An Israeli army tank deployed on the border with the Gaza Strip creates a wall of smoke (R) to protect Israeli farmers harvesting their wheat crop on April 30, 2008 in the fields near Kibbutz Beeri in southern Israel. Getty

The Middle East food security crisis and its implications

Q3 2022 Al-Monitor PRO Trend Report

 

Introduction

 

A global food crisis is well underway and, according to World Food Program chief David Beasley, it will be “beyond anything we’ve seen in our lifetime.” The situation is all the more alarming for countries that have traditionally depended on imports of key staple foods to meet their needs. This goes for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where food accounts for 13% of the region’s total imports, compared to 9% in the European Union (EU), 8% in Latin America and 7% in North America.

Long in the making, the situation has more recently been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted global supply chains and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war that began earlier this year and which has further polarized and politicized the matter. Combined, these countries make up around a third of global wheat exports — a key food staple in most MENA countries — and are responsible for 32% of MENA’s wheat imports.  

With food export bans now in place in many countries, rising shipping costs and a widening supply-demand gap, the crisis, if not adequately and urgently addressed, could see shortages of essential food items grow to levels that lead to a notable increase in hunger and malnutrition rates across the world.  

While most developed and high-income countries are likely to be insulated from the outcomes of this crisis in the immediate term, many developing, middle- and low-income countries are likely to face significant challenges to maintain an adequate level of food supply to meet demand, threatening stability in dozens of countries.  

 

1. Food security in MENA: State of play

 

According to the World Bank, half of MENA’s food is imported, with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) importing up to 90% of its needs. However, according to the Economist’s Food Security Index, North Africa and the Levant have been scoring lower in terms of food security compared to the GCC, which has been heavily investing in building its food sovereignty in recent years. In fact, Egypt has the lowest score among nonconflict countries. This could be explained by “the combined impact of extremely high population growth and density compared with the availability of viable farming land for food production,” said Jake Kennedy, associate director and head of MENA at S&P Global.  

Chief among the region’s imports is wheat, which it primarily brings in from Russia and Ukraine. Other common imported foodstuffs include other grains such as corn and soybeans, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy products and vegetable oils.  

Factors explaining the relatively high rates of food import dependency in MENA include unfavorable weather conditions, outdated agricultural practices, scarcity of arable land, water stress and rapid population growth. “With a rapidly growing population, MENA nations must feed an ever-growing number of mouths with shrinking agri-ecological resources,” said Ahmed Helal, director of the MENA practice at consulting firm Global Counsel. The lack of advanced technologies could also explain the high food import dependency in MENA according to Charles-Henry Monchau, CIO at SYZ Group, a Swiss banking group. “Agri-tech in MENA is still in its infancy, making the existing agribusinesses unable to produce at their full capacity and forcing them to import to meet food demand,” said Monchau. 

However, in some cases being heavily reliant on food imports doesn’t necessarily mean higher food insecurity. “Despite even greater import dependency, the GCC has a relatively higher food security than other regional states because it has the financial resources to secure imports,” said Justin Alexander, the chief economist at MENA Advisors and the director of Khalij Economics. He added that, in response to the 2008 food price shock, Gulf states developed food security strategies, which included expanding their storage of food reserves and building relationships with a diversified range of suppliers, some of which are backed up with investments in foreign agricultural land and food companies, including Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia.  

 

2. Russia-Ukraine crisis implications for MENA’s food security

 

As of 2020, the MENA region was home to some 20% of “the world’s acutely food insecure people.” So what does the added pressure from the Russia-Ukraine crisis mean for the region today? The uncertainty that has been brought about by the situation has seen food prices skyrocket and governments have been compelled to take drastic measures, such as imposing food export bans, in order to control inflation and stave off public discontent.  

In a July press release issued by the World Bank, its vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, Ferid Belhaj, said that “as many as 23 million people in the MENA region are at risk of falling into deeper poverty” on the back of the Russia-Ukraine war.   

