There are growing fears in the Middle East and North Africa that the war in Ukraine will lead to a sharp increase in the prices of basic foodstuffs due to declining wheat stocks, which could provoke unrest. Russia and Ukraine supply a quarter of the world’s wheat exports, while Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.
In Tunisia, like many people queuing for bread in the sprawling medina or old city of Tunis, Khmaes Ammani, a day laborer, said the rising cost of living put him in a difficult position. “There is never any money at the end of the month,” he said. “I even have to borrow something. Everything is getting more expensive.”
Nearly half of Tunisian wheat imports come from Ukraine, and the Russian invasion has driven prices to a 14-year high. Despite the fact that the Tunisian state controls the price of bread, people fear that they will inevitably feel the crisis.
“If bread prices go up, that will mean cuts elsewhere,” Ammani said. We need bread.Women line up for bread in Port Said, Egypt. Bread prices are heavily subsidized and have not been raised in decades. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghani/Reuters
Tunisia is highly vulnerable to such an impact, as its fragile economy has been hit by inflation and high unemployment in recent years, and is weighed down by large amounts of public debt. But it is far from the only country in the Middle East and North Africa that will face difficulties in the event of a prolonged supply chain disruption and price increases.
Yemen, itself plagued by war since 2014, imports nearly all of its wheat, with more than a third coming from Russia and Ukraine. It relies heavily on bread, which is thought to account for more than half of the calories consumed in the average household.
Lebanon, a country in economic crisis with record high inflation, routinely imports more than half of its wheat from Ukraine. Economy and Trade Minister Amin Salam said last Friday that the country had enough wheat for “a month or a month and a half.” He added that the government has spoken to other suppliers, including the US, “who have expressed their willingness to help if we need to import large quantities of wheat.”
Abir Etefa, a World Food Program spokesman in Cairo, said many of the goods already affected by the Russian invasion are of “special importance” to the Middle East and North Africa. But buying grain from other exporters has not been easy, she warned.
“There is a surplus in global wheat production this year, but if you look at where the wheat is coming from, that means longer lead times and higher transport costs. [than from Ukraine],” she said.A woman buys bread at the central market in the Tunisian capital, Tunisia. Photo: Mohamed Messara/EPA
In Egypt, where tortillas are a staple food, most of the wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine. Even before the invasion, when prices rose by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021, the government said it planned to raise the price of heavily subsidized bread for the first time in decades after President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said: “I don’t can provide 20 loaves of bread for the price of one cigarette.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli said the government would “make sure that the people most in need are not affected,” but did not provide any details. In Lebanon, which also subsidizes bread, Salam warned that the central bank would not be able to keep up if prices continued to rise.
In a region with a long history of political and social unrest driven by deteriorating economic conditions, especially unaffordable food prices, the risks are clear. Etefa said the global outlook is worrying.
“War leads to increased food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the likelihood of unrest and violence,” she said. “Therefore, the conflict in Ukraine, leading to famine and pushing people into food insecurity elsewhere, could [the] the possibility of unrest and violence in other areas. Indeed, the world cannot afford another conflict.”
Rama Hansraj, director of Save the Children in Yemen, warned of a global “ripple effect” that could cause “additional horrors” in other vulnerable countries.
“In Yemen, 8 million children are already on the brink of starvation. Families are exhausted. They faced horror after horror during the seven years of war. We fear that they will not be able to withstand another shock, especially for the key ingredient that keeps their children alive,” she said.
Tunisian government remains silent about the lack of flour, although the evidence is already clear. Across the country, bakeries are closing early or restricting supplies, sparking growing anger among owners.
“There have been problems with the building for several months,” said baker Hazem Buanani. “Usually we buy flour from mills and the government reimburses us. We haven’t seen any payments in 10 months.”
Habib Awaida of the 80-year-old Sabbat bakery was stoic, stating that “even if we don’t find bread, we will eat something else.” However, he added that the government should reduce Tunisia’s dependence on imports. “We really should consider investing in our own wheat,” he said.
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