The massive explosion at a port in Beirut has drawn attention to food insecurity in Lebanon. The blast killed at least 200 people and injured a further 6,000. It also destroyed the port and caused significant damage to surrounding parts of the city. The explosion was also responsible for the destruction of a 120,000-tonne capacity grain silo, which was Lebanon’s only large-scale structure of that type. Although only 15,000 tonnes of grain was stored in the silo at the time of the explosion, Lebanon has no strategic grain reserves despite importing 90 to 95 per cent of its grain. The loss of the port will also complicate the logistics of importing grain. Prior to the incident, Lebanon was already on the cusp of a food security crisis, due to its grim economic situation.
The last quarter of 2019 saw a major economic crisis hit Lebanon. By November, the country had the third-highest debt-to-GDP rate in the world, 37 per cent youth unemployment and 25 per cent total unemployment, after the unravelling of what has been described as a state-backed “Ponzi scheme”. The Lebanese pound has lost 80 per cent of its value over the last year and talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure a US$10 billion ($13.9 billion) loan stalled in July.
As the Lebanese economy weakened, there were fears that the situation could grow into a food security crisis. Food prices soared as the value of the pound dropped and the state-controlled price of a bag of flatbread (a staple in Lebanon) has risen by a third. Similarly, the total cost of food has risen by 190 per cent since last year, which has limited the ability of poor and middle-class Lebanese to afford the price of basic goods. Lebanon also has the largest refugee population per capita of any country in the world, most of whom work in the informal sector, where work has become increasingly difficult to find. The country’s large refugee population is therefore especially at risk of food insecurity.
It is also likely that the dire circumstances will not only reduce access to food, but also its availability. A drop in purchasing power has also made it difficult for farmers to purchase inputs, such as seeds and fertiliser, which are usually bought on credit. Loans are usually paid back after the harvest, but the economic crash has left many struggling to pay creditors, who in turn are unwilling to approve loans for the next harvest cycle. That adds to existing structural flaws in the Lebanese agricultural system. Farms are typically small-scale, with poor connections to retailers and inadequate cold storage.
An inefficient and costly local agriculture system has left Lebanon almost entirely reliant on foreign food imports. During times of economic normality that helps to keep food prices low, as importers take advantage of economies of scale by buying goods, such as wheat, from places like Russia or Ukraine. Amid great economic difficulty, however, Lebanese importers are forced to spend increasingly large amounts just to import basic goods, a cost that is passed on to consumers. Even bread price controls are no longer guaranteed, as the government struggles to find funds to subsidise those basic staple foods.
In the aftermath of the explosion at the Beirut port, there have been significant changes in Lebanon. The entire government has resigned and there have been promises of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aid, much of which has been pledged towards improving food security. While that may help a significant number of those struggling to put food on the table, the country urgently needs deep reforms to ensure food security beyond this crisis.