – something that is likely to continue no matter the short term changes. In less developed countries, this will likely leave the poorest less able to buy bread.
Even demand for substitutes for Ukrainian grain will ‘bump up against those price increases,’ Smith said. ‘So even if countries can replace lost trade due to the conflict, it will come at a premium.’
Wheat producing nations, on the other hand, many already coping with inflation, may face political difficulties in the domestic food market. ‘There may be political pressure to keep more supply for domestic markets in order to keep prices lower,’ Smith said.
Food shortages produce hunger and malnutrition, which leads to ill health in the poorest and most vulnerable populations. They affect displaced and refugees most of all. In countries dependent on foreign aid, global price rises mean the prospect of hunger and rationing.
In Syria, ‘there’s a shortage of bread due to the measures taken by the regime as well as corruption that is crippling the ability of citizens to buy their bread, but when it comes to other wheat products they are all available,’ Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher at ORSAM, told The New Arab.
‘In terms of prices, the prices are relatively low compared to other countries but bread has become more important in the Syrian families’ meals because the prices of other food products have increased, so people are using more bread than meat and vegetables,’ al-Ghazi said.
Research carried out by al-Ghazi and Elizabeth Tsurkov in 2020 found that reliance on grains has led to hunger and general suffering amid a depressed economy in Syria. This has been accentuated by a weak currency, the Syrian lira.
Another consequence of disruptions to bread subsidies by governments is the emergence of a black market for staples. In Syria, black market wheat is sold for five to ten times the subsidised price. The majority of wheat-growing land is not under government control, which deepens the dislocation of the Syrian agricultural economy.
‘The war [in Ukraine] could destabilise the provision of grain as Syria, according to the PM Arnous, needs around 250k tonnes of wheat for 2023,’ al-Ghazi said.
Syria has relied on imported wheat since the beginning of the revolution more than a decade ago. But as its currency has depreciated, its ability to purchase foreign imports has decreased, and food prices have consistently risen. Foreign crises add external shocks to an already insecure system.
‘Any interruption of wheat flow will cause more queues at bakeries and raise the prices. It will also force the regime to allocate more of its shrinking budget to buy wheat which increased before the war due to the rise of oil prices and shipping costs and now it will increase a lot more.
‘I think that all Syria will be affected, but regime-held areas will be affected the most – because northwest and northeast Syria will have bigger support from the NGOs,’ al-Ghazi said.
Extractive and failed governments are unlikely to manage a further external food crisis well. In countries where the state is weak or fractured, foreign food crises can undermine the ties citizens have to the state – legal or economic. Along with shortages of fuel and electricity, food shortages heighten domestic tensions, increase smuggling, and spur the creation of black markets.
Across the region, staples like bread are highly politicised commodities, and increases in prices can easily lead to discontent and disquiet. In countries where government popularity is already fragile, food crises that cannot be managed add to general government degeneration, and often spark protests. In order to control public sentiment, regimes turn to coercion and violence.
It remains to be seen how long Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will last, and whether this war will destroy the Ukrainian agricultural economy entirely. If that happens, conflict in Europe may trigger a food crisis in the Middle East.
This essay was originally published in The New Arab.