The war's role in exacerbating food insecurity, in Beirut and beyond
It is 9:00 am in the kitchen of the Nation Station, and a few dozen cooks are busy cutting freshly supplied local tomatoes, peeling kilos of potatoes, and preparing a brightly colored salad. As the vegetables finish simmering, the smell of spices fills the room, and the last pieces of chicken are added to the roz a djej—a dish made of rice and nuts. The first customers arrive.
Pascale Barghout, a 49-year-old former childcare worker, is a regular here and is waiting for Nation Station to open. Created in an abandoned gas station northeast of Beirut after the 2020 port explosion that killed more than 244 people and injured at least 8,000, this community kitchen provides as many as 220 hot meals a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to Geitawi residents who can no longer afford to eat.
In the space of two years, Lebanon has undergone an unprecedented financial crisis, classified by the World Bank as one of the 10 most severe global crises since the mid-19th century, possibly one of the top 3. While food prices increased by 2,067 percent between 2018 and 2021, a large portion of the population slipped into poverty. The war in Ukraine, with the resulting rise in world food prices, comes at a critical time for the country, particularly those who are already struggling. As a result, more people are being forced to rely on food provided by relatives and charitable community organizations.
Food prices were already high before the Ukrainian conflict. Now we are even more concerned.
“Cheese, dairy products, meat, and fish have been out of our reach for at least two years. With the war in Ukraine and the rising prices, these products are becoming even more unaffordable for us,” Barghout said. “The cost of living in Lebanon is beyond comprehension. Even our personal belongings, that we sell to support ourselves, are not enough. Every day we wonder if we will be able to eat and we rarely have a full stomach,” she added.
While Barghout struggles daily to feed herself, millions more are also indirectly affected by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The war, coupled with other protracted crises, is causing food insecurity for a large portion of people in the Middle East—a situation that many experts expect to worsen.
Disruption of Agricultural Production and Supply Chains for Grains and Oilseeds
Considered the breadbasket of the world, Russia and Ukraine supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, feeding millions of people. With the destruction of land and agricultural infrastructure in eastern Ukraine and the cessation of agricultural activities in a large part of the country, domestic and export production of wheat and oilseeds has decreased considerably. At the same time, a Russian blockade has stopped the transporting of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea, forcing more complicated and more expensive routes. With the numerous economic sanctions that Russia is facing, the country has also seen its wheat and fertilizer exports greatly reduced. As a result, food prices on the world market have risen steadily since the war began.
In March, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Food Price Index, which measures the monthly change in international prices for commonly-traded food commodities, reached a record high with an increase of 17 percent for the cereals price index, and 33 percent for the vegetable oil price index. Given that wheat products provide one-third of the calories consumed by people in the Middle East, and vegetable oil is used in many dishes, these rising costs have a significant impact.
For countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, which are experiencing a depreciation of their local currency, adapting to new world market prices is proving to be even more complicated. Abeer Etefa, senior spokesperson and senior regional communications officer for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region of the UN World Food Program, monitors the food insecurity crisis, and she is particularly concerned about the ripple effect of the war in Ukraine.
“We were already worried because food prices were already high before the Ukrainian conflict. Now we are even more concerned because, in March, they reached unprecedented levels, breaking all records of the food crisis, even those of 2008 and 2011,” she said.
“This war comes at a very difficult time for the MENA region, which is experiencing an economic downturn, contractual crises due to protracted conflicts, and the consequences of the global epidemic that has left millions of people very vulnerable,” she added.
My nieces and nephews cry most days from being hungry.
Combined with rising global fuel and food prices due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of a family’s minimum monthly food needs, referred to as the food basket, became particularly high. The annual increase for 2021, which was already 351 percent in Lebanon, 97 percent in Syria, and 81 percent in Yemen, is expected to be even higher in 2022. In Lebanon alone, the food basket now exceeds the official monthly minimum wage, making at least half the local population and most refugees living in the country food insecure.
On her way home after picking up her lunch at Nation Station, Barghout passed a supermarket where prices have changed multiple times in just a few days. She stopped and sighed.
“I can't even go to the supermarket to buy the most basic products anymore. Simple things like bread and cooking oil are also becoming extremely expensive. If the situation continues to get worse, I don't know what we will be able to eat,” she said.
The Danger of Food Insecurity and the Exacerbation of Economic and Social Crises
With rising prices and the inability of millions of people to access basic commodities, food insecurity is increasing in the region, resulting in more malnutrition and more people going hungry. In Yemen’s Sana’a governorate, 14-year-old Salma*—who lives with her parents, two sisters with disabilities, two brothers, and the families of her two married brothers—struggles every day to secure food. The escalation of the war in 2015 left them unable to pay rent, and Salma’s family is now living in a mosque. The recent and drastic increase in food prices brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it very difficult for this family to fulfill its basic needs.
“Our life is unbearable inside the house and outside the house,” said Salma. “Life is becoming harder and harder for us each day. It is too expensive to live in and the food prices are very high. My nieces and nephews cry most days from being hungry. Usually, we have to skip eating dinner or breakfast, but there are many times where we had to skip dinner of that day and breakfast of the next day to eat only one meal a day,” she added.
