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Russia's invasion of Ukraine may cause havoc for wheat-importing Mideast nations

A farmer harvests a wheat field about 130 miles north of Kyiv, in 2009.
Genya Savilov
AFP via Getty Images
A farmer harvests a wheat field about 130 miles north of Kyiv, in 2009.

BAGHDAD — Russia's invasion of Ukraine could cause havoc for wheat-importing nations in the Mideast.

Bread is more than just a staple of the Egyptian diet. In Cairo, the small round loaves are called aish, or "life."

Egyptians consume bread at twice the global average. To support this love of aish, they import more wheat than any other nation in the world. And recently, 85% of Egypt's wheat imports have been coming from Russia and Ukraine.

This week, Egypt's Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly called a special Cabinet session to consider how the Russian invasion of Ukraine may disrupt bread flour supplies and drive up prices in the most populous country in the Arab world.

Many other nations in the region share Egypt's fondness for bread — and its concerns about disruptions to global grain markets. The Middle East is heavily dependent on food imports.

A bread seller walks in the open air market in central Cairo in 2018.
Fethi Belaid / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A bread seller walks in the open air market in central Cairo in 2018.

Last year, according to analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Mideast imported more than 36 million metric tons of wheat. Most of it came from Russia and Ukraine. And the region's dependence on foreign grain is increasing.

The USDA projects wheat imports by Iraq, Syria and Iran will double this year as a regional drought limits domestic production in those countries. On Thursday, Syria's Cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss containing spending and managing grain reserves in light of the war in Ukraine, state-run media reported.

Nations across North Africa, including Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, also rely heavily on grain imports.

Russia is by far the world's largest wheat exporter. It sold 35 million metric tons of the grain globally in 2021, according to the USDA. And over the past decade, Ukraine has become a rising global grain powerhouse.

Data from the International Grain Council shows Ukraine's exports of wheat, barley and maize have nearly tripled since 2012. Last year, for the first time, Ukraine surpassed the United States in wheat exports, making it the third-largest supplier of wheat globally, after Russia and Australia.

The concern in capitals from Cairo to Tehran is that Russia's war in Ukraine could sharply drive up global grain prices, particularly for wheat.

Bread is so important in Egypt that the government spends billions of dollars each year to subsidize it. Any shock to global wheat prices could be a major blow not only to Egyptians' stomachs, but to Egypt's national budget.

Rising food prices in the Middle East could also add to simmering anti-government sentiment in the region. Iraq last year saw massive street protests over complaints including increased food costs.

In 2018, riots broke out in Jordan after the government slashed bread subsidies, driving up prices by 60%. Protesters angry over a raft of government austerity measures, including the bread price hike, called for the ouster of Prime Minister Hani Mulki. A few months later, Mulki was forced to step down.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.