“There are only nine meals between humanity and anarchy,” observed American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis in 1906. More than a century later, his words have new relevance as the war in Ukraine wreaks havoc on plantations.
Recent precedents are concerning. In 2010, Russia banned the export of wheat following poor harvests in the Black Sea region. Egypt, Russia’s largest customer, has sounded the alarm.
Amin Abaza, the agriculture minister, promised to maintain bread subsidies and announced ambitious plans to make the Sudanese desert flourish with new wheat crops. Within a year, food prices had risen 19%, the Egyptian government had been overthrown and Abaza was in jail awaiting trial for corruption.
With Russian warships encircling Odessa and Ukrainian farmers abandoning their fields for the front line, Black Sea grain is again missing from world markets.
Prices have risen faster and further than they ever did in 2011. The last time they hit such highs, in 2008, the pain was offset by rock bottom oil prices. Now oil prices are also rising. Scott Irwin, a leading agricultural economist from the University of Illinois, told the new statesman that the world could be about to witness a food crisis “unprecedented” in 40 years of career.
“It’s an explosive mix,” says Sara Girardello, grain expert at LMC International, an agricultural industry consultancy. “The only way for prices is to go up – there’s no way to avoid that in the short term, unless someone comes from another planet with a shipment of wheat.”
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The extent of the price increase will depend on the progress of the war. Most of Ukraine’s wheat crop is grown in the south, where heavy fighting has prevented farmers from fertilizing their crops. If the war continues until the end of April, they may not be able to harvest their maize. If it lasts until July, the wheat too can rot in the ground.
“It’s agriculture, not industry,” says Andrey Sizov, an expert on Black Sea grain markets. “You can’t just turn the treadmill on and off. If you miss the harvest, that’s it until next year.
Russia and Ukraine provide the vast majority of the wheat that reaches tables in the Middle East, much of it in the form of flour, bread and pasta made in Turkey. “Countries that import a lot of grain from Russia and Ukraine are immediately affected,” says Chris Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Their contracts are being broken. They are not getting deliveries and now they are scrambling to get grain from elsewhere.
Lebanon, which depends on Russia and Ukraine for 96% of its wheat, has asked for help from the UN to find alternative supplies. The country is battling the fallout from an economic crisis that has driven food prices up 628% in two years, leaving 77% of households unable to eat basic foods.
“If this is a protracted conflict, even if it only lasts six months, it is unthinkable what the impact will be,” says Reem Nada, communications director for the Middle East and Africa of the North to the United Nations World Food Programme. “Countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria and Morocco are all heavily dependent on wheat imports. Food is getting much more expensive, and someone is going to have to pay, whether it’s the people themselves or their governments, through subsidies.
Contracts for wheat and corn are usually denominated in dollars or euros, which means governments trying to keep prices low could quickly deplete their foreign exchange reserves, causing a balance of payments crisis. This risks putting governments on the politically treacherous ground of directly raising food prices.
Lebanon’s years-long currency crisis has depleted its foreign exchange reserves, leading the country’s finance minister to warn this month that the central bank lacks the capacity to maintain bread subsidies. As in 2010, Egypt hopes to forestall the need to raise prices by increasing domestic production, threatening farmers with jail time if they fail to meet their quotas.
“You already have unstable governments and local insurgencies in many of these countries,” says Tim Benton, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank. “That could well boil over if the cost of living crisis worsens.”
The countries most at risk are already facing severe cost of living crises. Some 16 million people in Yemen and 12 million Syrians were food insecure before the war in Ukraine. The price of bread in Syria rose 367% last year, four times faster than wages.
“These people who are really dependent on imports for everything because their countries have been destroyed by civil wars – it’s impossible to see how they can’t be really, really badly affected by all of this,” Girardello says. “It’s hard to see how social unrest and humanitarian crises can’t get worse.”