The impact of the Ukrainian, climate change crises on the right to food in the Middle East

Mahmoud Bassiouni
Wednesday 6 Jul 2022

Global food security is surrounded by a number of challenges, especially in developing countries where there has been an acceleration of the pace of uncontrolled urbanisation and the phenomenon of building on agricultural lands, which affects the sustainability of agricultural activity and the effectiveness of the food system.


This is in addition to the increase in population growth rates, rapid climate change, and the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic with all that it has resulted in, including the confusion of agricultural activities, the disruption of supply chains, the high shipping costs, and the disruption of energy supplies.

As a result of these combined disturbances, food prices increased in 2021 by about 30%, compared to the previous year, achieving their highest level in ten years.

According to UN estimates, areas with ​​moderate or severe food insecurity at the global level have increased during the past six years; thus, nearly 820 million people were victims of hunger in 2020.

After increasing by 18% over the past year, recording its highest rate in nearly two decades, the outbreak of global hunger threatens to undermine the UN strategy to end it by 2030.

The risks to the right to food have increased following the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, an aggravation of the global fertiliser crisis sparked by the energy crisis, export restrictions, and trade sanctions, which intensified the heavy burdens that have weighed on Russian and Ukrainian farmers for years.

The Middle East has been struggling for a long time with a torrent of structural challenges to its food security due to the high rates of population growth, the spread of corruption, the erosion of the natural resource base — especially fresh water and arable lands — as well as the repercussions of climate change and the growing dependence on countries abroad in providing nutritional needs.

Consequently, the Middle East has recorded alarming rates of malnutrition due to nutrient deficiencies, renewed conflicts, and chronic crises. A number of countries in the region, especially Egypt and Turkey — which are the leading importers of wheat globally — are anxiously awaiting the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis in order to fill the frightening gap between consumption and local production.

The explosion of the situation in Eastern Europe, with the ensuing harsh and various sanctions on Russia, has led to a rise in energy and food prices globally, as Ukraine and Russia are at the top exporting countries of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil globally.

Combined, they produce 206.9 million megatons of grain, making up a third of the world’s wheat and barley shipments. After wheat prices jumped last year by at least 45% due to the coronavirus pandemic, they continued to rise again over the past two months — reaching their highest level since July 2014 — due to the escalation of tensions between Russia and the west over Ukraine.

Last January, the index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) recorded the highest rate of monthly increase — 6.8%. This is what the organisation attributed to the rising global demand.

The World Food Programme has warned of the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, as “the disruption of the flow of grain from the Black Sea will lead to increased and inflated prices at a time when affordability is a concern worldwide, after the economic damage caused by the pandemic. 

The war temporarily suspended a quarter of the global wheat trade, and about 20 percent of the corn trade, which made global crop prices rise to record levels, while Arab countries rely heavily on wheat produced in the Black Sea region due to its low prices and ease of transportation.

For example, Russian wheat represents 60 percent of wheat imports in Tunisia and 80 percent in Egypt, while most of the wheat imported to Lebanon and Morocco comes from Ukraine.

On average, Russia and Ukraine provide 60 percent of the wheat supplied to Arab countries, which makes the conflict between Russia and Ukraine a threat to their food security, especially under the pressure of drought in countries such as Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

According to the UN, global food prices reached their highest levels in March 2022 as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are expected to continue rising globally.

The current conflict is disrupting the supply chains of cereals and oilseeds and is expected to significantly increase the costs of local production in the agricultural sector. The share of Russia and Ukraine in the world trade of wheat exceeds 30%, 32% of barley, 17% of corn, and more than half of sunflowers, seeds, and animal feed.

Millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa region suffered from the severe effects of hunger and malnutrition long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting supply chains, and causing a contraction in public spending; the war in Ukraine is currently exacerbating the problem.

According to the World Bank, the share of the Middle East and North Africa in the total acute food insecurity in the world reached 20% in 2020, which is very high when considering that the region contains only 6% of the world’s population.

With millions of people still living in extreme poverty in this region, which faces the world’s highest inequality, any rise in food prices is likely to have catastrophic effects.

As the latest IPCC report shows, the Middle East and North Africa are one of the most climate-affected in the world as they mainly suffer from environmental stresses, such as water scarcity and a decline in soil fertility, biodiversity, and marine life.

Communities in the region are suffering from deteriorating food and water security as a result of climate change, and according to UN estimates, the number of people who need food assistance in Yemen may reach 19 million in the second half of 2022.

The war in Ukraine has exposed — just as the COVID-19 pandemic did before it — the fragility of the current food system and its heavy dependence on chemical inputs produced by fossil fuels and on global commodity trade, highlighting the need for a local, diverse, and more adaptable food system.

From a purely economic perspective, FAO studies do not rule out that high rates of malnutrition will lead to a decline in global GDP by 5%.

Also, the absence of stable and long-term food security may lead to an erosion of human capital and an increase in financial burdens on governments to the extent that it overburdens public government spending and causes stagnation in economic growth in the long run.

The war in Ukraine made it necessary to reconsider our agricultural methods and the foods we eat. It also exposed the deficiencies in the food system and the commodification-based industrial agriculture, which is an unhealthy global food system that suffers under the pressure of unsustainable food patterns for the affluent class and the effects of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the decline of soil fertility as a result of the excessive use of agrochemicals.

Therefore, it is necessary to move towards a sustainable food system based on food sovereignty and agroecology to ensure the health of people and the planet.
Southern societies and governments can stop the cycle of neo-colonial dependency by adopting alternative paths of development that prioritise people over corporate profits and ensure community ownership and the equitable distribution of assets, such as seeds, land, and tools. Any sustainable approach must include adaptation to global warming and be based on human rights.

Most countries in the world should take the initiative to participate in the negotiations concerning the effects of climate change. This includes preparing mitigation and adaptation plans, and in particular ensuring that rich polluters fulfil their obligations by compensating for the devastating effects and damages caused by the climate crisis.

The right to food is facing severe crisis in the Middle East due to the Ukrainian crisis and climate changes.

It needs urgent international action to ensure rapid plans and international cooperation that will enable the countries of the region to build more inclusive and sustainable economies to take measures that improve the rules of international trade in the fields of food and agriculture, enhance production efficiency, and develop more equitable food and agricultural systems capable of achieving sustainable development goals.

*The writer is the president of the Arab Network for Digital Media and Human Rights

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