Syrian Food Security in Decline as Wheat Shortages Loom
21 OCTOBER 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
Syria’s food security issues seem set to continue this year, as the government warns that the country will need to import up to 200,000 tonnes of wheat each month to make up for domestic shortfalls. According to Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, the Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, the imports are likely to cost around US$400 million ($565 million). Syria’s economy has weakened in recent months, following the economic crisis in neighbouring Lebanon. The crisis has had serious economic consequences for Damascus, which was already struggling after years of civil war. Concerns over government procurement of wheat also grew earlier this year when Kurdish wheat growers increased purchasing prices, directly competing with the government in Damascus.
After almost a decade of war, the Syrian economy is in tatters and over ten million people are displaced, either internally or as refugees. In 2018-19, over six million Syrians were food insecure and another 2.5 million were at risk of becoming acutely food insecure. The situation has grown even more untenable since the start of 2020. As of June, the World Food Programme estimated that 9.3 million Syrians – more than half of the population – are now food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million since the start of the year. Millions are thought to be using negative coping strategies, which include: relying on less nutritious food, borrowing money, and restricting food for adults in order to feed children. Insecurity is especially severe in Aleppo, ar-Raqqa and Latakia.
Syria’s food security crisis is difficult to address due to its complexity. The conflict was the initial shock that eroded food security in Syria. Since the conflict began, Syrian infrastructure and economic activities have been seriously impacted, which has led to an estimated 80 per cent of Syrians living in poverty and all but eroding the country’s middle class. While agriculture is the largest employer, nutritional aid has been as important as the agriculture sector in feeding Syrians during the conflict. Food prices have been high throughout the conflict, while the average Syrian’s purchasing power has significantly decreased – in 40 per cent of households, expenditure on food exceeds 65 per cent of budgets.
Since the start of 2020, a series of shocks have further degraded Syria’s precarious food security. The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures deprived many workers of their usual means of income and, in the early part of the year, panic buying pushed up the price of several staples. Meanwhile, an economic crisis that began in Lebanon has generated shockwaves in Syria, plunging the value of the Syrian pound by 50 per cent in June, further eroding the purchasing power of ordinary Syrians. The price of farm inputs such as seeds and fertiliser has also increased, which has driven up food prices. Banks restricted the release of US dollars, which affected Syrians with Lebanese bank accounts, as well as businesses and importers.
As a result of Syria’s complex, multi-faceted food security crisis, the average price of food has increased by 107 per cent since the same time last year and food security is thought to be the worst it has been since the war began. While wheat production has been low since the outbreak of the conflict, the state’s main grain buyer has repeatedly failed to secure import tenders since last year and Russian wheat aid has been insufficient to meet demand. As the ongoing food security issues are unlikely to be resolved in the near future and with wheat likely to become increasingly scarce, Syrian food security will continue its downwards trajectory for the foreseeable future.
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