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How war in Ukraine is making people hungry in the Middle East

There’s enough food in the world, but it’s getting too expensive to ship it.

A bakery counter in Lebanon.
A baker prepares the traditional bread product manoushe in the Lebanese city of Chtaura.
Vassilis Poularikas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Food is central to the observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began this year on April 2. Practicing Muslims abstain from food and water throughout the day, before breaking their fast with the iftar meal at sunset. Iftar is meant to be a celebration, as family and friends come together each night for a meal, often served buffet-style, that will provide most of the calories for the day.

But in Lebanon, even bread to break the Ramadan fast has become increasingly hard to find. Before the war in Ukraine, bread in Lebanon was heavily subsidized by the government. It was “the only real affordable good on a supermarket shelf,” said Majd Itani, a consultant in Lebanon whose family owns a supermarket chain in Beirut. But a reduction in subsidies, rising prices from inflation, and supply chain shocks mean that “people [who] had been increasingly reliant” on wheat products can no longer even count on their daily bread.

This small Middle Eastern country of nearly 7 million people had already been suffering from widespread hunger in the past two years. But the war is making that even worse. Ukraine and Russia combined provide 95 percent of Lebanon’s wheat. Martin Keulertz, a food security researcher at the American University of Beirut, told me that an estimated four out of five people in Lebanon are now food insecure, meaning “they don’t get food at all times at the sufficient quantity and quality.”

Lebanon is just a single, acute victim of a worldwide food crisis, one that David Beasley, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), recently told the New York Times has “no precedent even close to this since World War II.” At the end of 2021, global food prices were already at 10-year highs because of drought, high fuel prices, and recovering demand for agricultural products after Covid-19.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has embroiled two of the world’s major food and gas exporters, has added to the terrible state of global hunger, especially for countries like Lebanon in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that are highly dependent on exports from the two combatants. Food prices globally are now at their highest since the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began tracking in 1990, and around 887 million people (342 million based on real-time monitoring and 545 million on predictive models) are currently experiencing food insecurity, with tens of millions more joining their ranks every month.

The dire need caused by the war and the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee because of the conflict mean that aid is being spread more thinly at a time when food and cash transfers are more vital than ever. While there’s enough food to feed everyone in the world, high fuel prices make it harder to ensure food gets to the people most at risk of hunger at prices they can afford. While no one fully escapes the toll of very high food prices and scarcity — the price of food in the US jumped 10 percent over the past year according to recently released data — it will be the poorest countries most dependent on wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine that will suffer if governments and aid organizations can’t fill in the gaps.

A war on food

Just because the world produces sufficient food supplies doesn’t mean there’s enough getting to the needy — and providing help for them is getting more expensive. The WFP was “incurring $42 million more [per month] for food purchases prior to the Ukraine crisis because of high food and fuel prices globally,” said Reem Nada, communications officer for the World Food Programme MENA region. “With the added blow of the Ukraine crisis, WFP is incurring another $29 million more [per month].” In Yemen and Syria — two countries in the region with severe and ongoing conflict-driven hunger crises — the WFP is only 31 percent and 24 percent funded respectively, while in Yemen alone operations are $10 million higher per month than the WFP budgeted for.

Russia and Ukraine combined provide about 26 percent of global wheat exports, along with high percentages of corn, vegetable oil, and barley. But in certain parts of the world, the dependency is far greater; in the MENA region, Nada told me, an average of 80 percent of local demand for wheat is met through import, with much of it coming from nearby Russia and Ukraine.

The plight of Lebanon shows how the war in Ukraine has exacerbated one country’s already existing food security problems. While the US and other rich nations have been grappling with higher-than-expected inflation over the past year, since 2019 Lebanon has been facing an economic crisis caused by hyperinflation, which means that people’s salaries have been badly outpaced by the rising price of food. As bread subsidies have waned, the cost of daily staples has risen out of reach. Keulertz told me even the nominal price of bread — meaning without accounting for inflation — had increased by almost 20 percent since October 2021.

In response to dwindling supplies, bakers are moving away from making more complex products like manoushe (Lebanese pizza) and croissants to producing only basic bread. Even so, customers are getting even less for their money — Keulertz said the weight of a standard pack of bread has changed. “It used to be that they said it has to be 900 grams, and then it was suddenly 850, and then it was 830.”

Adding to the trouble, the Beirut port explosion in 2020, which destroyed most of Lebanon’s main granary, left Lebanon with only enough room to store one month of grain supplies. This means that the government and other actors have to work more quickly to sort out short-term disruptions in supply chains because they don’t have six months of storage to rely on to feed the country in the meantime.

While the direct impacts of the war on agriculture in Ukraine will depend on the course of the conflict, the country’s agriculture minister said that the spring crop sowing area for corn and other crops could be halved. Millions of tons of corn stored in Ukraine’s silos — much of which would be destined for the export market — is proving difficult to access. Beyond the possibility that farms themselves will become battlegrounds, merchant vessels in the Black Sea have been hit and one has already sunk.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the war will come to a quick close, however, other factors in the global economy mean that the pressure of food insecurity is unlikely to relent.

