The invasion of Ukraine and the following sanctions appointed on Russia have European nations alarmed about access to natural gas, on which they have long depended. The war has boosted pressure on energy resources, especially by increasing the prices of gas, oil and coal. But it is not just a matter of energy supplies for European countries. The global food market is also at risk.
Russia is the largest producer and exporter of wheat (after China and India), while Ukraine is one of the top five wheat exporters in the world. Putin’s war is obstructing the wheat supply chain in many Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, which are highly dependent on these exports due to the important role wheat plays in their regional diets. Rising food prices could contribute to already existing famine and foment public anger.
In 2021 Ukraine produced around 80 MMT (million metric tonnes) of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley), and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Roman Leshchenko said farmers sowed a total of 6.5 million hectares of winter wheat for the 2022 harvest, but due to the war in many Ukrainian regions, the harvested area could be only around 4 million hectares.
With the Black Sea port like Odesa or Mykolaiv obstructed by the Russian army, Ukrainian grain is now being transported by trains through Romania and Polonia. Wheels on the wagons have to be changed at the border because unlike European rails, Ukrainian train cars run on wider, Soviet-era tracks. This makes the whole logistics very slow, expensive and inefficient.
North Africa and Middle East countries are the largest importers of wheat worldwide, with shipments coming mainly from Russia and Ukraine. Egypt, the largest wheat importer worldwide, imports from them more than 80% of it. Morocco imports more than 50% of its cereals, Tunisia around 70%, and Libya 90%. These numbers point to a remarkable geopolitical vulnerability, which could somehow be compared to the dependence of European nations on gas imports.
North African countries were already been stressed by a severe drought, which is threatening the internal production of cereals. The rainy season in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia typically run from August to December. But in 2021, accumulated precipitation for these months was 36% below the 10-year average in Algeria, 46% below normal in Morocco, and 48% below normal in Tunisia. The 2021 Algerian production of cereals fell by 38%, due to the below‑average precipitation and drought.
With most of Ukraine’s grain stuck at Black Sea ports, these regions are starting to look for alternatives. But alternative suppliers come with pricier freight, longer transits or differing quality, further accelerating food inflation.
India is jumping into the export market, negotiating access to markets in Egypt, Turkey and China, after having always kept its huge wheat harvests at home thanks to a government-set price.
Brazil is expecting its highest exports of grain in a decade. It is set to reach 2.1 million tons for the first three months of the year, almost double those in all of 2021.
The United Nations has warned that food prices — already risen 25% over the past year — could rise as much as 22% or more. The cost of a basic food basket – the minimum food needs per family per month – registered an annual increase of 351% in Lebanon, the highest in the region. It was followed by Syria, with a 97% raise, and Yemen with an 81% hike.
A decade ago, the increase in food prices was one of the drivers of protests and upheavals which resulted in the Arab Spring in 2011. High price volatility in global agricultural markets deeply affected highly exposed countries to wheat imports. Several studies have illustrated that there was a causal relationship between rising food prices (by 40% in late 2010), rising food insecurity, and uprisings in Egypt and Syria.
Ten years after, many of the economic and political challenges that provoked the demonstrations still need to be addressed. The COVID-19 pandemic has further weakened the socio-economic situation and is affecting the rise of unemployment rates, especially for young people. The result is that growing food prices could reduce the opportunity cost of rebellion, with an increased number of citizens willing to take on the risk of joining violent protests.
To prevent social uprisings, food has been historically kept highly subsidized as part of the “social contract” of the MENA countries. Today, there are a number of reasons that are growing the concerns over the capacity of governments to subsidize the food market in the long term: budget constraints and slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-related disruptions on global agriculture and lastly, the war in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, the grain shortage will not be going away anytime soon, but will only get worse as the war in Ukraine continues. When it does, we could expect major political upheaval in the MENA region.
War leads to greater food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the chance of unrest and violence. The war in Ukraine is contributing to hunger and pushing people into food insecurity in other parts of the globe, with the potential of generating conflicts and violence.
Matteo Pes has studied International Relations at the University of Turin and he is a freelance writer living between Berlin and South America.