Once the breadbasket of the Eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon is facing a dramatic challenge that seemed unimaginable a decade ago: the risk of a major food crisis. A few weeks ago, Lebanon witnessed its first “hunger protests.” Many Lebanese have already stopped buying meat, fruits and vegetables, and may soon find it difficult to afford even bread. Human Rights Watch and the World Bank have both warned that over half of Lebanese households may not be able to afford to purchase food by the end of the year.
How did we get here? Lebanon and its people have been struck by a triple crisis. First, as a result of decades-long political mismanagement and corruption, there has been a dramatic lack of investment in our agricultural sector, which represents a quarter of the national labor force but only 3 percent of our economic output.
Because of Lebanon’s financial setup, it was cheaper to import food than to produce it locally, although our country was blessed with water, sun, rich soil and talented farmers. More than half of Lebanese food is imported, which is both a great shame and seriously dangerous for our food sovereignty.
Second, Lebanon is going through an unprecedented economic and financial crisis that led the country to default on its foreign debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts a 12 percent decline in Lebanon’s gross domestic product this year. People are losing their jobs while our national currency is depreciating rapidly. The price of imported food has more than doubled since the start of the year.
Third, the covid-19 crisis and the necessary lockdown have dramatically worsened the economic crisis and profoundly disrupted the food supply chain. Eighty percent of our wheat has been coming from Ukraine and Russia. Last month, Russia suspended wheat exports as a result of covid-19, while Ukraine is considering a similar move.
My government is taking important steps to address this dramatic situation. We are expanding social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and we are doing our best to provide specific aid packages. We are cracking down on supermarkets and shops that are artificially inflating prices. We have recently adopted Lebanon’s first financial recovery plan and have reached out to the IMF for support — this is indispensable to stabilize our currency and put our economy back on its feet. Last but not least, we are working on a series of measures to improve Lebanon’s food sovereignty.
Lebanon’s resources are extremely limited, and a purely domestic answer will not suffice. In addition, Lebanon is not alone in this situation. As a consequence of the pandemic, a global food security crisis is emerging. The World Food Programme estimates that the pandemic could double the number of people in low- and middle-income countries facing acute food shortages by the end of 2020. To respond to this emergency and avoid a major food security crisis, I call on the international community to design and implement a three-tier plan.
First, attempts to restrict food exports, which some countries have already given in to, must be resisted. These only reduce availability and increase prices. The United States, the Group of 20 (G-20) and the World Trade Organization must step forward and endorse policies on export restrictions. It is self-defeating in a crisis that affects all countries to be building barriers.
Second, I call on the United States, the G-20 and the World Food Programme to co-ordinate a food security policy response aimed at both low- and middle-income countries. Maintaining food supply and avoiding price inflation should be at the heart of this response.
Finally, the United States and the European Union should establish a dedicated emergency fund to help the Middle East avoid a severe food crisis; otherwise, starvation may spark a new migration flow to Europe and further destabilize the region. Explicit warnings came recently from Arif Husain, the World Food Programme’s chief economist.
Food security is becoming a global crisis requiring a coordinated global response. It would be a tragedy upon a tragedy if our efforts to beat the covid-19 epidemic eventually gave way to mass starvation and migration, the effects of which would be felt for generations.
Hassan Diab is the prime minister of Lebanon.