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Middle East faces severe wheat crisis

Dario Sabaghi
March 9, 2022

Middle Eastern and North African countries rely heavily on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The current war could lead to a severe food crisis in a region already under pressure.

Wheat field under blue sky
Ukrainian and Russian wheat has been crucial for the Middle East's food securityImage: Olena Mykhaylova/Zoonar/picture alliance

The invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions imposed on Russia have European nations worried about access to natural gas on which they have long depended. The conflict has increased pressure on energy resources, driving up the prices of oil, gas, coal and other commodities.

But the war in Ukraine could hit more than just energy supplies in Europe. Global food security is also at risk. In particular, it could disrupt the wheat supply chain in several Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries.

Russia is the world's top wheat exporter and the largest producer after China and India. And Ukraine is one of the top five wheat exporters worldwide.

Several MENA countries are highly dependent on these exports due to the prominent role wheat plays in their regional diets.

Egypt is the world's top wheat importer, with around 70% of its wheat coming from Russia and Ukraine. Some 80% of Tunisia's grain also hails from these two countries. Lebanon imports 60% of its wheat from Ukraine.

Timing dilemma

Some parts of Ukraine currently under fire by Russian troops play a pivotal role in the country's wheat production and export. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), most of Ukraine's wheat crops are concentrated in the southeast.

As Russian forces press on with their offensive in the south, Ukraine fears the next big target will be Odesa, the country's main Black Sea port. If Russian troops block access to the Black Sea, the supply of Ukrainian wheat to the MENA region will be disrupted.

The Black Sea is of strategic importance for Ukraine's wheat supply chain as exports to the MENA region are exclusively shipped by sea, David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), told DW. 

"The wheat that people are currently trading comes from the harvest of July 2021. That is before the invasion. Around one-quarter of the harvest is still available over the next three months," Laborde said. "But the fact that people can't operate in the port can create a shortage for countries such as Egypt and Lebanon."

How the war will affect food security in the MENA region depends on how long the conflict lasts.

If farmers in Ukraine aren't able to cultivate and harvest wheat crops by July 2022, the supply chain will be interrupted. But even if they are, there's no guarantee they will be able to use the necessary infrastructure to transport grain to the ports.

Overview of who buys wheat from whom

Dependency on Ukrainian and Russian wheat

The market price of wheat could become a systemic problem for poorer countries in the MENA region. It has already risen 35% since Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Cash-strapped Lebanon has, at most, one month's wheat reserves and is seeking alternative import agreements from various countries, Lebanese Economy Minister Amin Salam told Reuters following the invasion.

The Tunisian government has reportedly prohibited public officials from commenting on wheat imports, which make up around 80% of the country's wheat reserves.

Top importer Egypt still has reserves, but it is already seeking alternatives from other countries.

The war in Ukraine has prompted Syria to start rationing wheat. And the World Food Programme (WFP) has called it "a countdown to catastrophe" for Yemen, which heavily relies on imports.

The conflict will affect the whole region, according to Mounir Khamis, an expert in wheat supplies to the Middle East and CEO at AIDCO, a Lebanon-based company focused on the sale of agricultural forage equipment. Importing wheat and other grains from North or South America takes time and is extremely expensive due to shipping costs, he told DW.

"Romania, Russia, and Ukraine border the Black Sea. So it's easier to load ships to Lebanon and other MENA countries," he said.

Although MENA countries could diversify their supplies by trading with Western companies, transportation delays could cause a severe shortage. Some MENA countries grow wheat themselves, but domestic production doesn't fully cover overall demand.

"For instance, Beqaa Valley is the only region in Lebanon where wheat is cultivated," Khamis said. "Furthermore, farmers grow only hard wheat, which is not suitable for making bread."

Ancient grains and crop diversity

The consequences of the wheat crisis

People won't immediately feel the increasing price of wheat, food policy expert Laborde told DW, as many MENA countries have subsidies in place. But governments could start rationing or increasing the cost of wheat-related items at some stage. Such moves could lead to social unrest in countries already feeling an economic squeeze.

While Egypt will likely be the MENA country most exposed to the fallout of the Russian war in Ukraine, it could still be a major blow for other North African countries. With access to the Mediterranean Sea, they could try to import wheat from other countries. But such alternatives can't fully replace Russian and Ukrainian imports.

Hands holding wheat
The search for alternative wheat suppliers will be anything but easy for MENA countriesImage: Dmitry Feoktistov/dpa/TASS/picture alliance

Asked whether economic sanctions on Russia could affect the wheat market, Laborde said it depended on how they were implemented and whether they hit Russian-affiliated wheat companies.

Global food security was in jeopardy even before the conflict, Laborde explained. The world experienced a rising number of crises in the past few years and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many people's lives, reducing incomes in developing regions in particular.

"The Russia-Ukraine conflict leaves us with a gloomy situation as we don't know if the next wheat harvest and planting season is going to happen at all," said Laborde. "The world can't afford yet another production and trade obstacle."

Edited by: Kristie Pladson