'Give us this day our daily bread': How the Russia-Ukraine conflict could leave Middle East, north Africa starving
While Ukraine accounts for 12 per cent of the world's total wheat exports, Russia is responsible for more than 20 per cent of global wheat production. Experts fear the conflict could hamper Ukrainians from planting wheat, while sanctions imposed by the West will prevent Moscow from selling its produce
As Russian tanks and missiles besiege Ukraine, there’s a fear that the ongoing conflict will leave the countries in the Middle East, north Africa and parts of Europe struggling to put bread on the table.
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Since the ‘special military operation’ — as Vladimir Putin dubbed it — began on 24 February, the prices of wheat have steadily climbed to new highs.
An Associated Press report cited that wheat prices have surged 55 per cent since a week before the invasion. If the war is prolonged, countries that rely on affordable wheat exports from Ukraine could face shortages starting in July, said International Grains Council director Arnaud Petit.
So, why is it that Ukraine’s conflict is driving up wheat prices and why it is that countries as far away as Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon are facing trouble.
‘Bread Basket’ of the world
Ukraine is considered Europe's ‘bread basket,’ accounting for 12 per cent of the world's total wheat exports, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Ukraine also supplies 16 per cent of the world's corn exports.
On the other hand, Russia is responsible for more than 20 per cent of global wheat production, and sanctions from western countries will complicate the country's ability to sell one of its biggest exports.
Experts say that the chernozem soil, which is highly fertile, allows Ukraine to produce large quantities of wheat and other grains.
According to news agency ANI, the war in Ukraine, if it goes on for several more weeks, will prevent Ukrainians from planting the wheat, while the sanctions imposed by the West will prevent Russia from selling its produce. As a result, the prices of grain will continue to rise steeply, causing sharp rises in the prices of bread, milk, meat, and other products.
Moreover, Ukraine and Russia also combine for 75 per cent of global sunflower oil exports, accounting for 10 per cent of all cooking oils, IHS Markit said.
According to the data provided by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2020, Lebanon buys 81 per cent of its wheat consumption from Ukraine and 15 per cent from Russia.
Similarly, Egypt imports 60 per cent of the wheat it consumes from Russia and 25 per cent from Ukraine. Turkey has a similar proportion: 66 per cent of wheat imports come from Russia and 10 per cent from Ukraine.
This clearly shows how Ukraine and Russia together are significant for these countries in terms of food requirements.
Hunger pangs in Africa, Middle East
Egypt imported most of its wheat — 12.5 million tonnes — from Russia and Ukraine in 2020-2021. As recently as 16 February, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced that there would 'certainly be' and increase in the price of a loaf of subsidised bread.
The price of bread has been a politically explosive issue in Egypt; it has triggered several protests in the past. One such example was in 2017 when people in Alexandria, Giza and many other areas carried out massive protests after the government cut the supply of subsidized bread amid an economic crisis.
Turkey, which is already facing an economic crisis and seeing the fall of the Lira, will also be affected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In 2020, the agricultural ministry data showed that the country imported almost half of its wheat needs, mainly from Russia with 64 per cent of imports, and Ukraine at 13.4 per cent.
Tunisia faces a similar problem; nearly half of the country’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, and the Russian invasion has sent prices to a 14-year high. Even though the Tunisian state controls the price of bread, people fear they will inevitably feel the crunch.
The same issue persists for Lebanon, which imports more than 80 per cent of its grain requirement from the Black Sea. The trouble is even more compounded for Lebanon as they don't have a present stockpile of grains after the enormous explosion in August 2020 destroyed its only grain silo.
War-ravaged Yemen is also beginning to struggle as more than a third of its wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine. The Guardian reports that Yemen is highly dependent on bread, which is thought to make up over half of the calorie intake for the average household.
Rama Hansraj, Save the Children’s director in Yemen, told The Guardian, "In Yemen, eight million children are already on the brink of famine. Families are exhausted. They’ve faced horror after horror through seven years of war. We fear they will not be able to endure another shock, especially to the main ingredient keeping their children alive."
Tom Vilsack, US secretary of agriculture, said last week that wheat farmers would increase production to help offset the global impact of lost exports from Ukraine. However, it is unlikely that the US would be able to cope with the wheat requirements of the Middle East and north Africa.
The situation could be offset if the war ends quickly and Russia could maintain its grain production levels. However, this situation also seems not feasible as Russia’s attacks continue against Ukraine.
With inputs from agencies
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