The supply lines between Russia as well as Ukraine are cut off, and Cairo struggles to meet the growing demand for wheat in a country that consumes more than twice the average global consumption. Eish, which is the name of bread in the Egyptian Arabic dialect, loosely means “living” in English.
For Egyptians bread is life, the primary food of the nation’s population of 105 million. The issue of bread in politics is a controversial issue in Egypt where half the population is below the poverty limit, struggling to eat two meals per day.
On February 2 of this year the Egyptian Secretary of Supply Ali Moselhy said that his country’s strategic wheat stocks were sufficient to last for five months. He was unaware of the way things were about to shift. Within a matter of 20 days, Russia launched what it called a “special military operation” in Ukraine which disrupted supplies from the two largest exporters of grain and wheat.
Many nations that depend upon Russian, as well as Ukrainian wheat imports, are with empty plates. The worst affected are those that are located in MENA -which includes the Middle East and North Africa especially Lebanon as well as Egypt.
Russia, as well as Ukraine, are the breadbaskets of not just Europe’s richest countries, but also many of the less fortunate ones across and around the Middle East and North Africa. Wheat and grain are essential elements of all countries that import food within the MENA region.
Five months after the start of the war, Egyptians are paying a high price for “living”.
The Russia-Ukraine war — between two superpowers in agriculture – has wreaked chaos in the region and caused a huge impact on international relations. It has intensified the present crises in geopolitics and energy security as well as armament, global economics, and, of course, food security.
Glaser and Laborde from the International Food Policy Research Institute say they believe that “Russia’s attack on Ukraine could cause further disruption to the global market, and will result in negative effects for the global supply of grain for agriculture in the near term and, by disrupting the natural market for fertilizer and gas which could have negative consequences on farmers as they prepare for the beginning of a new growing season.
This could cause a rise in the already high cost of food inflation and could impact countries with low incomes that import net food …” because Africa and the Middle East rely primarily on Russia and Ukraine for barley, maize wheat, sunflower, and oil.
Sanctions against Moscow by a variety of Western countries and Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian ports will surely increase prices and costs for food in the world that have already increased in the past few times.
Mena and its fragility
Prior to the Covid pandemic slowed supply lines and reduced government spending millions of people across the MENA nations were suffering from extreme malnutrition and starvation. Murphy’s report on BBC reported UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as saying that the “war” had worsened food security in the poorer countries due to the rising cost of food.
Certain countries could suffer long-term famines in the event that the exports of Ukraine aren’t restored at pre-war rates. The official added, “It (the conflict) threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity followed by malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine.”
In a report issued by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) In the year 2019, approximately 55 million Arabs which is 13.2 percent of people, were starving and the situation was horrendous in MENA countries that are impacted by conflicts and blood.
Apart from conflicts, water scarcity and climate change cause significant problems for agricultural production and the rural lifestyle across the entire region. The situation is even direr in war-ravaged areas like Yemen as well as Syria.
One step towards chaos
FAO announced that Egypt is among the world’s leading importers of wheat purchasing approximately 75 percent of their wheat through Ukraine as well as Russia.
The large consumption of wheat can be attributed to Egyptians eating more than twice the global average of 70 to 80 kg per person. Most of it is consumed as eish-Baladi, an ancient flatbread of round shape that is the mainstay of all meals for the poor and working class.
Although this Ukraine conflict has had a significant negative impact on Egypt’s economy as well as food security, prices for wheat have risen by 44 percent because of other factors before the conflict started, which forced the government to increase prices for subsidized bread.
Due to recent price increases and the recent price hikes, president Abdel Fattah el Sisi even demanded that the government establish an unsubsidized fixed price for bread. This was announced towards the close of March.
The Al Nahar News Agency reported that on the 21st of May President Sisi in his opening speech about the Egyptian Future Project for Agricultural Production declared that humanity is facing an unprecedented shortage of food prices and supplies due to the Ukraine conflict. Egypt is heavily affected by the crisis.
Sisi also spoke of the Quran’s Surah Yusuf regarding the need to “store up wheat for famine” to help ease the food shortage with minimal harm. She also made an analogy between the current food crisis and the famine of the Prophet Yusuf (Joseph)’s time and suggested that Egyptians should prioritize the planting of wheat instead of wasting the material.
Long road ahead
Because of the dominant position held by Ukraine in the export market, as well as Russia in exports, Cairo has a difficult time finding new suppliers. On contrary, there are serious fears about the possibility that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which is being built on the Blue Nil–may affect agriculture that flows downstream into Egypt and raise concerns about food security in the near future.
Food imbalances can trigger massive displacement, famine, and uprisings. This could further aggravate the simmering political and economic problems in the region. Furthermore, the unexpected natural consequences of the rising global climate crisis could create more food insecurity within Egypt.
Thus, Cairo must rapidly increase its food supply channels as well as the production processes in its own country. Egypt might need assistance from Gulf nations to deal with the current difficulties.