How food and fuel are linked

You can’t drink oil, but the price of that keystone global commodity, which was already high pre-invasion, may affect the cost of food more than any other single factor. “We forget that most of the cost that consumers pay is actually everything that happens after a commodity leaves the farm,” said Chris Barrett, a professor at Cornell who researches food security. This matters because “the longer-run effect and immediate effect, both are probably going to come from the energy markets,” he added.

In a study last year that covered 90 percent of the world’s food production, Barrett and his co-authors found that farmers receive only 27 percent on average of what consumers spend on food eaten at home in domestic markets, and even less for imported food. Another study found that global oil prices affected food prices in East Africa primarily through transport costs, especially for countries that are further inland. This means that most of the costs of food — especially for foods that are being exported — happen after food is harvested in processing, manufacturing, storage, food service, and transportation. And each of these steps requires energy.

Meanwhile, coal, natural gas, and electricity prices are at their highest levels in decades, while the price of oil has spiked by nearly 70 percent over the past year. That drives up prices along multiple points of the food value chain, and will impact countries that don’t directly import from Ukraine or Russia.

The situation in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and Ethiopia — all facing conflict and already-high levels of food insecurity — is even more dire. Instability, flooding, and displacement in South Sudan have compounded the needs of people in a country where most of the population has severe food insecurity, while the Tigray war in Ethiopia has pushed places into famine with limited humanitarian aid access. These countries in East Africa face higher transport costs than those in the Middle East, said Barrett, so high fuel costs could affect food security far beyond the war.

Food aid is vital, but the pool of aid is stretched

Just as high costs make it harder for the poor to buy needed food, it’s harder for aid groups to help those in greatest need. Aid budgets are already being stretched because a dollar now gets you less everywhere, and crises around the world — Ukraine, Tigray, South Sudan — all draw from a limited pool of aid.

The good news is that about 30 percent of the world’s wheat is in storage, according to Barrett, up from about 24 percent a decade ago. Thanks to a strong harvest in India and Australia and a predicted bumper crop in the northern hemisphere, as well as a predicted drop in feed wheat demand, wheat stocks should be able to meet demand through 2023 and beyond. As Barrett notes, “trade is built for moments like this.” But getting wheat from these more distant areas to the MENA region is more expensive than from the Black Sea region and takes much longer. The main challenge in the short- and medium-term will be getting this wheat to people vulnerable to hunger at a price they can afford.

Given that high energy costs and inflation make it more expensive to provide aid, governments — by continuing or expanding social safety nets domestically and by providing foreign aid — need to take steps to reduce unnecessary regulations that raise the costs of feeding the hungry. For example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) requires that American food aid must come from US farmers, and that at least half of it must be transported in US-flagged vessels. Suspending these regulations on aid could make US food aid up to twice as cost-effective and save lives both in Ukraine and far beyond its borders.

Aid can be given directly through shipments of food or through cash transfers (either unconditional or specifically for food), and every dollar or bushel of wheat saved through streamlined regulations makes a difference. The WFP’s Nada told me there are 18 million people in Syria and Yemen receiving direct food assistance from the WFP. Because of the higher price of wheat, the WFP’s operations are being stretched past the breaking point. “[I]mports from Ukraine account for 31 percent of the wheat arriving in Yemen in the past three months — prices are suddenly seven times higher than they were in 2015,” according to a WFP article from March. “A kilo of wheat flour now costs on average more than 800 rials (around US$3.20) in the south, compared to 146 rials (around US$0.58) before the crisis.”

Cash transfers or cash-based vouchers for food make up an increasing percentage of WFP’s portfolio, accounting for 37 percent of their global operations in 2020. These, too, have been affected by inflation and rising food prices. “If we give someone, say, a dollar, now a dollar is not worth the same and will not buy him the same amount of food it could buy a year ago or even two years ago,” said Nada.

Aid is more necessary than ever, but because of rising global prices, donor governments are already hitting up against funding limits, which has left the WFP and other organizations struggling to raise money. It’s imperative that high-income governments, along with development agencies and international finance institutions, ensure sufficient funding to fight hunger. Organizations like USAID have provided additional aid for the food crisis, but the shortfall remains.

Beyond this, experts say it’s imperative that countries producing staples avoid implementing export bans, which exacerbate food insecurity in importing countries by pushing up prices, even if there is no actual production shortage. Finally, even though there is no global wheat shortage, it’s important that organizations looking to provide aid take into account the increased supply chain costs in getting food where it needs to be — shipping wheat to Lebanon from, for example, Australia instead of Ukraine takes more time, energy, and money. In the medium term, countries that are high importers will need to take steps, like growing domestic drought-resistant grains, to diversify their food sources and increase domestic production.

Food is vital to life, and hunger is ruinous on levels both personal — a family not being able to afford iftar — and societal. It can lead to loss of social cohesion, political instability, and increased conflict. There is enough food in the world for everyone, but time and cost are of the essence in ensuring it gets to the people who need it most.

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