Russian soldiers guard an area next to a field of wheat as foreign journalists work in the Zaporizhzhia region in an area under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine.
By Lake Dodson
Six days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, David Beasley, the head of the UN World Food Program, warned of a global food crisis that would occur by November 2022. The devastating war between two of the largest grain exporters has only exasperated this. Six days later, over 200,000 Russian soldiers invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, the world’s fifth-largest grain exporter, third-largest corn exporter, and first-largest oil seed exporter.
Now, places such as Lebanon and Egypt serve as microcosms for the problems faced across Africa and the Middle East. These regions have had a long troubled history with terrorism and insurgency and now must contend with unprecedented food scarcity. Understanding these situations and the impact of recent developments is important for addressing solutions to the current food crisis.
The Middle Eastern port nation of Lebanon has been suffering a string of security and policy problems since the late 2010s. A drop in the Lebanese lira because of foreign economic debts instigated a massive financial crash in 2019. This exponential drop in economic stability caused the price of essential items like home utilities, oil, and, critically, food to skyrocket. Today, Lebanon has the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world.
In the last decade, violence between Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims has increased at a worrying pace. The Lebanese government has failed to do much about the social crisis, as it only began to hold free elections in 2018 after its dissolution in 2012.
In 2020, a colossal explosion along the port of the capital city of Beirut killed dozens and completely destroyed most of the nation’s grain silos. With its reserves and critical food infrastructure gone, Lebanon has been forced to import most of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine since 2020.
The effects of their two greatest food exporters going to war have devastated the Lebanese population. Two hundred thousand have reported going 24 hours without eating, and 360,000 have revealed skipping meals.
During Ancient Rome, the Egyptian province was often considered the empire’s breadbasket. Today, Egypt has one of the lowest ratios of arable land to people worldwide. To account for this lack of sustainable farmland, 82 percent of Egypt’s wheat imports over the last five years originated in Russia and Ukraine.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been treading lightly to not anger either the European Union or Russia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Egyptian experts estimated that Egypt had roughly four months of wheat reserves before it needed to find another source. This shortage of wheat left Egypt scrambling for a new source of wheat and seed oil, allocating a massive $3.3 billion bread subsidy to cover the shortage.
While the lack of imports from either Ukraine or Russia has had a limited effect on the amount of food available in Egypt, food prices have skyrocketed. David Laborde, an analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), elaborates on the complex ramifications of this scarcity, saying, “What’s happening right now—and what is also creating social pressure—is people have to spend much more money on food…Food is still available, but they have to sacrifice other parts of their consumption bundle. This means hunger may now be rising in some of the poorer populations.”
The Tragedy of It All
What is most disheartening about the food scarcity situation among the nations of Africa and the Middle East is that the Ukrainian shipments didn’t stop because production slowed down during the war but because Russian warships are holding the food shipments hostage.
Russia’s black sea fleet has blockaded the coastline controlled by the Ukrainian government since the beginning of the war. The objective of this cruel strategy is the Russian capture of Odesa, home of Ukraine’s largest and most profitable port. With the looming threat of Russian bombardment, Ukrainian merchant ships are unable to leave the local waters, meaning over 22 million tonnes of food will spoil before they can export them.
In light of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been attempting to broker deals with NATO to release his chokehold on Ukrainian exports in exchange for dropping sanctions against Russia. Russia is threatening a completely preventable famine in the hopes that the national economy may rebound from the lifted sanctions.
Until Russia and Ukraine make mutual concessions to allow Ukrainian free trade or the Russian invasion of Ukraine ends, the lives of billions hang in the balance as “Europe’s breadbasket” is pillaged. One of the largest manufactured famines in history is being used as a bargaining chip for a dictator and his losing war.
Lake Dodson is a regular writer for the Realist Review. He studies Political Science and Global Security at the University of Mississippi.