Food Insecurity in Developing Countries due to Blockade of Ukrainian Ports - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:40 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 12:40 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, in opening today’s debate I should like to thank all noble Lords who are going to take part, especially the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, who will make his maiden speech. I couple those thanks with my thanks to the House of Lords Library, Dr Ewelina Ochab, the World Bank and others who have provided us with such excellent briefing material. I draw attention to my non-financial interests, including being a patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response and co-chair of the APPG on Eritrea.

Our debate is taking place as Russia, Iran, and Turkey, with its responsibility under the 1936 Montreux convention for naval traffic entering the Black Sea, have been meeting in Tehran. Turkey has proposed that Russia allows Ukrainian grain ships to leave Odessa on designated routes—grain corridors—so long as checks are made that the ships are not carrying arms. Beware Putin, broken promises, blackmail and Potemkin village scams.

This debate is also taking place against a backdrop of mass displacements, thousands of deaths and devastation, all unleashed by Putin’s war on Ukraine, with Europe left facing its worst energy and economic crisis since the 1940s. The war’s effects reverberate around the globe: food price inflation and supply disruptions from the war in Ukraine have left millions, in Africa especially, vulnerable to famine and starvation.

In 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I visited Ukraine and met political and religious leaders, some of whom had spent nearly two decades in the Kremlin’s prison camps. It was inspiring to watch people lay flowers each day at the doors of churches closed by Stalin 40 years earlier. They proudly held aloft their blue and yellow flags of defiance. Putin’s deluded idea that these brave people would now line the streets with flowers, cheering the new imperial occupation and the reconquest of their country, simply beggars belief.

An abiding memory from that time is of conversations with families who had personally experienced Stalin’s Holodomor, which translates to “death by hunger”, and had occurred 50 years earlier from 1932 to 1933. Stalin’s Holodomor, like Putin’s today, was an entirely man-made catastrophe, leading to anything from 3.5 to 5 million deaths and is regarded by many historians as a genocide. The Holodomor was methodically planned and executed by denying the producers of the food the sustenance necessary for survival. It seems especially cruel and perverse to have used food as a genocidal weapon in the breadbasket of Europe.

While people were starving to death, the Soviet state stole over 4 million tonnes of Ukraine’s grain, enough to meet the needs of 12 million people in a year. As Ukrainians resorted to eating grass, acorns and even cats and dogs, Stalin banned any reference to famine. His decree of “Five Stalks of Grain” stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking produce from a collective field, could be shot or imprisoned for stealing socialist property. In 1933, 2,000 people were executed.

The Holodomor, also known as the Terror Famine, was caused by a dictator who wanted to replace Ukraine’s small farms with state-owned collectives and punish independence-minded Ukrainians who posed a threat to his totalitarian authority. Does that sound familiar? Today, in a mirror image of Stalin, it is Putin committing food terrorism by purposefully destroying Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure and stealing Ukrainian grain and agricultural machinery. Last week, we saw vivid footage of his militias setting fire to fields, scorching the earth and reducing crops to ash. Along with the blockading of ports, this is using food as a weapon of war—a war crime. The weaponising of mass hunger is straight out of Stalin’s playbook. Protocols added to the Geneva conventions state:

“Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited”.

The Rome statutes of the ICC codify it as a war crime and the 2018 Security Council Resolution 2417 condemned the use of food insecurity and starvation as a tactic of war and laid duties on the Secretary-General when such situations occur.

When the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who will reply to our debate, recently met Karim Khan QC, the ICC prosecutor, I wonder what he learned about the prosecution of those responsible for this and other war crimes, including the mass killings and atrocities in Mariupol, Bucha and elsewhere, the use of cluster munitions and much more besides. Notwithstanding vetoes, how are the Secretary-General and the UN Security Council holding Russia to account for its violation of Resolution 2417?

Putin’s militias and missile strikes have damaged and destroyed many farms, stocks of food and seeds, silos, warehouses, oil depots and agricultural machinery and equipment. Unharvested winter crops across many of the war-affected areas have resulted in an estimated $1.4 billion of damage. Will seized Russian assets be used to provide restitution and reconstruction?

In addition to destruction, there are credible reports of Putin’s military looting around 500,000 tonnes of grain from the occupied territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions—a third of the stocks required for sowing and domestic consumption. The grain is then shipped from the Russian-controlled Crimean port of Sevastopol and from the port of Berdyansk. To date, satellite imagery has identified 41 bulk carriers, mostly under Russian or Syrian flags, transporting plundered grain. The BBC says that in many instances these ships switch off their automatic identification system transponders to hide the origins of the looted food.

Now put this into context. The scale and nature of Ukraine and Russia’s role in global food supplies is phenomenal. As such, the lack of access to Ukraine’s grain has catastrophic global consequences. In 2021, the Russian Federation or Ukraine, or both, were ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed, rapeseed oil, sunflower seed and sunflower oil. Agriculture and food represent almost 10% of Ukraine’s GDP. Last year Ukraine exported food products worth almost $28 billion to the world, including $7.4 billion-worth of food to the European Union.

As many as 25 countries import more than one-third of their wheat from the two countries. Some 400 million people in the world depend on grain from Ukraine. This raises long-term questions about the need for greater diversification and about overconsumption by us in some parts of the world.

