By Human Rights Watch Reporter
Ukraine and Russia are leading exporters of agricultural products to many Middle Eastern and North African countries, and disruptions related to the war are exacerbating rising food prices and deepening poverty.
“Global food chains demand global solidarity in times of crisis,” said Lama Fakih, the executive Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Without concerted action to address the supply and affordability of food, the conflict in Ukraine risks deepening the world’s food crisis, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The rights advocacy group says that under international human rights law, everyone has the right to access sufficient and adequate food needed to live a healthy and active life.
To protect this right, governments are obligated to enact policies and provide appropriate support to ensure that all people can afford safe and nutritious food at all times. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already led to increases in the price of bread and other basic foods, particularly in the Middle Eastern and North African countries, which are highly dependent on grain from Ukraine, and governments should act with urgency to protect the right to food.
The Black Sea area that is affected by the Ukrainian crisis exports at least 12% of the food calories traded in the world. Ukraine is among the world’s leading exporters of sunflower oil, rapeseed and barley, corn, wheat,and poultry. A large part of the wheat production comes from eastern Ukraine where the conflict is most intense.
On March 9, Ukraine banned exports of grain and other food products to prevent a domestic humanitarian crisis. The fighting could also diminish the coming harvest, particularly if it continues into the start of the planting season next month.
Essential food prices were increasing globally because of disruptions in the supply chain caused by the Covid pandemic, and the conflict has added to that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Many countries in North Africa are reliant on Ukrainian grain and seed oil.
Egypt imports over half its sunflower oil from Ukraine, and the government reduced subsidies for sunflower and soya bean oil by 20% in June 2021 in response to an increase in prices. Imported corn is also an important food source for many African countries, and supply constraints can increase prices across the board, further exacerbating food insecurity, which is the lack of access to adequate safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.
Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat and one of the biggest producers of fertilisers, and the crisis could also disrupt this supply. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, is especially vulnerable as half of its imports come from Russia and another 30% from Ukraine.
On March 4, Russia’s trade and industry minister recommended halting fertiliser exports in response to economic sanctions. Climate change-driven weather extremes also damaged harvests last year. Nearly one in three people in the Middle East and North Africa did not have access to adequate food in 2020, that’s an increase of 10 million people in just one year.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, grain futures such as wheat, corn and soya bean have increased. Futures markets are where commodities are bought and sold for delivery at future dates, enabling speculation in food that UN human rights experts have found exacerbates exclusion and inequality.
Food-exporting countries need to address their national needs but should also work with import-dependent countries to establish alternative supply chains as soon as possible.
These governments should balance export restrictions to protect the right to food domestically while minimising to the extent possible impacts on food supply and prices for other countries. Importing governments should work to ensure that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone.
Many governments in the region have removed food and bread subsidies in recent years, and those that still maintain them, such as Egypt and Tunisia, are considering or are in the process of removing or reducing them.
Some countries, such as Libya, have introduced or strengthened price controls to cope with this food crisis. The crisis highlights the critical need for governments in North Africa to establish, expand or increase social protection systems so everyone in the region can realise their rights to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food and the right to social security.
Governments and international institutions should increase humanitarian assistance to those countries that lack adequate resources. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a food crisis that caused 10 million people in the Middle East and North Africa region to lose their ability to get enough food in 2020 alone,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, focused on poverty and inequality. Libya relies on Ukraine for over 40% of its wheat imports.
The Ministry of Economics and Trade, on February 26, said that the country had strategic reserves for soft wheat to last six months but could not prevent a flour supply crisis in several Libyan cities. According to the World Food Programme, before the crisis from the Ukraine conflict, 12% of Libyans – or 511000 people – would need assistance this year.
Egypt relies heavily on subsidised imports to ensure affordable access to bread and vegetable oil, with more than 70 million Egyptians relying on subsidised bread. Egypt is also the world’s largest buyer of wheat and the largest importer of wheat from Russia and Ukraine.
On February 23, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly stated that Egypt’s stockpile of wheat in silos was sufficient for four months. In mid-April, local production will be harvested, extending the stockpile to approximately nine months.
* This is an edited version of the article that first appeared on the Human Rights Watch website www.hrw.org