Lebanon is perpetually at a crossroads, one where local, regional, and international interests seem to play against each other—all the more so today with the war in Ukraine. Now, tiny Lebanon, all too familiar with the ripple effects of global conflicts, has been almost completely cut off from its staple food— wheat — which was almost entirely supplied by Russia and Ukraine before the conflict.
The country has found no viable alternative to affordable wheat and, without it, flour mills and bakers have had trouble supplying Lebanon’s main food, Arabic pita bread. At the same time, global oil price spikes triggered by the Russia-Ukraine conflict coupled with COVID-era supply chain issues have hammered affordability, and it’s not just bread that has been affected: the price of maize, sugar, vegetable oil, and cooking gas have created an affordability crisis that has precipitated Lebanon’s food security freefall. Understandably, many fear that a vicious food insecurity cycle —currently in its nascence — could be the death blow for crisis-struck Lebanon, with the country finally entering the realm of failed states beset by conflict.
Lebanon can ill afford another protracted crisis. According to the World Bank, the country’s current economic malaise is one of the most severe crises since the mid-nineteenth century. In just a span of two and a half years, the economic crisis has caused the poverty rate to rise from 30% to around 80%, and that’s just for the Lebanese. Syrian and Palestinian refugees — who were already poor and food insecure — are faring worse as the prices of basic staple foods have skyrocketed and the government is scrambling to find other, albeit less affordable, food sources. The government has approached other suppliers such as India and the US to try to secure alternative wheat suppliers. But in a global context where every other state is dependent on Russia and Ukraine for wheat, Lebanon has little bargaining power to secure a sustainable supply, much less outbid larger players.
Perhaps the worst part of the current food insecurity cycle is that it was predictable. For decades, the international community has warned that without a real long-term food and nutrition security strategy, Lebanon’s next food crisis would be deeper and existentially damaging. Import dependency, stemming from 1990s and early 2000s neoliberal economic policies, meant trade and services were promoted at the expense of agricultural production. The result was an inadequate food security infrastructure and financial policies that benefitted elites over hungry mouths. Now, a hugely unequal society underpinned by a rentier economy, resilient sectors such as agriculture are so underdeveloped that Lebanon imports many foods that are native to its territory. Even simple measures have been neglected: Lebanon never instituted a strategic grain silo policy, which would have seen the country build and buy stocks (when prices were relatively low) to stave off shocks like the current one. Such a policy could have taken advantage of the supply capacity of Beirut port’s national grain silos. The silos have now been slated for destruction, while alternative short-term storage alternatives are being patched together. That’s because the country has neither the funds nor the interest in rebuilding the silos—given that their presence stands as a thorny reminder of the incompetence (if not worse) which ultimately led to the Port blast on August 4th, 2020.
The only thing that seems certain at this juncture is that Lebanon’s food security crisis will most likely get worse before it gets better—with no short-term solutions in sight. Right now, coping mechanisms are being employed, both at the individual and state levels. The food insecure are increasingly eating less, skipping meals, borrowing food, and spending less on health and education. The state and the financial system which supports it have resorted to the last resort: using up the very last of Lebanon’s foreign currency reserves to purchase the bare minimum of food supplies. This month, flour mills went on strike to protest the fact they had not been provided fresh foreign currency from the central bank’s reserves. The state scrambled to find a credit line, which it eventually did from IMF funds that were supposedly earmarked to deal with the COVID-19’s economic impacts. These reactive policy strategies look likely to stay in place at least until elections are held in mid-May, and most likely until a government is formed many months after that.
In the meantime, price-taker Lebanon will continue to hope the conflict in Ukraine abates alongside higher oil prices—an unlikely scenario given Russia’s renewed focus on the Donbas region. With no huge breakthrough expected for Lebanon’s opposition in the upcoming election, the ruling class will almost certainly retain most levers of power. Their track record in dealing with food insecurity notwithstanding, the scale of the current crisis compels them to take some action. As usual, that will probably come in the form of piecemeal measures rather than what is truly needed: a holistic solution to the financial crisis, deep economic reform measures, coupled with a sustainable, long-term food and nutrition security strategy. There is, however, some hope.
The contours of an IMF deal have been penned, even if it currently lacks enough substance or support from co-funders to deal with the magnitude and content of key pivotal issues. The programme would be the start of a new process for Lebanon, one where optimists hold that the victory for a significant slice of opposition figures creates a scenario where independents play kingmaker in future parliament quotas. Under this scenario, the financial crisis would start to be resolved, people would gain more access to their savings, and food insecurity would begin to abate. Pessimists will wager that deeper food insecurity in an electoral season is just the right recipe for national instability—something which the political class is all too adept at creating and taking advantage of to delay elections and deepen patronage amidst people growing more destitute. Reality is often found somewhere between the best- and worst-case scenarios. Whatever the case, without a clear, fair, and accountable solution to the financial crisis and a real food security plan, Lebanon’s bellies will soon become as empty as its coffers.