The Ukraine-Russia conflict could starve the Middle East

Food security was already fragile, but the invasion destabilises two key wheat exporters to the region

Russian soldiers distributing food in Syria. AP
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Of the many devastating knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine – in addition to the humanitarian crisis – chaos in global food markets is one that should particularly concern the Middle East. Instability in Ukraine can have a severe impact on the food supply chains of neighbouring regions. It is the fifth largest exporter of wheat, often described as the "breadbasket of Europe".

When Russia – the world's biggest exporter of wheat – is also thrown into turmoil, the situation gets even worse. Together, the two countries make up roughly a quarter of global exports. It is little surprise that wheat prices broke records on Thursday, when the invasion began.

With some of the world's largest government-subsidised food programmes, worst environmental crises and most food-stressed populations, many areas of the Middle East enter this uncertain period under-prepared. Having endured one of the hottest summers on record and plagued by water mismanagement, Iraq and Iran's ongoing struggle with desertification is deteriorating; the conflict in Yemen has pushed more than 5 million people to the brink of famine; corruption in Lebanon threatens its ability to export agricultural produce; eighty per cent of Egypt's wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine.

There is much about the crisis that the region cannot control, particularly climate change, an issue that the whole world has to address. But there is vast potential for the situation to improve. Less than 5 per cent of the GCC's land is arable, but the region is still a centre for making strides in agri-tech. Last year, the UAE launched Food Tech Valley, a project that aims to develop and use modern techniques to both increase the country's food production and make agricultural technology a larger part of its economy. The value of the sector is expected to rise to $22 billion over the next three years.

While there is a concerted plan in most of the Gulf to tackle food security, so should there be for the wider Mena region. Tech can play an important part, as it does in the GCC, but simpler solutions should form the basis. Governments can support farmers by helping them to market their produce to foreign buyers, provide economic protection in tough harvests and work with industry and international organisations to educate farmers where necessary on water management and the transition from subsistence and resource-intensive methods to more sustainable forms.

Simple approaches will work for one key reason: nature has already gifted much of the region with excellent conditions. Farming, perhaps the most consequential invention in human history, began in the Middle East, specifically the area known as the Fertile Crescent, spanning eastern Egypt to southwestern Iran. Roughly 12,000 years later, today's crisis in the region's food supply should serve as a critical warning. From history to modernity, there are plenty of reasons why stressed areas of the Middle East should take longer-term approach to food security.

Published: March 02, 2022, 3:00 AM