A prolonged war could therefore have serious implications for MENA countries, especially those highly dependent on Russia and Ukraine for food supplies. For instance, both countries are collectively responsible for almost 80-85% of wheat imports in Egypt and Lebanon, making them the most vulnerable MENA countries to bread shortages and bread price hikes. Throughout most of the region, bread is considered a low-cost source of sustenance and is one of the most relied upon foodstuffs by the population. Increases in bread prices would therefore be detrimental, especially for low- and some middle-income consumers.  

As for countries that do not import essential food items from Russia and Ukraine, such as Algeria and Iraq, they still remain vulnerable to global supply chain bottlenecks, which are driving cost pressures among major food exporters such as the United States, Germany, France, China and Australia. “Those who have not engaged in an active diversification strategy, including toward developing the agriculture sector, will remain exposed to market volatility in the long term,” said Jihane Boudiaf, senior economic and risk analyst at S&P Global.  

Mitigating measures against food supply and inflation risks  

On the back of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, governments throughout the region have taken several measures to hedge against the consequences of the war, including export bans, price controls, and cash handouts to support the most vulnerable and attenuate food inflation. The following are some of the measures that MENA countries have taken: 

Egypt extended the ban on exporting lentils, pasta, wheat, flour and fava beans for three months according to a statement by the food export council in June 2022. Additionally, Egypt fixed the price of unsubsidized bread in late March 2022 to prevent a significant rise in social discontent. However, the export bans on wheat are unlikely to cover the 2022 shortfall, said Kennedy. “The Egyptian government is therefore increasing incentives for domestic production and attempting to diversify import suppliers, most notably by increasing imports of Russian wheat and seeking out India as a supplier.” 

Algeria banned exports of sugar, pasta, oil, semolina and wheat.  

Lebanon banned the exports of some fruit, vegetables, milled grain products, sugar, bread and some types of alcohol.  

Iraq decided in April 2022 to allow imports for all foodstuffs for a period of three months, with the potential of extending the measure into the second half of the year. Although Iraq is facing a constitutional vacuum after the parliament failed to elect a new president in April, the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi decided to grant low-income families a monthly cash handout of 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($68) and suspend customs duties on consumer goods, including essential food items. Nevertheless, Rabah Arezki, former chief economist for MENA at the World Bank and senior fellow at Harvard University, has stated that the reduction of tariffs on imports is not effective as they do not necessarily pass through to consumers, adding that “price controls are very costly.” 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also decided to support low-income families through increasing subsidies and direct cash transfers in the first half of 2022. The UAE in May 2022 also suspended exports and re-exports of Indian wheat for four months.  

Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture is offering subsidies to wheat farmers.  

According to Boudiaf, high oil prices and hydrocarbon export revenues will allow GCC governments to comfortably absorb the impact of higher basic food imports and seek alternative sources of food items.

 

3. Food security in MENA: 2023 outlook

 

  • Food affordability risks will grow  

Data from the World Bank and local statistics authorities show that although inflation has been rising throughout the region, countries including Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia had the highest inflation rates in 2021 and experienced further hikes in the first half of 2022, making their governments and populations particularly at risk of facing a further fall in food affordability into 2023 as poverty rates increase and non-oil business activity slows down.  

Net energy importers, such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, will likely face a more significant affordability challenge compared to net energy exporters. According to Ramona Moubarak, head of MENA research at Fitch Solutions, “Higher commodity prices as well as a stronger US dollar and increased risk-off sentiment toward emerging markets will exacerbate inflationary pressures and lead to tighter monetary conditions with negative effects on economic activity for net energy importers.” On the other hand, Moubarak said, “While inflation will increase and monetary conditions will tighten across net energy exporters, public finances and the external position will significantly improve with positive knock-on effects on growth.” 

According to Alexander, there is no best short-term solution for high food prices in MENA. “It’s largely about how much the government can afford to subsidize and/or regulate suppliers to prevent price gauging.” 

