Middle East on the verge of severe wheat crisis over war in Ukraine

Middle Eastern and North African countries rely heavily on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The current war could lead to a severe food crisis in a region already under pressure. Global food security is also at risk. In particular, it could disrupt the wheat supply chain in several Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries.

Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter and largest producer after China and India. And Ukraine is one of the top five wheat exporters worldwide. Several MENA countries are highly dependent on these exports due to the prominent role wheat plays in their regional diets.

Lebanon, for instance, imports 60% of its wheat from Ukraine. Egypt is the world’s top wheat importer, with around 70% of its wheat coming from Russia and Ukraine. Some 80% of Tunisia’s grain also hails from these two countries.

Some parts of Ukraine currently under fire by Russian troops play a pivotal role in the country’s wheat production and export. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), most of Ukraine’s wheat crops are concentrated in the southeast. Blocking access to the Black Sea could disrupt the supply of wheat to the MENA region.

The Black Sea is of strategic importance for Ukraine’s wheat supply chain as exports to the MENA region are exclusively shipped by sea.

“The wheat that people are currently trading comes from the harvest of July 2021. That is before the invasion. Around one-quarter of the harvest is still available over the next three months,” said David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “But the fact that people can’t operate in the port can create a shortage for countries such as Egypt and Lebanon.” How the war will affect food security in the MENA region depends on how long the conflict lasts. Although MENA countries could diversify their supplies by trading with Western companies, transportation delays could cause a severe shortage. Some MENA countries grow wheat themselves, but domestic production doesn’t fully cover overall demand.

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