(Beirut) – Governments should ensure that the conflict in Ukraine does not worsen the food crisis in the Middle East and North Africa and protect the right to affordable, adequate food for everyone, Human Rights Watch said today. Both Ukraine and Russia are leading exporters of agricultural products to many Middle Eastern and North African countries, and disruptions related to the war are already exacerbating already-rising food prices and deepening poverty.
“Global food chains demand global solidarity in times of crisis,” said Lama Fakih, executive Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Without concerted action to address the supply and affordability of food, the conflict in Ukraine risks deepening the world’s food crisis, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to access sufficient and adequate food needed to live a healthy and active life. To protect this right, governments are obligated to enact policies and provide appropriate support to ensure that all people can afford safe and nutritious food at all times. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already led to increases in the price of bread and other basic foods, particularly in the Middle Eastern and North African countries highly dependent on grain from Ukraine, and governments should act with urgency to protect the right to food.
The Black Sea area affected by the Ukrainian crisis exports at least 12 percent of the food calories traded in the world. Ukraine has one-third of the world’s most fertile soil according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and 45 percent of its exports are agricultural-related. It is among the world’s leading exporters of sunflower oil, rapeseed and barley, corn, wheat, and poultry. A large part of the country’s wheat production comes from areas of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is most intense.
On March 9, 2022, Ukraine banned exports of grain and other food products to prevent a domestic humanitarian crisis. Even if these supply chain disruptions are resolved soon, the problems would most likely persist because farmers are fleeing the fighting and the conflict is destroying infrastructure and equipment. The fighting could also gravely diminish the coming harvest, particularly if it continues into the start of the planting season in April.
Essential food prices were already increasing globally because of disruptions in the food supply chain caused by the pandemic and the conflict has added to that, according to the FAO. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are especially reliant on Ukrainian grain and seed oil, and vulnerable to food price shocks.
About 80 percent of the wheat that Lebanon imported in 2020, the last year for which data is available, came from Ukraine, according to the Lebanese government’s customs website. Lebanon only has capacity to store reserves for one month as a result of the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port that destroyed the capital’s grain silos. Bread and other grain products make up 35 percent of the population’s caloric intake. Egypt imports over half its sunflower oil from Ukraine, and the government had already reduced subsidies for sunflower and soybean oil by 20 percent in June 2021 in response to an increase in prices.
Maize exports from Ukraine to some European and Asian countries are used for animal feed and disruptions can have secondary impacts on poultry and pig feedstock. Imported corn is also an important food source for many African countries and supply constraints can increase prices across the board, further exacerbating food insecurity, which is the lack of access to adequate safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.
Moreover, Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat and one of the biggest producers of fertilizers, and the crisis could also disrupt this supply. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, is especially vulnerable as half of its imports come from Russia and another 30 percent from Ukraine. On March 4, Russia’s trade and industry minister recommended halting fertilizer exports in response to economic sanctions. Even countries not dependent on Ukraine or Russia for agricultural imports may still see a rise in food prices, for example, due to an increase in fuel prices that affect food transport costs, a reduced supply of fertilizers, and shrinking global agricultural productivity and supply.
The pandemic disruptions had already contributed to global food price increases and deepening poverty. Climate change-driven weather extremes also damaged harvests of some crops in 2021. Global food prices rose by more than 30 percent in the last year and the Ukraine crisis further drove up prices to reach the highest they’ve been since 1974 when adjusting for inflation, according to the FAO. Nearly one in three people in the Middle East and North Africa did not have access to adequate food in 2020; an increase of 10 million people in just one year.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, grain futures such as for wheat, corn, and soybean have already increased. Futures markets are where commodities are bought and sold for delivery at future dates, enabling speculation in food that UN human rights experts have found exacerbates exclusion and inequality. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have severely inadequate social protection systems that do not protect people’s economic rights, to help people cope with an increase in prices. Countries already grappling with crisis and widespread food insecurity such as Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria are particularly at risk.