 

  • Food supply risks will remain high 

 

Food availability as well as quality and safety will be additional challenges for several MENA countries. In particular, net energy importers in the region will face higher import and subsidy bills into 2023 especially if commodity prices, including oil and gas, continue to rise.  While the expected 2023 global recession and the periodic recessions in China will weigh on oil prices, it is unlikely they will return to 2020 or 2021 levels of $40-$60. According to statements by the Energy Information Administration, oil prices are more likely to hover around $90-$110.  

Hence, tighter fiscal conditions in net energy importing countries will likely lead to higher debt levels and limited spending growth on major projects in critical sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture, among others, weighing on efforts to boost local food production capacities and limiting gains of small- and medium-sized local companies. 

 

  • Food localization efforts will likely increase 

 

Some countries in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, started introducing more incentives for local food production, including increasing food subsidies, setting financial programs to help local farmers boost production, and simplifying investor visas. Such efforts are important steps toward fostering food security, but they are unlikely to materialize immediately.  

Qatar will likely remain the most food-secure country in the region in the short to medium term. Its high food-security score relative to the rest of the region can be attributed to the efforts taken during the 2017-2020 boycott to boost local food production and diversify sources of food supplies, said Arezki.  

Lessons from the Qatar boycott suggest that when faced with significant supply challenges, a country — granted it has the financial means to do so — could take at least two years to establish alternative supply routes and recalibrate supply chains.

 

  • Social discontent and political instability will grow  

 

The growing cost of living across population segments in MENA will likely result in the emergence of protests for higher public salaries and subsidies and stricter price controls, among other demands. Such instability could weigh on total investment growth as capital outflows increase compared to 2021.  

However, experts believe that a series of anti-government protests similar to the Arab Spring is unlikely. According to Moubarak, political risks will increase in several countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan, amid higher inflation rates and a stubbornly elevated unemployment. Nevertheless, “The perceived failure of the Arab Spring, including the weakening of key opposition political factions that were involved in the movement, is likely to be a disincentive to an exact repetition,” said Alexander.

 

4. Case study: Egypt

 

With 103 million mouths to feed, making it the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt is currently facing challenging and uncertain times on the back of the Russia-Ukraine war. Egypt derives 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, placing the country’s food sovereignty, and consequently government coffers, under unprecedented pressure.  

“Budget allocations for wheat imports, food subsidies and social safety nets are growing this fiscal year (2022/23) compared to last year,” said Mohamed Ashour, senior economist leading the commodities team in Egypt’s Ministry of Finance. “It is a standard practice for the ministry to also have contingencies designed and ready to be employed in case of an emergency and for situations similar to what the world is currently facing,” he added. 

According to preliminary budget figures released by the Ministry of Finance, Egypt is prioritizing procurement spending over public investment to ease the mounting pressure on citizens and preserve commodity availability in the market. To that end, total government spending is set to reach 2.07 trillion Egyptian pounds ($114 million) in FY22/23 compared to 1.79 trillion Egyptian pounds ($93.4 million) in FY21/22, driven mainly by a 32% year-on-year increase in the procurement budget and a 9% year-on-year growth in the investment budget.

“There is no doubt that the persistence of high food prices into 2023 will have ramifications on the fiscal side,” said Ashour, adding that almost 50% of the allocations for food subsidies go to wheat, while the rest goes to rationing cards. 

“Each year Egypt produces approximately 9 million tons of wheat but consumes closer to 21 million tons so there is a considerable shortfall to make up,” said Kennedy. Hence, Egypt imports around 11 million tons of wheat. Fortunately, “Egypt had already secured over 80% of wheat imports for the 2021/22 financial year from foreign suppliers before the spike in prices,” said Ashour.  

