As supply lines from Russia and Ukraine are disrupted, Cairo struggles to meet wheat demand in a country that consumes more than double the global average
Eish, the word for bread in Egyptian Arabic dialect, loosely translates to “living” in English. For Egyptians, bread is life, the staple food of the country’s 105 million people. Politically, bread is a hot-button issue in Egypt, where half of the population lives on or around the poverty line, struggling to get two square meals daily.
On February 2 this year, Egypt’s Supply Minister Ali Moselhy said that his country’s strategic wheat stocks were enough to last five months. He had no idea that the world was about to change.
Less than 20 days later, Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, disrupting global supplies from the world’s two biggest exporters of wheat and grains.
A host of countries that depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports were left staring at empty plates. The most affected are countries in MENA — Middle East and North Africa, particularly Lebanon and Egypt.
Russia and Ukraine are breadbaskets for not only Europe’s rich countries but also many poor ones in the Middle East and North Africa. Grain and wheat are the indispensable vital elements of all importer countries in the MENA region.
Five months into the conflict, Egyptians are paying a heavy price for just “living”.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict—between two agricultural superpowers—has wreaked havoc on the region and has had a tremendous impact on international relations. It has exacerbated the current crises in energy security and geopolitics, armament, global economy and, most of all, food security.
Glauerg and Laborde from the International Food Policy Research Institute argue that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will further disrupt global markets, will have negative consequences for global agriculture grain supplies in the short term, and by disrupting natural gas and fertiliser markets, have negative impacts for producers as they enter a new planting season. This could push up already-high food price inflation and seriously affect low-income net-food importing countries…” since Africa and the Middle East rely primarily on Russia and Ukraine for maize, barley, wheat, and sunflower oil.
Sanctions imposed on Moscow by several Western nations and Russia’s siege of Ukrainian ports will undoubtedly raise global food costs and prices, which have already risen in recent years.
MENA and its fragility
Long before the Covid pandemic disrupted supply lines and decreased government funding, millions of people in the MENA nations suffered from severe starvation and malnutrition. Murphy’s news on BBC quoted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as saying that the “war” had worsened food insecurity in poorer nations due to rising prices. Some countries might face long-term famines if Ukraine’s exports are not restored to pre-war levels. He added, “It (the conflict) threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity followed by malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine.”
According to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2019, roughly 55 million Arabs, or 13.2 percent of the population, were hungry, and the situation is terrible in MENA countries affected by conflict and bloodshed.
In addition to disputes, water scarcity and climate change pose considerable difficulties to agricultural production and rural life in the region. The situation is worse in conflict-torn areas such as Yemen and Syria.
One step to chaos
FAO reported that Egypt is one of the world’s top wheat importers, buying around 75 percent of its supply from Ukraine and Russia.
The huge demand for wheat is due to the fact that Egyptians consume more than double the global average of 70-80 kg per person—mostly in the form of eish baladi, a traditional round flatbread that is the staple of every meal among the working poor.
Though the Ukraine conflict has had a huge impact on Egypt’s economy and food security, wheat prices had soared by 44 percent due to other factors even before the conflict erupted, forcing the government to hike prices on subsidised bread.
Because of recent price rises, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi even urged the government to determine a fixed price for unsubsidised bread, which started at the end of March.
The Al Nahar News Agency reported that on May 21, President Sisi, in his opening speech on Egypt’s Future Project for Agricultural Production, stated that the world is experiencing a global crisis in food prices and supply due to the Ukraine conflict, and Egypt has been heavily affected by this crisis.
Sisi also referred to the Quran’s Surah Yusuf about the necessity to “store up wheat for famine” to alleviate the food crisis with the least harm, drawing a parallel between the present crisis to the famine during Prophet Yusuf (Joseph)’s time and that Egyptians should prioritise wheat planting rather than wasting this resource.
Long road ahead
Due to the dominance of Ukraine and Russia as exporters, Cairo is having difficulty finding new suppliers.
On the other hand, there are grave concerns that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—being constructed on the Blue Nile—could impact farmland downstream in Egypt and increase food security concerns in the future.
Food imbalances could also trigger mass migration, famine and uprisings, and escalate the simmering economic and political issues in the region. In addition, the unexpected natural effects of the growing global climate crisis will also increase food insecurity in Egypt.
Therefore, Cairo must rapidly increase its food supply channels and domestic production mechanisms. Egypt might have to seek help from Gulf nations to handle the present difficulties.
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