All governments should immediately and systematically act to protect everyone’s rights to an adequate standard of living, and in particular the right to food. . A global food crisis can only be addressed through international cooperation. Food-exporting countries should address their national needs but should also work with import-dependent countries to establish alternative supply chains as soon as possible. Exporting governments should carefully balance export restrictions to protect the right to food domestically while minimizing to the extent possible impacts on food supply and prices for other countries. Sanctions on Russia or corporate divestment from the country should take into account the impact on agricultural-related exports insofar as that will impact food security for many populations. Governments should adopt safeguards to minimize negative impacts or complementary measures to offset the anticipated and monitored impact of sanctions on food security.
Importing governments should also work to ensure that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone especially since food prices are surging. Many governments in the region have removed food and bread subsidies in recent years and those that still maintain them, such as Egypt and Tunisia, are considering or are in the process of removing or reducing them. The current crisis underscores the risks that such changes, by raising the price of food, can exacerbate food insecurity, particularly if they are not coupled with robust social protection that ensures an adequate income to all to purchase food. Some countries, such as Libya, have introduced or strengthened price controls to cope with this crisis.
In that context, the crisis in Ukraine further highlights the critical need for governments in the Middle East and North Africa to establish, expand, or increase social protection systems so everyone in the region can realize their rights to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food and the right to social security.
Governments and international institutions should increase humanitarian assistance to countries that lack adequate resources to provide people with the support they need to protect their right to food. The international community, including the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization, have recognized the massive disruption to the food supply chain and should provide assistance to governments struggling to get wheat and other food supplies. Both have said that they have scaled up their activities in response to the crisis and the WFP is seeking additional funds to support its work, although the immediate focus has understandably been on helping Ukrainians both remaining in and fleeing the country.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a food crisis that caused 10 million people in the Middle East and North Africa region to lose their ability to get enough food in 2020 alone,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch focused on poverty and inequality. “Governments should do everything in their power to protect people’s right to food such as by providing adequate subsidies or by intervening to control prices, or by providing proper social protection.”
The impact of potential food price rises exacerbated by the conflict will be acutely felt in Lebanon. In 2020, about 80 percent of Lebanon’s total wheat imports came from Ukraine, and another 15 percent from Russia, according to Lebanese customs figures. On February 25, the economy minister said that Lebanon has wheat reserves sufficient for just one month, as Beirut’s grain silos, which previously held four months of wheat reserves, were destroyed in the August 4, 2020, explosion at the capital’s port.
The war in Ukraine further exacerbates the suffering of millions because of the ongoing economic crisis. More than 80 percent of the population has been plunged into poverty. Despite the economic crisis, the Lebanese authorities have repeatedly delayed the rollout of two social protection programs that would provide cash to vulnerable families and cushion them from the price increases. The government started cash transfers to 150,000 extremely poor households on March 14 under a World Bank-funded program, the Emergency Social Safety Net, which was approved by the World Bank in January 2021.
The economy minister announced that the government was making plans to purchase an additional one month supply of wheat, stepping in for private importers for the first time in decades. Currently, the Central Bank subsidizes the purchase of wheat by private importers, at a cost of US $20 million per month, to lower the price of bread to consumers. However, the economy minister noted that the Central Bank has “no capacity to pay higher prices,” prompting fears over whether Lebanon can continue subsidizing wheat to maintain the same prices for consumers and supply in the midst of the crisis.
The industry minister tweeted on March 5 that Lebanon will begin rationing wheat, only allowing it to be used for bread until alternative supply sources can be found. The government is attempting to import wheat from Canada, Australia, and the United States.
On March 13, Turkey announced that it will donate more than 500,000 tons of food aid to Lebanon.
Libya relies on Ukraine for over 40 percent of its wheat imports. Within the first week of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the price of wheat and flour soared as merchants wary of supply disruptions raised prices up to 30 percent. The Ministry of Economics and Trade on February 26 said that the country had strategic reserves for soft wheat to last six months, but could not prevent a flour supply crisis in several Libyan cities. On March 7, the ministry decided to impose measures to prevent a full-scale crisis that included punitive measures such as freezing the commercial registration of flour companies and mills that did not adhere to the distribution mechanism approved by the ministry, which maintains a single price on flour.
Other decisions included increasing the strategic stock of wheat to enable flour mills to operate at full production capacity for at least three months, restricting the distribution of flour to bakeries through the General Syndicate of Bakeries, and setting 110 Libyan dinars (about US$22) as a maximum for a 50-kilogram bag of flour. The government also promised to address financial and customs concerns for companies affected by these measures.
