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23 March 2022

How war in Ukraine could spark unrest in the Middle East

The rising price of wheat will have severe repercussions in countries that rely on imports for bread.

By Ben van der Merwe, Marina Leiva and Nick Ferris

“There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy,” observed the American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis in 1906. More than a century later, his words have new relevance as the war in Ukraine wreaks havoc with crop planting.

Recent precedents give cause for concern. In 2010 Russia banned the export of wheat following crop failures in the Black Sea region. Egypt, Russia’s largest customer, sounded the alarm. 

Amin Abaza, the agriculture minister, promised to maintain bread subsidies and announced ambitious plans to make the Sudanese desert bloom with new wheat crops. Within a year food prices had risen by 19 per cent, the Egyptian government had been deposed and Abaza was in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges.

With Russian warships circling Odessa and Ukrainian farmers abandoning their fields for the front line, Black Sea grain is once again missing from world markets.

Prices have risen faster and further than they ever did in 2011. The last time they reached such heights, in 2008, the pain was offset by rock-bottom oil prices. Now, oil prices are rising, too. Scott Irwin, a leading agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, told the New Statesman that the world may be about to witness a food crisis “unprecedented” in his 40-year career.

“It’s an explosive mix,” says Sara Girardello, a grains expert at LMC International, a consultancy specialising in the agricultural industry. “The only way for prices is up -- there’s no way of avoiding that in the short term, not unless someone comes from another planet with a shipload of wheat.”

How far prices rise will depend on the progress of the war. Most of Ukraine’s wheat crop is grown in the south, where heavy fighting has prevented farmers from fertilising their crops. If the war continues until late April, they may not be able to harvest their corn. If it lasts until July the wheat, too, may rot in the ground.

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“It’s agriculture, it’s not industry,” says Andrey Sizov, an expert on Black Sea grain markets. “You can’t just switch the conveyor belt on and off. If you miss the harvest, that’s it until next year.”

Russia and Ukraine supply the vast majority of wheat that reaches dinner tables in the Middle East, much of it in the form of flour, bread and pasta manufactured in Turkey. “Countries that import a lot of grain from Russia and Ukraine are getting hit right away,” says Chris Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Their contracts are getting breached. They’re not getting deliveries, and now they're scrambling to get grain from elsewhere.”

Lebanon, which relies on Russia and Ukraine for 96 per cent of its wheat, has called for UN assistance in finding alternative supplies. The country is battling the fallout of an economic crisis that has caused food prices to rise 628 per cent in two years, leaving 77 per cent of households unable to afford basic nutrition. 

“If this is a prolonged conflict, even if it lasts just six months, it is unthinkable what the impact may be,” says Reem Nada, Middle East and North Africa communications director for the UN World Food Programme. “Countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria and Morocco all depend heavily on wheat imports. Food is becoming much more expensive, and someone is going to have to pay, whether that’s the people themselves or their governments, through subsidies.”

Contracts for wheat and corn are typically denominated in dollars or euros, meaning that governments trying to maintain low prices could quickly run down their foreign currency reserves, inducing a balance of payments crisis. That risks putting governments into the politically treacherous territory of raising food prices directly.

Lebanon’s years-long currency crisis has drained its foreign reserves, leading the country’s finance minister to warn this month that the central bank lacks the capacity to maintain bread subsidies. As in 2010, Egypt is hoping to forestall the need to raise prices by boosting domestic production, threatening farmers with prison sentences if they fail to meet their quotas.

“You’ve already got unstable governments and local insurgencies in many of these countries,” says Tim Benton, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank. “That could well boil over if the cost-of-living crisis worsens.”

Most at risk are those countries already facing severe cost-of-living crises. Some 16 million people in Yemen and 12 million Syrians were living in food insecurity prior to the war in Ukraine. The price of bread in Syria rose by 367 per cent last year, four times faster than wages.

“These people who really rely on imports for everything because their countries have been destroyed by civil wars -- it's impossible to see how they cannot be really, really severely affected by all this,” says Girardello. “It's hard to see how social unrest and humanitarian crises cannot become worse.”

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