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Wednesday, March 23, 2022, 15:11
Middle East, North Africa grapple with food insecurity
By Jan Yumul
Wednesday, March 23, 2022, 15:11 By Jan Yumul

Ukraine crisis seen spurring focus on domestic farm output and reducing import dependence

A combine harvesting picks up the wheat on a field near the Krasne village, in the Chernihiv area, 120 km to the north from Kiev, on July 05, 2019. (ANATOLII STEPANOV / FAO / AFP)

While the Ukraine-Russia conflict poses serious risks to food security of Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, it could also act as an impetus for countries in the region to boost their own agriculture sectors and cut the dependence on imports, experts say.

As the world's largest and fourth-largest exporters of wheat respectively, Russia and Ukraine together account for 29 percent of the global wheat trade — critical to ensuring the food security of many countries

“The food crisis caused by the Ukraine crisis will force the MENA countries to reduce the reliance on foreign grain imports by investing in domestic agricultural sector,” Salman Zafar, founder of EcoMENA, an environmental think tank in Doha, Qatar, told China Daily.

But he also noted that as MENA is the world’s most water-scarce region, diversion of water supplies to agriculture produce may precipitate a water crisis.

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Mariam Al Jaajaa, a member of the Arab Network for Food Sovereignty, a group advocating for investment in domestic production of food in the region, has urged the cultivation of food staples like wheat to be promoted to beef up food security, and such commodities to be prioritised over crops intended for export, London-based online news outlet Middle East Eye reported on March 19.

The World Food Program on March 18 warned that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is further threatening global food security, with food prices already at an all-time high.

Jakob Kern, the WFP's Emergency Coordinator for Ukraine, told an online press conference that the conflict has triggered a wave of hunger across the globe.

As the world's largest and fourth-largest exporters of wheat respectively, Russia and Ukraine together account for 29 percent of the global wheat trade — critical to ensuring the food security of many countries.

Food and fuel prices have increased sharply in the world since the start of the conflict in Eastern Europe, the WFP said. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index, they reached an all-time high recently. The price of wheat increased by 24 percent between Feb 21 and March 15, Kern said.

A World Bank blog on March 7 warned that MENA countries like Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen “will be materially and negatively impacted” by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia — their main source of food imports for wheat and cereals.

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Syria, it noted, imports roughly two-thirds of both its food and oil consumption, with most of its wheat sourced from Russia.  Lebanon imports 90 percent of its grains from Ukraine and Russia, while Yemen imports about 40 percent of its wheat from the two countries locked in conflict.

Maroun Khater, an associate professor of finance at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, said the Ukraine crisis will have a severe impact on vulnerable countries like Lebanon and many other non-oil producing Arab countries. While alternative sources of goods are always available, the prices, however, are unbearable, he said.

“Reversing the negative economic trend is only possible in countries with strategic vision, reserves and relationships,” Khater told China Daily.

Deniz Istikbal, an economic researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a policy think-tank in Ankara, Turkey, said the MENA region may be more affected by the conflict as “price increases and decreases in production make imports more difficult”.

“The food crisis may worsen as the economic effects of the pandemic are not over,” he said.

Istikbal said even if the MENA countries look for other sources, not many nations may be willing to export agricultural products. This could open up opportunities to improve the MENA countries’ own agricultural sectors.

According to the 2021 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report, which came out in November last year, hunger in the Arab region has continued to rise since 2014. The number of undernourished people reached 69 million in 2020, or 15.8 percent of the population — a 91.1 percent increase in the past two decades.

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Moderate or severe food insecurity has also continued to witness an uptrend, affecting an estimated 141 million people in 2020, the report read.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 14 appealed for immediate peace in Ukraine to “avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system”.

Meanwhile, experts are also warning about the environmental impact of the Ukraine crisis.

“(The Russia-Ukraine conflict) is not only a human catastrophe but also a huge environmental problem whose impact will be felt for a long time,” said Zafar of EcoMENA. 

“Ukraine had one of the worst air quality indices in Europe prior to this crisis, and Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of industrial plants, power stations and nuclear facilities is causing large-scale air, water and soil pollution, besides biodiversity loss and ecological damage.”

Xinhua contributed to this report.


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