The coming food crisis in the Middle East


In depth: Already one of the most food insecure regions in the world, the Middle East could be particularly affected by the ongoing crisis, with serious security implications.

In October, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) set a new ten-year record for world food prices.

Basic food items like grains, sugar and vegetable oil increased by about a third from the previous year. Adjusted for inflation, since the UN began keeping a register of world food prices in 1961, only the years 1974-1975 have seen prices increase in world markets.

A number of factors are behind this increase. On the one hand, the extreme weather conditions of the last year across the world have seriously damaged crops. The freezing temperatures of April, for example, had an impact on the sugar and coffee crops in Brazil, and Canada, which typically supplies two-thirds of the world’s durum wheat, experienced a summer of drought and high temperatures in arrow.

As a result, Canada’s wheat production has halved from the previous year. This has already caused a 90% increase in wholesale prices which will translate into higher consumer prices, with pasta expected to be 50% more expensive soon.

“When high bread prices helped spark protests that ultimately led to the Arab Spring, the world saw how quickly a lack of basic foodstuffs can translate into political upheaval.”

The extreme weather conditions this year only herald what is to come. Not only will climate change reduce farmland around the world, extreme weather will also disrupt supply chains. Flooding, power outages and damage to U.S. ports from Hurricane Ida are just a glimpse of the future.

But even without extreme weather conditions, global supply chains would have reached their capacity limits this year. Measures to contain Covid-19 dramatically dropped global freight transport between March and June 2020. Workers were made redundant or detained as demand for manufactured goods and raw materials declined, while demand for medical products and food was on the rise.

Add to that recurring outbreaks of the delta variant in some of the world’s busiest ports in China and the United States, and it becomes evident why until today, hundreds of cargo ships are lounging at sea, waiting to load. and unload goods.

To make matters worse, the pandemic has also downsized truck drivers, port operators and warehouse workers. This explains why the market price of a container from Shanghai to Europe more than sevenfold between June 2020 and July 2021.

The White House is even considering deploying the National Guard to help reduce backlogs ahead of the Christmas season.

Transport backlogs, labor shortages, higher energy costs and shipping costs are expected to remain high over the medium term. While consumers in developed countries have a higher financial pain threshold, developing countries will be particularly affected by rising food and energy prices.

Already one of the most food insecure regions in the world, the Middle East will be particularly affected by an ongoing food crisis.

Palestinian children sit next to bags of food aid provided by UNRWA in the Gaza Strip on August 22, 2017. [Getty]

Decades of mismanagement and conflict have turned Iraq, the region’s former breadbasket, into a net importer of food. Much of the Syrian and Lebanese populations live on food subsidies, Jordan and Palestine face water shortages, and the Gulf countries import up to 90 percent of their calories.

Lebanon, for example, faces a multitude of crises and a 90% depreciation of the currency since 2019 has seen wheat flour prices more than double in 2020 alone. The explosion of the Port of Beirut in 2020 has further raised the price of imports, and while the disaster investigation is a continuing source of political unrest, an energy crisis is forcing people to suffer power cuts.

It’s hard to overstate the cataclysmic effect a food crisis would have on Lebanon and the region as a whole.

In Syria, 12 million people are food insecure, as are half of those who fled to neighboring Lebanon during the war. Of Yemen’s nearly 30 million people, more than 80% will be food insecure in 2021 and more than four million Iraqis are already dependent on humanitarian aid. These numbers will rise and could invite political interference if the problem is not resolved quickly.

“A large part of the Syrian and Lebanese populations live on food subsidies, Jordan and Palestine face water shortages and the Gulf countries import up to 90% of their calories”

Even though the Arab Gulf States are the most food insecure countries in the region, the respective governments have enough capital to potentially offset significantly higher food prices in the medium term. However, the countries of the Levant would be the most affected by a food crisis and are already the battleground of proxy conflicts between regional powers.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could seek to gain influence by providing aid to their preferred partners, while Iran could do the same with its Shia clients in Iraq and Lebanon. As a major food producer and emerging regional power, Russia also has the ability and motivation to secure political concessions in return for aid if food shortages put the governments in Beirut and Damascus under pressure.

The situation in the Levant has all the ingredients for a full-fledged crisis. Decades of war and internal conflict have fueled bigotry, corruption and poverty. Sanctions and the pandemic have crippled local economies and made millions of people vulnerable. Covid-19 emptied state coffers which were overcrowded anyway, and rampant corruption, especially in Lebanon, pushed most people to the brink.

The international community should put in place a mechanism to monitor food supplies and prices. Governments and NGOs must work together, ensuring that food is purchased in international markets and provided to the region’s most vulnerable communities, regardless of their sectarian or political affiliations.

In the medium term, it would be necessary to invest in national food production and support the constitution of strategic reserves.

The stakes are too high to ignore the coming food crisis in the Middle East. When high bread prices helped spark protests that ultimately led to the Arab Spring, the world saw how quickly a lack of basic foodstuffs can translate into political upheaval.

With the impact of the pandemic, local governments are even less able to protect their populations from the rising cost of living. The global community must act now to prevent the situation from deteriorating further and jeopardizing regional security.

Stefan Lukas is Director of Studies at the Berlin Senate Administration and Guest Lecturer at the Military Academy of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg, focusing on the impact of climate change on security structures in the MENA region .

Follow him on Twitter: @ StefLu3

Marius Paradies is a Berlin-based international affairs researcher who focuses on security and political economy in the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @MariusParadies


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