After a decade of intermittent armed conflicts, political deadlock, implosion of central authority and emergence of unaccountable warlords, large segments of the population are in need of support and are prone to food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), prior to the crisis in international food markets from the Ukraine conflict 12 percent of Libyans – or 511,000 people – would need assistance in 2022. According to the UN International Organization for Migration, there are 635,051 migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya, one fourth of whom are considered moderately or severely food insecure, according to the WFP.
Egypt relies heavily on subsidized imports to ensure affordable access to bread and vegetable oil, with more than 70 million Egyptians relying on subsidized bread. Egypt is also the world’s largest buyer of wheat and the largest importer of wheat from both Russia and Ukraine. In 2021, approximately 80 percent of Egypt’s wheat imports came from Russia and Ukraine.
On February 23, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly stated in a Cabinet meeting that Egypt’s current stockpile of wheat in silos is sufficient for four months. In mid-April, local production will be harvested, extending the stockpile to approximately nine months.
Egypt’s General Authority for Supply Commodities has cancelled two tenders for the purchase of wheat since the start of Russia’s invasion due to high prices and a low number of bids. On March 10, the government announced an immediate three-month ban on the export of wheat, flour, and other staples. The government has said it can secure wheat from alternative sources and so will most likely avoid an immediate shortage of wheat supplies, but the direct impact could be a sharp increase in prices. Its export ban could impact other countries such as Yemen.
Should prices of wheat increase, so would need for subsidies to maintain the cost to the population, at a time when the government was already looking to cut bread subsidies. In August 2021, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared that the annual $3 billion in bread subsidies would be removed, although the specifics of this plan have yet to be formally announced. The Egyptian government had already reduced subsidies for sunflower and soybean oil by 20 percent, and unblended vegetable oil by 23.5 percent, in July 2021 due to rising prices.
The government has not released a plan to ensure that food is affordable, especially during the conflict. Until it has a clear plan to keep food affordable, it should refrain from cutting subsidies further, as cuts would potentially leave millions unable to access sufficient affordable food, and should significantly expand social safety net interventions to protect against sharply increasing prices.
The price of subsidized bread has remained at 5 piastres (US$0.003) a loaf since the 1980s. Bread subsidies are notoriously politically sensitive since the 1977 bread riots that erupted after President Anwar Sadat’s announcement lifting subsidies on flour, rice, and cooking oil.
Syria already has severe wheat shortages because of a debilitating economic crisis and the destruction of infrastructure due to a decade of armed conflict. In 2021, the Syrian government has allowed the discriminatory distribution of bread, alongside corruption and restrictions on how much subsidized bread people can buy, which caused people to go hungry. The Syrian government primarily relies on Russia to close the shortfall in importing wheat. In December 2021, the government reached an agreement with Russia to import 1 million metric tons of wheat in 2022, financed by a Russian loan.
According to the World Food Programme, 13.4 million people in Syria are food insecure. In December 2021, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that Syria’s wheat production in 2021 was around 1.6 million metric tons under projected needs, in part due to Syria experiencing an acute drought.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict is likely to exacerbate the current crisis in Syria, especially because the deal between Russia and Syria to import wheat was suspended. On February 24, the Syrian government issued measures to mitigate the economic ramifications of the conflict on Syria, such as fuel price increases and shortages of essential foodstuffs and other commodities. For example, the authorities adopted measures to ration reserves of foodstuffs, including wheat, and fuel. They also committed to prioritize funding wheat imports.
Northwest and Northeast Syria are likely to face similar issues, including an inability to import sufficient amounts of wheat and rising prices. The authorities in Northwest Syria supply the region with wheat and flour procured through Turkey, but Turkey imports 90 percent of its wheat from Ukraine.
Due to the ongoing conflict there, Yemen remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than half of the population faces food insecurity and many face persistent and severe fuel shortages. The war in Ukraine is likely to worsen food insecurity as the country imports at least 27 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and 8 percent from Russia. Skyrocketing food prices in recent years have left more than half of the population in need of food assistance, while the sharp depreciation of the Yemeni rial has made imported food, oil, and other necessities more expensive, and has dramatically reduced households’ purchasing power.