Coronavirus: Wheat shortages and rising food prices spell disaster for cash-strapped Lebanon

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Restrictive measures taken to tackle Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with a pre-existing economic crisis, have affected Lebanon’s food security

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Employees wearing personal protective equipment pack bread at a bakery in the Lebanese capital Beirut on 30 March 2020 (AFP)

in Beirut

On the other end of the line, Lama’s voice was overpowered by background chatter as she attempted to describe current conditions in the southern Lebanese city of Saida.

“The situation is terrible!” she said.

Lama is one of a number of volunteer social workers who have been working day and night to secure food packages for households in Saida’s poorer districts, where she says a humanitarian crisis has worsened amid measures taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As of Friday, Lebanon had recorded confirmed 609 cases of Covid-19, including 20 deaths.

With the coronavirus spreading, coupled with the fact that Lebanon has for months struggled with economic woes, Lama and her colleagues have now made food security their new priority.

“We first started by setting up a team to sanitise homes and streets, and deliver boxes with disinfectants, detergents and other sanitary equipment to the homes of poor people,” she told Middle East Eye. “But now we’re handling the food situation … prices have inflated abnormally.”

Lebanon has been under lockdown since 15 March, with a night curfew and other restrictions on movement.

The country has also been facing a fiscal crisis, with its local currency losing almost 50 percent of its value while the country deals with a severe shortage in US dollars.

The new nightly curfews and travel restrictions in response to the Covid-19 outbreak have spelt disaster for much of the country’s population. Now homebound with little or no income, the arbitrary inflation in prices of essential goods deals another blow to the population.

The likelihood of a food security crisis in cash-strapped Lebanon became more apparent after news broke that the government might be importing some 80,000 tonnes of wheat for the first time since 2014.

A representative of the Syndicate of Bakery Workers in Beirut and Mount Lebanon told MEE that the situation had become unsustainable.

“Owners [of bakeries] are dealing with the negative impact of the situation and are somewhat able to handle the losses so far,” he said. “But as long as the dollar gets more expensive, so will the price of wheat.”

A legitimate concern

To be concerned about the country’s food security based on these developments is “very legitimate”, says agricultural economist Souhad Abou Zaki.

“Bread and cereals constitute around 35 percent of our daily energy intake … so its availability is essential for food security,” Abou Zaki told MEE.

Though Lebanon produces and exports wheat, it also relies on imports by private companies, especially from Russia and Ukraine. “Most of the wheat we consume is imported, and the government’s ability to import is getting more and more constrained due to declining dollar reserves,” Abou Zaki added.

Between 2018 and 2019, Lebanon only produced 130,000 tonnes of wheat, while importing almost 1.6m tonnes, nearly tripling its wheat imports from Ukraine that year.

Lebanese millers have warned of a supply crisis if dollars are not supplied to help facilitate imports.

But that was in September 2019, when the Lebanese pound was pegged at 1,507 to the US dollar. The situation today is far worse; Lebanon’s currency is worth almost 50 percent less than in September, now standing at 2,800 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

While the details of the government’s wheat import plan remain unclear, Abou Zaki said what was certain was that it isn’t the sustainable solution the country needs.

“We need to allocate more resources and efforts on increasing domestic wheat production using more land to grow wheat,” she told MEE. “It’s definitely not a quick fix, but it’s time to start at least.”

Most importantly, she said, these measures need to be done in a clear and systematic manner, “not in a random way”.

“The situation is critical, and we seriously need to work on lowering the amount [of imports],” she said.

The Ministry of Economy did not respond to MEE’s requests for a statement.

Skyrocketing food costs and rampant poverty

In addition to a potential shortage of wheat and other essential items, residents of Lebanon have to contend with the soaring inflation of food prices in markets. These price hikes have been implemented in response to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, but have been done arbitrarily without any state-imposed controls.

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A Lebanese man sits by a fresh produce stall in the market of the historic part of the southern coastal city of Saida on 6 April 2020 (AFP)

The World Food Programme (WFP) said in a February report that prices for essential food items inflated by almost 35 percent between September 2019 and January 2020. The prices of sugar and vegetable oil alone had increased by about 47 percent since October 2019.

These findings were reported prior to Lebanon defaulting on its foreign debt and the Covid-19 outbreak – and the situation was now far worse, Lama tells MEE.

“Prices have gone up by more than 60 percent,” the volunteer said. “Even fruits and vegetables.”

Prime Minister Hassan Diab toured supermarkets in Beirut on Wednesday, though he did not find any “jarring” price hikes except for a few cases.  “A 70 percent hike in prices is rejected,” Diab added.

Alongside the prime minister on this tour was Economy Minister Raoul Nehme, who last month said there was an “abundance” of food and other consumer items.

Last November, the World Bank warned that poverty in crisis-hit Lebanon could affect 50 percent of its population. Many economists fear that, considering current developments, that number could be higher. Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns that over half the Lebanese population could not afford food and other necessities.

‘It [the state] didn’t provide any of the conditions or resources people needed to be able to stay home’

– Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch Lebanon

The Lebanese government is giving families in need a one-time payment of 400,000 Lebanese pounds, which currently equates to just $150. However, there is no news about the plan’s implementation nor how it will be distributed.

Meanwhile, the Social Affairs Ministry has allocated around $12m to provide food and medicine for 100,000 vulnerable families. While the Lebanese army has distributed aid packages in various locations, further details on these plans remain unclear.

The Ministry of Economy, however, has admitted that this aid would only support about a quarter of families in need, and that the state’s resources were far too limited to do more.

Back in Saida, Lama has been critical of the efficiency of state-sponsored initiatives.

“We have about 50,000 [people] – at least – who have not received anything,” she said. “It seems that things will take a while [to be implemented] – you know how slow things are here.”

While recognising Lebanon’s efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub believes that the state’s humanitarian response has been “uncoordinated and inadequate”.

“It didn’t provide any of the conditions or resources people needed to be able to stay home,” Majzoub told MEE. “There is an obligation to provide an adequate standard of living and provide basic services and necessities – particularly food.”

This applies even for countries with limited resources, such as Lebanon, she said.

While the Lebanese government has frozen utility bills and other payments, Majzoub called for authorities to suspend them altogether.

“When this crisis ends, it’s unlikely that people who haven’t been working for several months will suddenly be able to pay all of the utility bills that they owe from those months,” she explained, also suggesting “a moratorium on [home] evictions to help families cope with the economic crisis”.

Whether or not that aid arrives, Lama and community workers are not anticipating a positive resolution to the situation anytime soon. She and her colleagues in Saida are now preparing to open a kitchen to feed 500 families a day as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.

“You have to give people their basic needs: food, drink, and medicine,” Lama said. “People can’t just stay at home and rely on some aid that comes weekly or every two weeks – if it reaches them in the first place.”