Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the vulnerabilities, corruption and violence behind the energy system. It is also accelerating a global food crisis. Some regions are more strongly impacted than others. Like the COVID-19 crisis, this war is affecting agriculture, food production and directly threatening food security.
Existing inequalities are compounded. In West Africa for example, where livelihoods are already jeopardised by overfishing and destructive fish oil and fishmeal industries, hunger has reached record highs. In the Middle East and North Africa where I live, a region that includes already-fragile countries like Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, many households are struggling against soaring food prices.
What’s going on
According to the UN, global food prices rose to their highest ever levels in March 2022 as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and food prices are expected to keep rising globally.
Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries depend mainly on Ukraine and/or Russia for their food imports, particularly wheat and grain. Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest grain exporters. In 2020, Russia accounted for 18.7% of global exports of wheat, while Ukraine accounted for 9.1% over the same period. Forty percent of wheat and maize exports from Ukraine go to the MENA region.
The ongoing conflict is disrupting the supply chains of cereals and oilseeds, increasing food prices, and is expected to significantly raise domestic production costs in the agricultural sector. Russia and Ukraine comprise over 30% of global trade in wheat, 32% of barley, 17% of maize and over half of sunflower oils, seeds and animal feed.
For example, Lebanon is highly dependent on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia to produce its widely consumed traditional Arabic bread. Customs figures show that in 2020, Lebanon imported 81% of its wheat from Ukraine and 15% from Russia.
Why it matters
Millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa were suffering from severe effects of hunger and malnutrition long before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and put a squeeze on public spending. Now the war in Ukraine is worsening food insecurity.
According to the World Bank, in 2020, MENA’s share of the world’s acutely food insecure people was 20%, even though the region is home to only 6% of the world’s population.
With millions of people living in profound poverty in what remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, any rise in food prices is likely to be devastating.
History has shown time after time that political stability is impacted by people’s ability to afford food. There is a cyclical relationship between food insecurity and conflict: acute food insecurity can exacerbate conflict, and violent conflict is a major driver of food insecurity.
What we’re saying about it
As the latest IPCC report shows, the MENA region is one of the most climate vulnerable regions in the world.
The MENA region is already experiencing environmental stress such as water scarcity, air pollution, and poor waste management, as well as loss of soil fertility, biodiversity and marine life. Communities here are feeling the impacts of climate breakdown on food and water security.
Reduced crop yields and incomes, especially for small farmers, will have negative impacts on livelihoods, particularly for the poorest, most vulnerable households who depend on agriculture for their living.
At the same time within the region, the situation in Yemen has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Earlier this month, the United Nations voiced disappointment after a pledging conference raised less than a third of the money it said was needed to prevent a worsening of the ongoing catastrophe in war-torn Yemen. According to UN figures, the number of people needing food assistance in Yemen could rise to 19 million in the second half of 2022.
Fossil fuels are also directly threatening food security in the MENA region: millions of people could be impacted by an oil spill or an explosion of the oil carried by the abandoned FSO Safer oil tanker. Coastal Red Sea fishing communities could be severely impacted and fisheries could be contaminated for the long term.
What needs to happen
The war in Ukraine – much like the COVID-19 pandemic – highlights the fragility of our current food system with its over-reliance on fossil fuel-derived chemical inputs and global commodities trade, and points to the need for a more resilient, local and diverse food system.
National governments need to design and finance public policies that build long-term resilience and reinforce food sovereignty of local communities. Specifically we need to shift away from industrialised food production and towards the relocalisation of food that’s healthy for people and the ecosystems we depend on.
Local food, local farming
We need to rethink how we farm and what we eat. The Russia-Ukraine war has further exposed the fault-lines in industrial and commodity-based food and farming. A broken global food system that’s straining under increasingly unsustainable diets of the super rich, the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, and the declining health of soils due to the overuse of agrochemicals.
Numerous farming initiatives led by civil society or grassroots movements are working to foster food sovereignty in the MENA region. For example in Jordan, people are converting unused urban land into productive wheat fields. In Lebanon, communities hit hard by the pandemic have organised to promote urban farming and community gardens.
Social justice, climate justice
Communities and governments in the Global South can break the cycle of neo-colonial dependency by adopting alternative pathways to development. Pathways that put people first rather than corporate profits, and ensure that assets such as seeds, land and tools, are community-owned and equitably distributed. Any sustainable approach must include adaptation to global heating and be firmly grounded in human rights.
Majority world countries need to play a proactive role in negotiations on the impacts of climate change. This includes plans for mitigation and adaptation and, critically, ensuring that rich polluting countries deliver on outstanding commitments to pay towards the devastating loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.
Nothing will be given if we don’t demand our rights.
Mohammed Tazrouti is a campaigner with Greenpeace MENA based in Morocco.