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 12:56 pm on 21st July 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative 12:56 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, what a pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, the breadth of whose interests matches the depth of his humanity, and how sobering that he should have begun by reminding this House of the Holodomor, and the horrors and monstrosities experienced by Ukrainians. I recently read an eyewitness account of a hideous scene that unfolded in the spring of 1933 in the market in Kherson. It is almost unbearable to read, even after the passage of nearly a century. It concerned a dead mother with a still living infant, trying to suckle the last few drops. What was most shocking to the observers was that they had seen that exact scene many times before—it was no longer shocking to them. I think we can all agree in this House about what is happening in Ukraine and where the blame lies. This is a territory twice targeted by hunger, first by Stalin and then by Hitler. As the Yale historian Tim Snyder points out, it was the most dangerous place to live in the world between 1933 and 1945.

I should like to talk about how we respond. What do we do to lessen the effects of this disaster and, as importantly, what do we not do? First, do no harm, because something that alarms me is the way in which in every continent, on every archipelago, we hear people responding in a way that is emotionally understandable but intellectually very dangerous, by retreating into the illusion of self-sufficiency and protectionism. People will say that because world food supplies are being disrupted and prices are spiking, we need to be more self-sufficient—we need to grow more of our own food and be secure in our own supplies. That, it seems to me, is this worst possible response. If countries around the world begin to do this, they will exacerbate the problem and, indeed, tip the problem into a spiral of unmitigated calamity.

It is happening. Xi Jinping recently summoned a meeting of the rubber-stamp Parliament in Beijing and said, “We need to be self-sufficient in food. The lesson we must draw from this is that we cannot rely on the West”. He proposed setting aside 300 million acres of Chinese land purely for agrarian use, not to have to depend on international trade. Ukraine has, perhaps understandably, imposed a grain export limit, but it is being followed by other countries across Asia and Africa. If this carries on, we really do risk turning a problem into a calamity.

It seems to me that we are responding, as people do, in a very natural, instinctive way. We want to have food supplies close at hand because we are still thinking with our palaeolithic brains. We want to have a hoard of food nearby to survive the winter, and we struggle with the reality of the modern globalised economy, which depends on this rather counterintuitive—in the literal sense—notion of depending for our key supplies on strangers whom we cannot see. That, however, is what has eliminated famine from the world. It was at the end of the 1960s, when countries, particularly in Asia and South America—and, to a degree, in Africa—began to understand that there was a difference between food security and self-sufficiency, that famine began to disappear as a regular feature of our lives.

The reality is that food security depends on having the broadest range of suppliers—the most diverse group of suppliers possible—so that you are immune to a local shock or disruption which might as easily take place in your own territory as anywhere else. But that idea goes to a mental blind spot. It offends our inner caveman, and runs up against these inherited instincts. I am afraid that I see the world devolving into more and more barriers, which means more and more hunger.

The tragedy is that this war has come just after a pandemic which primed those caveman instincts even more. I was shocked repeatedly during the lockdown by how many people who I had down as reliable free marketeers were suddenly saying to me, “Surely, Hannan, even you must now accept the need to grow more of our own food—even you must see that it’s very dangerous to be importing 40% of our food into this country”. Is that really what people got from the lockdown? Let us recall that it happened at the end of March 2020, at the beginning of what our farmers call the hungry gap: the time of year when we do not really produce much food in this country; when we have reached the end of the winter harvest and are not producing any more turnips, potatoes and cabbages, but have not reached the start of the main summer harvest. Between the end of March and the beginning of May, other than rhubarb, asparagus and maybe a little bit of purple sprouting broccoli, we basically do not produce food in this country—but fortunately it did not matter, because we were able to rely on global markets.

That same lesson applies in spades to countries which are poorer than us. They need access to cheap, accessible global food supplies rather than the illusion of self-sufficiency. To illustrate this, you might say in an extreme way, I give your Lordships the countries at the furthest ends of that spectrum. First, consider North Korea, the country that has turned self-sufficiency into its ruling principle. “Juche” is the idea that there should be import substitution and that you should grow and produce everything possible at home. It is the last place on the planet that still experiences manmade famines. At the other end of the scale is Singapore, which does not produce one edible ounce. Singapore is wholly reliant on imports for its drinking water, food and electricity. Where would you rather live? Singapore has the cheapest and most secure food supplies in the world because food security and self-sufficiency are not the same thing. It was understanding that difference that brought our planet to a level of prosperity that previous generations could not have imagined. The worst possible thing we could do would be to turn back the clock decades, or even centuries, and thereby return to the poverty that our ancestors took for granted.

I am proud to have played some role in persuading our Government to lift all tariffs on Ukrainian exports, setting a precedent for others to follow; I was very pleased that the European Union followed suit five or six weeks later. That is of great value to Ukraine at the moment, because it has no sea access and therefore all of its exports must pass through EU territory. Can we not extend the principle? At a time when the world is dealing with a cost of living crisis, and when every country and every continent is touched by the scourge of inflation, could we not extend that principle and remove trade and other non-tariff barriers to the free flow of basic commodities such as food? Tariffs and non-tariff barriers on food fall hardest on the people who are poorest, because they have to spend a higher proportion of their income on the basics.

The United Kingdom raised itself above the run of nations in Victorian times by being the first place to have unilateral tariff removal and to invite the traffic and commerce of the world without hindrance. Let us live up to what our ancestors did, and let us lead the world a second time.