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 1:04 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 1:04 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, it is fascinating to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, whose contribution advocating global free trade was nothing if not passionate, and clearly extremely well-informed. It was a thought-provoking contribution, but perhaps one that did not speak to all the problems in the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in this debate. Discussing insecurity and self-sufficiency might matter at certain times for certain countries, but the Horn of Africa and countries that are on the verge of starvation already are not saying that they must be self-sufficient. They are facing extreme poverty and food insecurity precisely because of manmade problems caused by the war led by Russia. Although there is a lot we can talk about around free trade and the ideas put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, I would like to take the House back to Ukraine, and think about the implications of this war and starvation as a weapon of war.

We are already five months beyond the Russian incursion into Ukraine—five months that appear to have gone very quickly. When the invasion happened, Ukraine was at the top of the headlines. People in western Europe were listening very closely; we were following everything that happened. Five months on, if you follow the British media, one would be hard pressed to know that there was anything going on other than two days of climate crisis—a heatwave—and a Conservative leadership campaign, one of the leading candidates being the Foreign Secretary. One wonders whether she has time to be doing the day job while vying to be Prime Minister, but I will leave that aside.

For five months, the Ukrainian people have sought to defend themselves. The food insecurity they are facing is manmade; it is caused by Russia. One of the questions I would like the Minister to think about and respond to is whether Her Majesty’s Government have looked at the 1977 protocols to the Geneva convention and the 1998 Rome statute of the ICC. Have Her Majesty’s Government thought about whether the actions of Russia could be tantamount to using starvation as a tool of war, and so potentially a war crime? If that is the case, should Russia be brought before the ICC on those grounds?

The war in Ukraine shook Europe. It shook the very foundations of people like me: liberal, European integrationists who thought that European integration had kept the peace in Europe for 70 years, and that we were not likely to see war again in our continent. Lest anyone pop up to say, “But there was Bosnia, 30 years ago”, I have not forgotten that. For those of us in the United Kingdom, and in western and particularly central Europe, the invasion shocked us and raised a set of concerns. Very often, we hear that in other countries in other parts of the globe, Ukraine is still seen as a distant place and the reasons for the war are contested; in many ways, it appears that the consequences of the war are misunderstood. The assumption is that this is about the continent of Europe. But this goes far beyond Ukraine: it impacts global food security, and in particular it impacts the very poorest in the world.

I should like briefly to outline the impact of Ukraine on food insecurity and food supply, and then look at the wider global implications, particularly as they affect Africa. As we heard from my noble friend Lord Alton, much of global wheat supply has previously come from Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine exported its wheat through the Black Sea. That is no longer possible precisely because of the actions of Russia: deliberate actions for which we need to hold Russia accountable. I was shocked and surprised to hear my noble friend say that when the Minister for Africa responded to your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee about Ukraine, she said, “Well, it’s Russia’s fault.” Russia may be the cause of this, but we all need to look for ways in which we can enhance food security and reduce the risk of famine and food insecurity in the African continent.

We have listened to parliamentary debates and the Conservative leadership campaigns. We keep hearing about the cost of living crisis, but fuel and food prices are also being inflated by the consequences of the war. It is desirable that we all look for ways to enhance Ukraine’s ability to continue producing food and exporting it. We have a very serious situation, which my noble friend already touched on.

I am grateful to Ewelina Ochab for a briefing she sent raising some of the issues that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had raised with her. I understand that the Minister met with a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, so those issues will not come as a surprise. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is saying that there are credible reports of Russian troops on Ukrainian agricultural land, inevitably rendering it not fit for purpose and damaging agricultural produce, attacks on Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure and the high-level blocking of exports via the Black Sea. Putin is targeting grain and destroying crops, and then there is the question of looting. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the situation in terms of food security and the indications for Ukraine? There are 12 million displaced people in Ukraine, and many of them are facing food shortages.

Those shortages are compounded by a sense of compassion fatigue. I received two letters ahead of this debate from charities, Kaganek in Poland and Caritas in Lviv. Kaganek said that, at the start of the crisis, it was able to take a truck of food a week into Ukraine, and then built up to two trucks a week. In the first half of May, it sent 10 trucks, but now it is struggling to send one truck of food in a month. Why is that? Because donations are no longer forthcoming. Perhaps the media is not covering the crisis in the same way. Similarly, Caritas suggested that there has been a decrease in humanitarian aid estimated at 70%.

The Minister will reply not on behalf of the Foreign Office but of what is now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Does he feel that what Her Majesty’s Government are able to do to assist on a humanitarian basis in Ukraine is adequate? Does he believe what we are able to do in Africa is adequate? The House of Lords Library, in its excellent briefing, gave a response from Vicky Forde, the Minister for Africa, about what the UK is doing in Africa, and it is merely a drop in the ocean. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing in terms of aid, because we see potential catastrophe in Africa caused by the blockade of the Black Sea?

I have a final question for the Minister. In order to unlock the Black Sea, what conversations have Her Majesty’s Government had with President Erdoğan, and what does the Minister believe has come from the meeting in Tehran yesterday? The media seem more interested in the fact that Erdoğan kept Putin waiting for 50 seconds then the actual outcome. This should not be about the optics; it should be about clear and practical politics and getting solutions. This is in part about Ukraine, in part about a domestic cost of living crisis and, crucially, about the potential death by famine and starvation in the continent of Africa.