As people skip meals or eat poorly to cope with this new situation, other coping mechanisms have wide-ranging social implications. “As families are less able to spend part of their income on education, and are unable to feed everyone, we can expect an increase in child labor, and forced marriages,” said Matthew Hall, regional policy analyst for Save the Children’s Middle East and Eastern Europe regional office.
The situation is particularly worrying and could lead to political and social instability, including famine, potential riots, and mass migration. During the protests of 2011 that shook many Arab countries, the prices of basic food prices rose rapidly, with the Food Price Index reaching record highs, and food insecurity affecting many, exacerbating mass discontent among the population.
“We have not yet hit bottom, and the worst is yet to come. We know that when food prices rise, millions of people can no longer afford to eat, making the situation very volatile,” said Etefa.
“It is difficult to predict whether we will see massive protests like in 2011, but we believe there is a strong link between hunger, conflict, and political instability. Hunger leads to conflict in many cases, and conflicts themselves fuel food insecurity. It’s a vicious circle,” she added.
For many years, the various governments in the region subsidized basic foodstuffs, which contributed to political stability. Conversely, when regimes, for various reasons, had to remove the subsidies, protests emerged. This was the case in Egypt in 1977, when President Anwar Sadat's attempt to remove bread subsidies led to the deaths of at least 70 people after protests were suppressed. Similarly, Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba's decision to lift subsidies on wheat and semolina in 1983 led to a number of disturbances and a crack down that left more than 100 people dead.
More recently, soaring food prices in 2008 played a major role in the massive protests that rocked Arab nations in 2011 and led to the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime in Egypt. According to Hall, the stability of the region in the coming years will be closely linked to the ability of governments to maintain subsidies to keep food prices affordable. Many countries, however, do not have the financial resources to maintain the subsidies.
“Unfortunately, most of the means used by governments to cope with this situation are to lower the standards of subsidized staple foods, especially in terms of quantity and quality. Bread is made with other ingredients such as corn flour and even fewer ingredients to make it cheaper. To cope with the price increase, we also notice a decrease in the quantity of standardized bread available on the market,” noted Hall.
While it is still too early to have exact figures on the number of people who will suffer from malnutrition, past crises in the region have already proven that the impact on people’s health is significant. Even with enough calories, people were already suffering from inadequate nutrition, resulting in malnutrition ranging from stunting to obesity.
A Decrease in International Aid, Aggravating the Vulnerabilities of Populations in Conflict Zones
While the situation is already precarious, humanitarian aid has also decreased in the region. Last March, the UN received less than a third of the pledges on an aid plan needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in war-torn Yemen. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, more than 17.4 million people are already in need of assistance, a number that is expected to rise to 19 million by the end of the year. The number of people facing extreme hunger and starvation is also expected to increase by 42 percent.
As Salma’s mother supports the family by cleaning houses, her married children are day laborers, and the father is ill and can no longer work. Despite their hard work, they can barely put enough food on the table or cover the medications needed for the father and the two girls with disabilities. Showing one of the meals consisting of bread, laban (yogurt), and a tomato sauce that the family usually has, Salma describes a particularly difficult daily life.
“When there is no food available, it means we will be hungry. We have no choice, when there is no money, it means that the two meals we eat might not be available, and we will probably sleep hungry that night,” she said. “We are buried with loans. We buy bread and yogurt from the store next to our house. At times we buy potatoes as well, and sometimes tomatoes, to make the sauce for dipping. My mom is old and works so hard. When she has money, the first thing she does is pay the store owner a little of the loan, so he can let us buy from him again during the month,” she added.
With agriculture largely affected by the consequences of climate change in the eastern part of the country, and a prolonged conflict, Syria has also seen its international aid cut in half for the 2022 budget. While more than three-quarters of the population, representing 12 million people, are already suffering from acute food insecurity, at least 1.2 million people are at risk of going hungry. With the ripple effect of the war in Ukraine, millions of people like Salma and Barghout are plunged into growing food insecurity. According to the various experts interviewed for this article, the war in Ukraine only underscores and worsens the food security problem that has been present in the Middle East for several years.
“Even if the war in Ukraine were resolved tomorrow, with the agreement of both sides, and the naval blockade lifted, we would still have a food security crisis in the Middle East that is worsening over time,” said Hall.
Decreasing Middle East and North African dependence on food imports is a priority for improving food security in the region. Developing domestic agriculture while taking into account the consequences of climate change, improving food storage, and implementing economic strategies to manage the economic risks associated with food price fluctuations are among the various solutions being explored to improve the situation.
*Name changed to protect identity.
Clément Gibon is a freelance French journalist and photographer who has been based in Lebanon since 2019. He has collaborated with the NGO Act for the Disappeared and the Samir Kassir Foundation, among others. His experiences have led him to develop a particular interest in issues related to socioeconomics, political governance, and security in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Cover photo: Destruction of grain silos in the port of Beirut two years after the explosion. Courtesy Clément Gibon