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Let Us Eat Bread: Food Insecurity in Lebanon

15 Apr 2022
By Mounia El Khawand
Women’s Cooperative Leader Daed Ismaiel makes a rare, traditional bread called Mallet El Smid to be sold at the MENNA shop in Beirut. Source: UN Women/Joe Saade

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been in the throes of an economic recession, identified by the World Bank as one of the 10 worst crises since the 1850s. Lebanon now faces unprecedented food insecurity.

Years of financial mismanagement, rampant corruption, mounting debts, local and regional political instability, and the COVID-19 pandemic have finally taken their toll on Lebanon. The Lebanese lira lost over 90 percent of its value, hyperinflation is rampant, and around 75 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line. To make matters worse, the infamous Beirut Blast pulverised houses, companies, the country’s major grain silos, as well as the Port of Beirut, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Lebanon’s trade, making the procurement of basic goods and foodstuff difficult for the import-dependent country. The financial meltdown and the growing scarcity of resources have caused prices to skyrocket. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), food prices in Lebanon have increased by 1000 percent in two years. This hyperinflation and food shortage have been further exacerbated by fuel crises, the cancelation of governmental subsidies for fuel imports, the dwindling supply of wheat from Ukraine – Lebanon’s main supplier, accounting for almost 90 percent of wheat, grain, and sunflower oil imports – and harsh weather.

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by the end of summer 2021, 1.3 million Lebanese citizens, 36 percent of the population, and 735,000 Syrian refugees suffered from food insecurity. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found that 60 percent of Lebanese households and nearly 100 percent of Syrian ones are forced to borrow cash or buy food on credit, and a majority of the population skips meals to spare food.

Unfortunately, impoverished families have resorted to other coping strategies besides severe rationing, with children bearing the brunt of such decisions. Aside from going to bed hungry and suffering from the effects of malnutrition, children have also found themselves robbed of their future as they are forced to work to help their families buy food. Forty  percent of young people had to decrease their education spending, while 30 percent had to drop out completely. People are forced to make increasingly hard choices when it comes to allocating resources as the crisis worsens. 17-year-old Haneen told UNICEF, “The money we receive now is no longer enough. Inflation is so high, and incomes haven’t matched this. Every month we have to choose a priority – rent, medicines, food. But we can never have them all.” 24-year-old graphic designer Saheer Ghazzaoui described the situation to Al-Jazeera as such, “It’s like we’re stuck in an hourglass and we’re drowning in sand – that’s what living in Lebanon feels like. It’s like we’re just waiting for the worst and we’re suffering along the way until it fully gets to us.” The effects of the food shortages will only be exacerbated by the coming of the month of Ramadan, casting a grim shadow over the festivities.

With the severe decrease of Lebanon’s grain storage capacity following the destruction of its silos and Ukrainian shipments coming to a standstill, the Lebanese government is racing against the clock to manage the crisis and find an alternative source to meet its monthly requirement of 50,000 metric tons of wheat. Amin Salam, the minister of economy and trade, is considering alternative suppliers, such as India, Canada, or the United States. However, shipments would take 14 to 25 days to reach the country, which is two to four times longer than the seven-day journey from Ukraine. The increased prices and additional shipping costs would cause an additional severe strain on Lebanon’s resources. In early March, Minister Salam reached out to the United States to help cover the acquisition of a monthly supply of $20 million worth of wheat. The government has taken its own rationing measures by ordering that wheat be only used for the production of Arabic flatbread. Other baked goods, including the popular mankousheh, must leave the shelves.

Nevertheless, those attempts are nothing more than stopgap measures and are not a long-term solution. Lebanon is now almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and on the intervention of the WFP to stiffen the hunger and avoid social unrest. Zeina Al-Khatib, a research assistant at Triangle, told Al-Jazeera, “Without a clear government plan in place to restore the national Lebanese strategic grain reserves, there is no viable sustainable alternative.” Unfortunately, severe disunion in the houses of parliament and Lebanon’s notorious chronic political sclerosis have prevented the government from adopting a portfolio of comprehensive economic reforms. This has also compromised Lebanon’s efforts to sign an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

With the government struggling to reach a solution, civil society and the extensive Lebanese diaspora have come together to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Multiple grassroot organisations such as FoodBlessed and Matbakh elBalad have emerged, and their thousands of volunteers are delivering food packages and warm meals across the country. But this approach only serves to curb the effects of the crisis rather than address the root causes of it. It is the duty of the Lebanese government to set its differences aside and untangle the country from the throes of food insecurity.

The first priority of the government should be to restore its grain storage capacity. Next, support must be provided to ground-up, community-driven initiatives that seek to connect local producers with the market, such as Ardi Ardak. Lebanon must build on the United Arab Emirates’ leadership in developing its burgeoning agri-tech sector. Lebanon has the highest proportion of arable land per capita in the Arab World, yet its agricultural sector is criminally underutilised and in dire need of reform. The American Near East Refugee Aid is helping farmers increase their production capabilities, but further governmental intervention is required. As researchers at the Carnegie Middle East Center claim, having Lebanese citizens seek autarky and be responsible for their food sufficiency is undesirable as it is unrealistic and “frees policymakers from any kind of responsibility and accountability.” For this reason, the government must bolster the efforts of the wider community by bringing agriculture and animal husbandry into the formal economy, facilitate the creation of cooperatives, and promote competitive market laws and regulations.

Nonetheless, the agricultural sector is no miracle cure. Only the adoption of a broader set of economic reforms such as “enhancing transparency, improving the performance of state-owned enterprises, particularly the energy sector, auditing of the central bank, a fiscal strategy, restructuring of the financial sector, establishing a credible monetary and exchange rate, and capital control” will help restore confidence in the country and promote financial stability, thus prompting the international community to step up their assistance. Essentially, the world will help Lebanon when Lebanon helps itself.

Mounia El Khawand is currently pursuing a Dual Master’s Degree at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po, PSIA) and the London School of Economics (LSE) in International Governance and Diplomacy and International Relations. She has recently graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a Double Major in Economics and Political Studies and a Minor in International Law.