Ashour agrees with Moubarak that one of the immediate priorities not only for Egypt but for MENA countries is to meet domestic market needs, especially in wheat. In mid-2022, Egypt announced the amendment of importing standards, including raising the accepted moisture level for imported wheat, which allows Egypt to import larger quantities and eases supply pressures. Additionally, Egypt increased its efforts to diversify import sources, looking at new markets to import wheat from such countries as Argentina, France, the United States and India, said Helal, adding that “Egypt has also guaranteed higher minimum price for wheat contracts with domestic growers.”  

According to Ashour, increasing the minimum price for local wheat contractors is an important measure because not only will it attract local farmers to sell to the government as opposed to the private sector, but it will also preserve foreign currency and increase farmers’ productivity. “Basically, it is a trade-off: Either purchase expensive wheat locally, or purchase expensive wheat from abroad with foreign currency. If the government can buy more than the usual 3.5 to 4 million tons from local farmers, that would easily help Egypt navigate through the current external shock,” said Ashour. 

While Egypt has taken some swift actions to counter the negative effects of the Ukraine war and preserve food security, government coffers have in the process come under increased strain. Efforts to boost local production, particularly grain production, are definitely welcome news but will take time to fully materialize. In light of this, identifying and securing new sources of supply will be crucial to cover the country’s short- and medium-term food needs. In the long run, sturdier agriculture and agribusiness sectors and a more diversified pool of food trade partners could spare the country some of the pains it is currently experiencing.

 

5. Key takeaways

 

⮕No country is likely to be spared the consequences ushered in by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and its implications on food security. Regardless of how much food is imported and who supplies it, most of the MENA region will come to bear the brunt of rising global logistics costs due in large part to higher energy costs. Admittedly, energy-rich nations will benefit from the financial cushioning emanating from record high oil prices while the energy importers will grapple with a widening food deficit.  

⮕When it comes to MENA’s food security, wheat is king. Although health specialists often warn about the undesirable health implications of excessive wheat consumption, for subsistence and affordability purposes, wheat and wheat-based foodstuffs such as bread, pasta and couscous continue to dominate the everyday diet of the region’s population. According to a 2021 opinion piece published by the World Bank, “One third of the calories people [in the MENA region] consume are wheat products subsidized by governments.” With expenditure tighter than ever, any major dietary shift and a subsequent reduction in wheat demand in the near future is unlikely. 

⮕The underdevelopment of agriculture and agribusiness puts the region in a vulnerable position. Although the agriculture sector is a large employer and contributor to the economic growth of some countries, the sector lacks the sophistication needed to meet the demands of an ever-growing population that is set to double in size by 2050 to reach 724 million inhabitants, up from around 380 million in 2000. According to Monchau, indoor farming, the enhancement of food storage practices and optimization of the logistics process are all solutions to boost food security in the region. For instance, shifting to indoor farming techniques, such as vertical farming, that don’t require soil is a way to solve the issue of arable land and water availability in MENA. Furthermore, increasing the utilization of agri-tech will not only improve crop cultivation processes but also ensure adequate storage conditions.  

⮕The lack of integration amongst MENA countries, particularly North African countries, relative to what can be observed in other regional blocs, such as Europe, leaves it more vulnerable to external shocks. In response to the growing risk of food supply disruptions in Europe, for instance, the EU has taken several measures, including introducing a 500 million euro support package for EU farmers most affected by the crisis, allowing member states to derogate from certain greening obligations in 2022 to bring additional agricultural land into production, and allowing member states to apply reduced rates of value added tax and encourage economic operators to contain retail prices. 

⮕The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflicts begs the question of how sustainable MENA’s current food supply network is. Up to 64% of the region is dependent on those two countries alone for their top staple food, which is wheat. At present, it is clear that the region may have too many eggs in one basket, but how far beyond Russia and Ukraine can it afford to look? Some countries are already putting in orders with new suppliers such as India and the United States. Whether this will pave the way toward a more diversified and sustainable food supply network in the long run remains to be seen.  

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