BEIRUT: Lebanon’s wheat crisis is being exacerbated by bureaucracy, as the price of the grain continues to soar, according to a senior official.
More than two weeks ago, the Cabinet granted the General Directorate of Grains and Sugar Beets an advance of 36 billion Lebanese pounds ($1.6 million) to buy 50,000 tons of wheat, which would have been sufficient to meet the country’s needs for a month. But the advance was never received as a decree was not issued.
“Since no decree was issued to allow the directorate to ask the central bank to convert the 36 billion Lebanese pounds into dollars, the minister of economy resorted to requesting exceptional approval from the Cabinet, which convened on Wednesday to obtain an additional amount,” Georges Berbari, the general director of grains and sugar beets, said.
“The administrative measures for the process of buying wheat take a long time. Meanwhile, international prices are rising. The amount allocated two weeks ago is no longer sufficient to purchase 50,000 tons of wheat,” he said.
“The situation is very stressful amid the decreasing wheat stocks. The important thing is to get any amount quickly, even if it will only secure 30,000 or 40,000 tons of wheat.”
Ahmad Hoteit, the president of the Association of Mills in Lebanon, said: “The Ukrainian crisis has begun to have repercussions on Lebanon. Wheat shipments may arrive next week at higher prices, and given the high demand, the country that pays more gets the wheat. We asked Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the central bank not to delay securing the credits.”
Lebanon consumes about 600,000 tons of wheat a year, of which 80 percent is imported from countries like Ukraine and Russia. But it is facing a severe financial crisis, prompting the state to gradually lift subsidies on dozens of vital materials, including fuel, medicine and flour.
Despite the problems, Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan dismisses claims the country is facing a wheat crisis.
“The minister of economy has communicated with the U.S., Canada, Australia, India and other markets to import wheat from them,” he said.
“We are waiting for the central bank to open credits, and the ministry’s agricultural research department has warehouses ready for storage.”
The silos at Beirut port were traditionally used to hold Lebanon’s wheat and grain stocks but they were destroyed by an explosion in August 2020. As an alternative storage facility has yet to be found, imported wheat is now transferred directly from the port to mills.
Hoteit said he expected the price of a bundle of bread to rise in line with the increase in the cost of imported wheat and in the event that subsidies on flour were completely lifted.
The bread crisis is one of many being faced by the Lebanese people amid a financial collapse and lack of social protection. Even the planned Capital Control law, which is supposed to protect what is left of citizens’ money in banks, has become subject to a political tug-of-war.
Parliamentary committees removed the legislation from the agenda on Tuesday after numerous MPs rejected the draft.
Meanwhile, an International Monetary Fund delegation headed by Ernesto Ramirez, the IMF head of mission for Pakistan, the Middle East and Central Asia, is currently in Beirut waiting to complete negotiations with Lebanon.
“We hope that a preliminary deal will be reached after two weeks of discussions,” Deputy Prime Minister Saade Chami, who heads Lebanon’s delegation to the IMF, told AFP.