Lebanon and Syria scramble to prevent food insecurity from Ukraine war
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati asked the UN Deputy Secretary-General on Tuesday for their assistance in supporting Lebanon’s food security.
Two weeks earlier, Lebanon's Minister of Economy and Trade, asked the international community for $20 million so Lebanon could secure adequate wheat supplies.
Both Lebanon and Syria rely on Ukraine and Russia for the vast bulk of its wheat supply, with the former importing 78 per cent annually from the two Black Sea countries.
In Lebanon, the price of bread has already increased several times over the last year as the government has gradually lessened the subsidy on the staple good.
Prices of bread in Lebanon have remained constant since Russia's invasion of Ukraine despite increasing global demand, but analysts say this could be short-lived.
"It takes a little bit of time before [global price increases] reaches the retail shelf. We're in that little bit of time right now," Sami Halabi, director of Policy and co-Founder of Triangle, a Lebanese policy consulting firm, told The New Arab.
An increase in the price for bread would be disastrous for everyday Lebanese, two-thirds of whom are mired in poverty as a result of the economic crisis which began in the fall of 2019. Since then, food prices have increased by over 1,000 per cent, according to the World Food Program.
Though Lebanon sources almost all of its imported wheat from the two warring countries, it has options. It could alternatively import wheat from Argentina or the US. This would come with a much higher price tag – something which could be difficult for the cash strapped state.
"It's a perfect storm. There is a supply problem, a remnant of the worst days of the [COVID-19] pandemic. You have an accessibility problem, which is a remnant of the ongoing financial crisis and the deterioration of the economic situation,” Halabi said.
Lebanon uses its foreign reserves to subsidize importers of certain key goods – including wheat. Those foreign reserves are already below the level which were previously described as "mandatory reserves" by the Central Bank.
Reserves have dwindled over the last year due to the subsidy program, and in recent months, frequent cash injections by the central bank to stabilize the exchange rate. The central bank reportedly has delayed payments to importers, negatively impacting their ability to consistently import basic goods.
Lebanon's vibrant agricultural sector could help plug the gap in the long term, but domestic wheat production could probably not be scaled up in time to respond to a shortage in the near term. Currently, domestic wheat output makes up just 18 percent of the country’s total supply.
Farmers and activists also say that systemic changes must be made before Lebanon’s agricultural sector could help ease the country’s reliance on foreign products.
"For the Lebanese market to be dependent on locally grown food and produce, a nationwide plan must be put together to overcome actual market monopolies," Bashar Abu Saifan, a farmer and co-founder of the Agricultural Movement in Lebanon, told The New Arab.
“The main solution is to free the farmer from [their] debt which has become a leech around [their] neck. The solution is … the establishment of agricultural cooperatives in order to reach food sovereignty,” Abu Saifan added.
Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous said on Monday that wheat supplies in Syria are sufficient, and denied that there was any issue with food supplies in Syria. He added that basic food supplies will continue and that Syria had stopped exports of those supplies just in case.
The PM’s comments contradicted his own Council of Ministers, which just two weeks later, announced that public spending would be slashed and basic goods like wheat and oil rationed in anticipation of supply shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Syria has relied primarily on Russia for its wheat supplies in recent years. Its own domestic production has decreased drastically from its pre-war level and is not nearly enough to satisfy demand.
Political considerations further complicate the issue, as Syria's main wheat fields lie in northeast Syria, outside the control of the regime.
The Syrian government has had trouble securing wheat supply since 2019, as its foreign currency crunch worsened. Similar to Lebanon, its options for securing alternative suppliers are limited by its finances.
"The tenders the Syrian regime announced before were so low that even Russian companies refused to sell wheat and European countries would see this as not profitable," Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), told The New Arab.
2021 saw Syria's worst wheat harvest in the last half a century, due to a mixture of droughts and rising input costs such as fertiliser, and diesel. Syria has reportedly cultivated 20 per cent less wheat by area than it did last year, while inputs are costlier than ever due to unprecedented global commodity prices.
Already, 12.4 million people in Syria – 60 percent of the population – are food insecure. In January, the regime removed 600,000 families from its subsidized goods program – sparking outrage among Syrians on social media.
"The rising price of bread will immediately increase public anger towards the regime. The issue is not the price but the corruption behind it," al-Ghazi said.
"[There is] literally a 'Let them eat cake' policy: There's wheat for everything … but the subsidized bread is limited per number of family members and is of poor quality," he added.