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The war in Ukraine has dire humanitarian consequences. Beyond direct impacts nationally, the disruption to agriculture and markets will have severe implications for countries dependent on food imports from Ukraine. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, for instance, buys more than 50 per cent of Ukraine’s total wheat supply. The Group of Seven (G7) agricultural ministers have discussed and acknowledged the looming food security crises in these import-dependent countries, but with no mention of the possible impacts of exacerbated food insecurity on conflict dynamics in conflict-affected countries. Yet this is essential given the interconnectedness between hunger and conflict.
A case in point is Lebanon, which is particularly reliant on wheat from Ukraine. Agriculture is a neglected sector of the Lebanese economy and local production meets only 20 per cent of domestic demand, with significant dependence on imports of grains. In 2020, total wheat imports amounted to 630 000 tonnes, 80 per cent of which was procured from Ukraine. The disruption to this supply and the expected price increase is concerning in a country that reportedly has only a few weeks’ worth of wheat supplies. The low levels are partly due to the large-scale destruction of grain silos that held 85 per cent of the country’s grain reserves during an explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020.
The looming food security crisis will be the latest in a series of shocks and crises that have hit Lebanon over the past few years. It will put even more pressure on a country that is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Beirut port blast and an unprecedented breakdown of the financial system—the costs of which have largely been borne by ordinary people. Annual inflation reached 201 per cent in November 2021, the national currency is severely devalued, the government’s foreign currency reserves are depleted and nearly three quarters of the population are estimated to live in poverty. The fallout from the war in Ukraine and its impacts on the availability of and access to food will likely further exacerbate poverty levels among the already struggling Lebanese population.
The impending food security crisis threatens to further damage state–society relations in Lebanon, with serious repercussions for stability in a deeply divided society that is still haunted by the memory of violence and conflict. With food shortages and rising prices adding to the grievances of the local population, the risk of a new round of protests and social unrest is high. Demonstrations over soaring food and energy prices have already taken place in countries like Iraq and Morocco. The fragile socio-economic conditions in several MENA countries, together with challenges linked to climate change such as severe droughts and water scarcity, further aggravate these countries’ vulnerability. The current situation is reminiscent of 2011 when food insecurity and rising food prices exacerbated existing tensions, contributing to the eruption of uprisings across the region.
In 2019, Lebanon witnessed mass protests as thousands of people took to the streets to demand a change to the political system and the ruling elite, who they blamed for the country’s socio-economic hardships. Government paralysis and the failure to implement desperately needed reforms even led the World Bank to describe the country’s economic and financial crisis in 2020 as a ‘deliberate depression’. In a context of sectarian power sharing and weak institutions, the deep entanglement of business and political elites has led to rampant corruption, which has undermined the capacity of the state to provide basic public services. These enduring political and socio-economic challenges are then compounded by threats to Lebanon’s security and stability due to broader geopolitical tensions in the region and the war in neighbouring Syria. The influx of refugees into Lebanon has also impacted the country’s natural resources, especially water.
Against this backdrop, the looming food crisis seems like yet another instance of how the haggling, irresponsibility and indifference of ruling elites have left Lebanon vulnerable to crises and shocks. Mounting fears over food insecurity and the tensions they might engender are also likely to cast a shadow on the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2022. However, it remains to be seen in what direction the country’s compounding crises will steer its citizens: constituting an incentive for voters to support new, reform-minded political movements or forcing them to turn to sectarian patrons for aid and assistance.
The humanitarian response to the complex crises in Lebanon is overwhelmingly cash-based. Both vulnerable Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese households receive monthly cash transfers to meet their basic needs. Increasing food prices and decreasing supplies of staple foods due to the war in Ukraine could pose a significant challenge to the effectiveness of this response, as recipients of cash transfers rely on the market to buy food. A further increase in food prices without a concurrent increase in transfer value would hinder recipients’ access to food on the market.
However, an increase in transfer value will not be an easy sell to the Lebanese Government. It has been reluctant to allow an increase beyond LL 100 000 per person per month ($4.5 at the current market rate) in response to the inflation and currency devaluation seen since 2020, citing concerns that such an increase would fuel social tensions between refugee and hosting communities and discontent among the Lebanese population—the average monthly salary of Lebanese workers stands at just LL 650 000 ($30). Only in September 2021, as the cash transfer response to vulnerable Lebanese households was scaled up, were humanitarian agencies able to increase the value to LL 300 000 ($14). There have been no reports of increased social tensions as a result, although the negative perception of relations between Syrian and Lebanese communities has steadily increased since 2020. A food security crisis could, therefore, reignite the dilemma that humanitarian agencies face as they weigh providing meaningful transfers against broader concerns over conflict sensitivity.
Shifting to in-kind food parcel deliveries instead of cash transfers might seem like a logical alternative for the humanitarian response in Lebanon. Yet this is not desirable either, given the shortcomings in terms of lack of choice and dignity. Nor is it an easily implementable alternative, as the United Nations World Food Programme procured more than half its food supplies from Ukraine before the war.
The growth and strengthening of the agricultural sector in Lebanon could be a path towards economic recovery. However, an increase in prices for agricultural input, including fertilizers and fuel, due to the war in Ukraine is a major obstacle. Russia and Belarus, which have both been sanctioned over their active engagement in the war, are responsible for a large market share in agricultural fertilizers. While the sanctions do not target agricultural input directly, sanctions in other sectors (e.g. finance and transport) have driven up already high prices for fertilizers worldwide. The agricultural sector in Lebanon is characterized by high input costs, which have significantly increased with the currency devaluation since 2020 and are now magnified by the fertilizer price increases. Such high costs have made it necessary for farmers to shift from a traditionally generous use of chemical fertilizers to low-input farming, using substitutes such as manure or compost when possible. This shift is expected to result in lower yields and lower marketable production.
Yet even if local wheat production were maximized, it could never meet demand; even if Lebanon’s agricultural sector could be improved and strengthened, this would do little to mitigate the impending food security crisis in the short to medium term. It will take a long time to reduce the country’s dependence on agricultural and food imports.
The war in Ukraine poses a serious threat to food security in Lebanon, which could have devastating humanitarian consequences. The looming food security crisis is likely to exacerbate already strained state–society relations in the country, further threatening social and political stability. This in turn could have serious repercussions for stability and security in the region as whole. Therefore, it is important that states show solidarity with Lebanon and other countries facing food insecurity, by helping them secure the food products they need from alternative suppliers at reasonable costs. It is also crucial that humanitarian actors delivering much-needed aid to vulnerable populations are given the necessary funding to continue their work. In the longer term, however, Lebanon needs to make structural changes to enhance its agricultural sector and ensure its food security and sustainability, with support from relevant international organizations and external actors.
This blog post is the second of a three-part series that explores threats to food security posed by the war in Ukraine.