Pandemic disruptions spark fears of food shortages in Arab world

Levant countries are particularly vulnerable as they are plagued by collapsing economies, conflict and corruption.
Sunday 19/04/2020
An employee of the Tunisian Social Solidarity Union (UTSS) prepares food packages for the elderly and low-income families in Tunis during the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)
Food concerns. An employee of the Tunisian Social Solidarity Union (UTSS) prepares food packages for the elderly and low-income families in Tunis during the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - COVID-19 has triggered fears of food shortages across the Arab region. Distributors and experts now warn that the pandemic is creating significant disruptions in global food networks and inflation in food prices, to which Levant countries are more vulnerable than other Arab states.

A slowdown in shipping, movement restrictions and border closures are impeding the production and transport of food products at the global level. Thousands of containers are now left stranded across ports and airports, as ships and aeroplanes remain grounded because of strict lockdowns and confinement measures imposed by international governments. Fewer ships and fewer flights make food exports more expensive and complicated, warns Hani Bohsali, president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products and Drinks, which represents around 50 importers in Lebanon.

The pandemic has limited the number of ground employees working in transit areas. Fewer containers mean that shipments now need to be consolidated before they are sent to their destination, explains a freight forwarder speaking on condition of anonymity. Clearance procedures are also taking more time, with fewer employees working and greater delays in obtaining shipping papers, necessary for processing merchandise.

“Confinement measures are leading to labour shortage in the food industry,” says Michel Maalouf, a fast moving consumer good (FMCG) consultant based in Saudi Arabia. Restrictions on movement and borders closure could also have repercussions on crop harvests as fruits and vegetables are now left to rot.

With countries worrying more about food security, governments are increasingly adopting protectionist measures, which could have grave repercussions on food supply levels. “Romania has banned grain exports, while Russia has limited wheat exports and Serbia, sunflower oil,” underlines Maalouf.

Such disruptions are already translating in higher food prices. In a recent article, Reuters reported surges in wheat futures, adding that the benchmark Thai white rice prices had already hit their highest level in eight years.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) warned in a report released late in March that a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on food supply chains, involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more.

Making the disruption of the food supply chain worse is the lack of visibility food traders are facing in terms of the infection timeline, points out Maalouf. “No one can predict when the pandemic will end,” underlines the FMCG expert.

“Food is a matter of national security and countries are now making sure they have sufficient reserves. India has enough rice for the next 18 months, while China’s reserves can cover its needs for two to four years,” says Maalouf.

Countries in the Arab world are unequally prepared to face food shortages. The United Arab Emirates has approved a law organising strategic stocks of food commodities in emergencies. It has enough reserves for three months but can also count on the massive stockpiles of the Jebel Ali port. Saudi Arabia has banned sales promotions on food staples including rice and vegetable oil indefinitely. The Kingdom has nonetheless achieved high levels of sufficiency in many agricultural products, with 60% self-sufficiency in poultry, 60% in vegetables, 109% in milk and dairy products and 55% in seafood products.

Levant countries are nonetheless more vulnerable to disruptions, as they are plagued by collapsing economies, conflict and corruption. For Maalouf, Jordan is possibly vulnerable in the mid-future, as it is highly reliant on food items. Lebanon is in far worse shape, as a financial collapse and dollar shortages complicate food imports there. Alia Abbas, general director at the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade, underlines that the country has three to four months of basic staples and that the government is negotiating grain purchases from other countries. Iraq conversely has a margin of manoeuvre as it disposes of large agricultural land. Trading economics estimated that food products represented less than 8% of the country’s total imports in 2014. Syria’s divided political geography could also hinder the movement of grains from east to west.  Oppression, competition and discrimination among the Syrian population could undermine access to food.

Day by day, the coronavirus appears to aggravate food insecurity in the Levant region, already challenged by failing economies and conflict.