The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in severe disruptions to the global agricultural market. Russia and Ukraine export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley and more than 70 percent of its sunflower oil, with Russia also being the largest global exporter of fertiliser.
Harald Etzbach is a historian and political scientist who works as a translator and journalist. He writes mainly about West Asian and North African issues and US foreign policy.
Translated by Gráinne Toomey and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
In West Asia, the countries most affected by the war in Ukraine are those that rely heavily on Ukrainian and Russian grain imports. These countries are now in danger of a food crisis as a result of supply chain disruptions and soaring energy and food prices.
All countries in the region have recorded a massive rise in staple food prices. The biggest increase was observed in Lebanon (75–100 percent), followed by Iran and Yemen (50–75 percent). Prices have risen by 25–50 percent in other countries in the region. Overall, this trend is expected to continue until the end of 2022, with a price increase of 25–50 percent forecast.
What’s behind Food Insecurity?
According to an assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP), 12.4 million people in Syria — 60 percent of the population — were already affected by food insecurity before the war in Ukraine, meaning that average wages did not cover the monthly costs for basic foodstuffs such as bread, rice, lentils, oil, and sugar.
The situation is particularly acute in north-west Syria. In the enclave held by opposition forces, a large proportion of the population live in overcrowded camps for internally displaced people. Here, over 4.1 million people (as of February 2022) rely on humanitarian help, which reaches Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
In regions controlled by the jihadi militant group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), grain, flour, and other food is also imported directly from Turkey. Yet Turkey itself is reliant on food imports from Ukraine and Russia: 69.7 percent of Turkish sunflower oil imports and 78 percent of its wheat come from these two countries. The situation has been worsened by the slump in the Turkish lira, which was introduced as currency in north-west Syria in June 2020.
In Yemen, too, an existing supply crisis has been worsened further through the instability caused by the war. After fuel, wheat is the country’s second-most important imported good, with half of all wheat imports coming from Ukraine and Russia. Additionally, the Yemeni rial has suffered massive devaluation, which has increased the price of imports and further reduced household income.
Around 60 percent of Lebanon’s wheat imports come from Ukraine. The Beirut port explosion two years ago also destroyed the country’s largest grain silo. There are now few possibilities for storing wheat, and reserves last for one month maximum. In response, Lebanon’s Minister of Economy Amin Salam announced at the end of July that the existing wheat subsidies would continue. From a social standpoint, the country would not have been able to cope if they were abolished.
In recent months, bureaucratic problems have further exacerbated the situation. In March, the Lebanese Central Bank delayed opening a line of credit for the import of wheat, for although the cabinet had granted the loan, it had not issued a decree for the conversion of Lebanese pounds into US dollars. In order to avoid additional bottlenecks, Lebanon was forced to take out a loan of 150 million dollars from the World Bank to cover wheat deliveries for six months.
Current developments regarding increasing wheat prices and food insecurity, however, are linked to structural issues in the region. Since the 1980s, many West Asian (and North African) countries have abandoned their previous policies of supplying their own agricultural products and providing the agricultural sector with state subsidies, preferring instead to focus increasingly on the global market.
These neoliberal policies, sometimes based on the infitah (“opening up”) policy, have dramatically worsened the living situation of the region’s rural population. Many small farmers could not compete with cheap, industrialized agricultural imports and were forced to give up their arable land. An exodus from rural areas led to the growth of the informal economy and to the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of settlements on the outskirts of big cities.
Subsequently, international price increases due to the growing dependence on world markets spread rapidly through the region’s domestic markets. Despite the continuation of state subsidies for some basic foodstuffs, there have been repeated “bread riots” since the 1980s.
As early as the beginning of March, several hundred people demonstrated in THE southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah against rocketing flour and cooking oil prices. In 2019, this city was the centre of anti-corruption protests. The authorities responded with a mixture of harshness and concessions: demonstrators were imprisoned, but subsidies and a reduction in customs on food staples were also agreed upon.
Protests also took place in mid-May in Iran after the Raisi government reduced subsidies for wheat imports, which led to a further increase in food prices. The government announced the immediate introduction of emergency subsidies, despite uncertainty about how they will be financed in light of a massive budgetary deficit.
Even if there is no automatic link between a further deterioration in living conditions in West Asian countries and the emergence of revolts and resistance movements, the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine could serve as a catalyst. During the Arab Spring democracy movements beginning in 2010–11, the connection between a deep frustration with the socioeconomic situation and demands for political freedom and reforms was what made people take to the streets.
Their anger and disappointment have not lessened since then, since the same old structures remain in place. At the same time, there is also massive political repression in all countries in the West Asian region, which has even increased in many cases. The situation at present is paradoxical. The supply crisis is affecting most countries in the region with similar severity and is hitting poorer population groups the hardest.
Nevertheless, protests are limited to certain areas. Connecting protests — like in 2010–11 — in a movement covering the entire region or at least larger parts of it requires wide-ranging organization at grassroots level. It also requires unified political demands that transcend the insupportable status quo and can mobilize people on a large scale. In light of the current crisis, the concept of food sovereignty could play a significant role here.
This concept unites a series of demands: supporting local production and delivery rather than relying on international agricultural corporations and cash crops, humane living and working conditions for food producers instead of driving them into the informal economy, and taking ecological issues into consideration by regulating the relationship between farmers and natural resources. As such, the concept of food sovereignty directly challenges the neoliberal restructuring measures of recent decades and places a clear priority on the needs of the majority of the population and environmental protection measures, rather than on the pursuit of profits and power.