The immediate crisis, however, is best understood by figures from the Ukrainian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which told me that 2021 saw a record-breaking grain harvest that collected 107 million metric tonnes, while so far this year Ukrainian farmers have threshed just 3.6 million tonnes of grain. Before the war, every month, Ukraine exported between 5 million and 6 million metric tonnes of agricultural products, 90% from the seaports on the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. In June, by using trucks, railways, rivers and its three Danube port terminals, which are all at capacity, it managed to export 2.1 million metric tonnes, but even with welcome adjustments it would take years to export the current stockpile of grain, let alone a new harvest, unless the sea routes can be reopened.

The war has also contributed adversely to a sharp rise in the cost of fertilisers and transportation. The cost of transporting one tonne of barley via the Romanian seaport of Constanta has risen from $40 to $160. Unsurprisingly, in May, the price index on cereal was up by 29.7% on May 2021 value, with wheat prices up on average by 56.2%. The UN food price index puts food prices at their highest since records began 60 years ago, with the World Bank reporting several countries introducing bans on the export of their wheat. This will all hit the poorest hardest. Between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported $3.7 billion-worth of wheat from Ukraine; some of those countries most dependent include Somalia, Libya, the Gambia, Mauritania, Tunisia and Eritrea.

As of June 2022, 89 million people, nearly one-third of the population, are food-insecure across east Africa, with pockets of famine-like conditions in Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan. The World Food Programme says that a record 345 million people across 82 countries are facing acute food insecurity; that is up from 276 million at the start of this year. Up to 50 million people in 45 countries are on the verge of famine and 880,000 are already living in famine-like conditions in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. The grain crisis has amplified an already precarious situation in an Africa beset by raging conflicts. Think of the man-made disaster in Tigray alone. It has amplified the drought, locusts and climate change that they all face. The OECD says that the cumulative impact will make it impossible to end hunger by the UN’s stated goal of 2030, and we can assume it will also add to the now 100 million displaced people—recent figures from the UNHCR—as they flee existing instability, riots and unrest. The International Committee of the Red Cross has scaled up its operations in 10 countries, including Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, and says that

“more than a quarter of Africa’s people—346 million—are facing a food security crisis”.

It describes it as an “alarming hunger situation”.

The World Food Programme, which has seen a 44% rise in its operating costs, warns of an “unprecedented hunger challenge”. Noble Lords should read the exchange of 9 June between the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in which we warn that the war in Ukraine has left

“millions of people facing an impending famine and starvation.”

In reply, the Africa Minister said:

“It is President Putin’s responsibility to lift this blockade so that Ukraine’s food can feed the starving.”

Yes, but we too have responsibilities, not least under the genocide convention, as we see the serious risk of genocide and Putin imposes conditions calculated to bring about the destruction of the group, in whole or in part. We also have responsibilities in the context of the cuts that we have made to our development and aid programmes. Never has the WFP’s funding gap been so wide. In 2021. the value of UK contributions to the WFP in east Africa stood at just over one-third of the 2018 value. In 2021, the value of contributions to the WFP in Somalia, where there are currently pockets of famine-like conditions, stood at just 9% of the 2018 value. In 2021, the value of contributions to the WFP in Sudan stood at 18% of 2019 funding. Does the scale of our response now meet the moment? No, it does not.

I hope the Minister will tell us what plans the Government have to increase humanitarian funding for food assistance programmes to reflect the increase in global food and fuel costs, which are driving up the operational costs of agencies such as the admirable World Food Programme. I hope he will elaborate on what plans we have to work through the G7 Global Alliance for Food Security to develop international solutions to the global food crisis. Specifically, is the £130 million pledge made to the World Food Programme on 24 June additional funding, and not to be diverted from other programmes? Can he confirm that, as indicated by Minister Cleverly on 5 July, the proportion to be provided as unearmarked funding will be additional to the FCDO’s core contribution to the World Food Programme?

For the sake of millions of beleaguered people in poor countries, beyond immediate famine relief, we must do all we can to help Ukraine survive this existential assault and restore its place as the breadbasket for millions of people. We must hotly dispute the outrageous, toxic Kremlin narrative that attempts to blame western democracies for food shortages and escalating prices. It may take years for Ukraine’s farm sector to fully recover from the invasion. Fields have been destroyed, poisoned or mined, and they have been cluttered with abandoned Russian trucks, tanks and munitions. Farmers’ livelihoods will be at risk if their ability to trade is not restored. There are practical things that can be done immediately; for instance, we should welcome and join the agreement signed on 29 June by Ukraine and the EU to speed up road freight transport and the opening of what the EU has called solidarity lanes to increase throughput at EU border checkpoints. We should also help in the development of GrainLine, a grain trading platform aimed at aligning supply and demand; then there is the railway system and the need for temporary grain elevators, all of which I am sure will be explored in this debate.

To conclude, this debate is an opportunity to reiterate our condemnation of Putin’s war; to shine a light on its consequences; to demand the withdrawal of his troops from Ukraine; to call for an end to the blockades of the Ukrainian ports and to relentlessly demonstrate how Putin has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe through the worsening of world hunger, the use of starvation as a weapon of war and his complicity in a war crime. The message should go out loud and clear from this Parliament that consumer countries should not buy stolen, plundered Ukrainian grain; that we will document every illegal shipment of stolen grain and lay the evidence before the prosecuting authorities; that we will not be blackmailed by the Kremlin; and, in the absence of an agreement, that we will work with our allies under the auspices of the United Nations to open a Black Sea humanitarian corridor to enable functioning maritime routes for the export of Ukrainian agricultural goods. I beg to move.