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 1:16 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 1:16 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this very important debate at the very last minute, giving us all the opportunity to express our compassion for what is going on in Ukraine and, indeed, the rest of the world. The crisis is extremely serious and is, as we have heard, likely to spread, affecting the most vulnerable countries in the world.

As if the war in Ukraine and its consequences were not enough, there is also conflict in many other vulnerable countries, with the possibility of violent riots in Egypt, for example. There are exceptional world weather patterns of drought and floods, the long-term and profound effect of Covid on economies and Russia’s theft of grain from Ukraine’s stores to sell at inflated prices around the world. If this is not a perfect storm, what is?

We know that money is needed—and lots of it—to counteract rising prices of all commodities, including food and energy as well as transport. The sinister words of the editor in chief of the pro-Kremlin channel RT should alert us to possible Russian intentions; she said:

“The famine will begin and they will lift the sanctions”,

Russia is clearly playing a long game with thousands upon thousands of lives while shoring up its own war economy through inflated food and oil export prices.

We are tiptoeing around this vast country and its corrupt government. It seems that the job of the world’s diplomats is to avoid a catastrophic escalation of hostilities. Perhaps there have even been a grisly calculation of the number likely to die from starvation compared to the possibility of deaths from nuclear attack. However, unanimous international condemnation of Russia’s actions together with ever more stringent sanctions might provoke Mr Putin to sacrifice his own people under the false banner of national pride.

War has been accompanied by severe food shortage and even famine—the two are different—for millennia. Widespread famine has also occurred as a result of the failure of democracy. Between 1959 and 1961, 20 million Chinese died following Mao Tse-Tung’s industrial experiment, where every landowner throughout the country was forced to produce steel. Food supplies disappeared overnight. No one surrounding the great leader had the courage to let Mao know that his experiment was failing and causing the death of millions on the streets of China.

The great Bengal famine of 1943, during which 3 million people died, was in part due to a strict censorship in which the spread and scale of food shortage was hidden. The arrival of a free press following the famine, including in the vernacular, has guaranteed government accountability and a more equitable distribution of grain, even during periods of severe drought. It is very unlikely that famine would ever occur there again.

The end of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan came about when the mothers of the slaughtered soldiers began to realise the extent of their sacrifice through local information networks that flatly contradicted the propaganda being put out by the Soviets at that time. Although it is unlikely that there will be an avalanche of democratic institutions in Russia in the near future, every possible effort must be made to ensure that ordinary people in Russia, regardless of their long-standing animosity towards Ukraine and its people, are reliably informed about the war and able to communicate deep concerns about the progress—or not—of the fighting.

The other alternative is some kind of political compromise—something we are all reluctant to talk about. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we had brave words from the UK Government insisting that Russia must fail and that no compromise was possible. Thirty years ago, a sad rump of Soviet soldiers and coffins departed Afghanistan for their homeland. The cost of this failed occupation over more than a decade, not to mention the longer-term consequences, appeared far from victory for anyone, as we now know. Certainly, the Soviets failed, but what does success look like and is it worth the price?

Bombing a nation into submission, together with life-affecting sanctions, does not work as a strategy for winning wars. Can the Minister tell the House whether longer-term plans, including compromises, are being tabled, discussed and refined? As we go into the Summer Recess, is there a glimmer of hope that the world is beginning to unite against Russia as the wider consequences of food shortages reveal imminent disaster? What actions have been taken internationally to curb the price of Russian exports of food and oil? Are there serious efforts to supply alternative staple foods, such as rice—mostly from south-east Asia and India, presumably—for Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt and some countries in north Africa? Are the UK Government in discussion with international partners to build adequate food reserves for the immediate future, because food shortages are likely to become an endemic problem? Finally, would Russia, or indeed Ukraine, accept the sequestration of the Donbass region in the interest of providing more food security for the world?