The coming food crisis in the Middle East

A boy walks through a dried up agricultural field in the Saadiya area, north of Diyala in eastern Iraq on June 24, 2021
5 min read
09 December, 2021
In-depth: Already one of the most food-insecure regions in the world, the Middle East could be hit especially hard by the unfolding crisis, with severe security implications.

In October, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recorded a new ten-year high in global food prices.

Basic foodstuffs like cereal, sugar, and vegetable oil have increased by about one third compared to the previous year. Adjusted for inflation, since the UN started keeping record of global food prices in 1961, only the years 1974-1975 have seen higher prices on global markets.

A set of factors have caused this rise. For one, last year’s extreme weather conditions across the globe have significantly damaged harvests. Frosty temperatures in April, for example, impacted Brazilian sugar and coffee harvests, and Canada, which usually provides two-thirds of the world’s durum wheat, experienced a summer of droughts and soaring temperatures.

Consequently, Canada’s wheat production dropped by half compared to the previous year. This has already caused a 90% increase in wholesale prices which will translate into higher consumer prices, with pasta soon expected to be 50% more expensive.

"When high bread prices helped spark protests that eventually led to the Arab Spring, the world saw how quickly a lack of basic foodstuffs can translate into political upheaval"

This year’s extreme weather conditions only foreshadow what is to come. Not only will climate change reduce farmland worldwide, but extreme weather will also disrupt supply chains. The floods, power outages, and damages to American ports caused by hurricane Ida are only a glimpse into the future.

But even without extreme weather conditions, global supply chains would have reached their capacity limits this year. Measures to contain Covid-19 caused global cargo shipping to drop considerably between March and June 2020. Workers were laid off or sent into lockdowns as demand for manufactured products and commodities dropped, while demand for medical goods and food rose.

Add to this recurring outbreaks of the delta variant in some of the world’s busiest ports in China and the US, and it becomes apparent why until today, hundreds of cargo ships loiter at sea, waiting to load and unload cargo.

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To make matters worse, the pandemic also reduced the workforce of truck drivers, port operators, and warehouse workers. This explains why the market price for a container from Shanghai to Europe increased more than sevenfold between June 2020 and July 2021.

The White House is even considering deploying the National Guard to help reduce backlogs ahead of the Christmas season.

Transport backlogs, labour shortages, higher energy costs, and shipping costs are set to remain high in the medium term. While consumers in developed nations have a higher financial pain threshold, developing nations will be hit especially hard by higher food and energy prices.

Already one of the most food-insecure regions in the world, the Middle East will be hit especially hard by an unfolding food crisis.

Gaza AFP food aid children
Palestinian children sit by sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the Gaza Strip on 22 August 2017. [Getty]

Decades of mismanagement and conflict have made Iraq, the former breadbasket of the region, a net food importer. A vast share of the Syrian and Lebanese populations lives off food subsidies, Jordan and Palestine face water shortages, and the Gulf countries import up to 90 percent of their calories.

Lebanon, for example, is facing a multitude of crises and a 90% currency depreciation since 2019 has seen wheat flour prices more than double in 2020 alone. The Beirut port explosion in 2020 further raised the price of imports, and while the investigation into the catastrophe is a continued source of political unrest, an energy crisis forces continued power outages onto the population.

It is hard to overstate the cataclysmic effect a food crisis would have on Lebanon and the wider region.

In Syria, 12 million people are food insecure, as are half of those who fled to neighbouring Lebanon during the war. Of Yemen’s population of nearly 30 million, over 80% are afflicted by food insecurity in 2021 and more than four million Iraqis already depend on humanitarian aid. These numbers will increase and could invite political meddling if the issue is not addressed soon.

"A vast share of the Syrian and Lebanese populations lives off food subsidies, Jordan and Palestine face water shortages, and the Gulf countries import up to 90 percent of their calories"

Even though the Arab Gulf states are the most food-insecure countries in the region, respective governments do have enough capital to potentially offset significantly higher food prices in the medium term. However, the countries of the Levant would be most affected by a food crisis and are already the battleground for proxy conflicts between regional powers. 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could seek to gain influence by supplying their preferred partners with aid, while Iran may do the same with its Shia clients in Iraq and Lebanon. As a major food producer and emerging regional power, Russia also has the ability as well as the motivation to gain political concessions in return for aid should food shortages put governments in Beirut and Damascus under pressure.

The situation in the Levant has all the ingredients for a full-blown crisis. Decades of war and internal conflicts have nurtured sectarianism, corruption, and poverty. Sanctions and the pandemic have crippled local economies and made millions of people vulnerable. Covid-19 has emptied state coffers that were over-strained anyway, and endemic corruption, especially in Lebanon, has pushed most people to the edge.

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The international community should put in place a monitoring mechanism for food supplies and prices. Governments and NGOs should work together, ensuring that food is sourced on international markets and supplied to the most vulnerable communities in the region, regardless of sectarian or political affiliations.

For the medium term, investment in domestic food production should be made and the build-up of strategic reserves should be supported.

The stakes are too high to ignore the coming food crisis in the Middle East. When high bread prices helped spark protests that eventually led to the Arab Spring, the world saw how quickly a lack of basic foodstuffs can translate into political upheaval.

With the impact of the pandemic, local governments are even less capable of protecting their populations from higher living costs. The global community should act now in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating any further and putting regional security at risk.

Stefan Lukas is Director of Studies at the Berlin Senate Administration and a guest lecturer at the Military Academy of German Armed Forces in Hamburg, with a focus on the impact of climate change on security structures in MENA.

Follow him on Twitter: @StefLu3

Marius Paradies is a Berlin-based researcher in international affairs who focuses on security and political economy in the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @MariusParadies