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 2:15 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:15 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, which, as expected, has already been high-quality in its focus on both dealing with the immediate crisis and looking at broader issues. There is absolutely no doubt that there is an immediate crisis. It is essential that every possible string is pulled and every emergency step taken to keep hunger, child stunting, desperation and fear to a minimum in the Horn of Africa, east Africa and elsewhere more broadly.

I will mostly take what might be called the longue durée view, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, did in his powerful and clear introduction to this debate. This crisis did not start with the illegal Russian attack on Ukraine; it is a crisis with a long history of centuries of destruction of human knowledge, ecosystems and tens of millions of lives by a global political system that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few in a few countries by a narrow and ignorant scientific orthodoxy. This system has destroyed ecosystems and farming systems that operated successfully and sustainably for millennia on principles that we would now call agroecological. It was a system that relied on terror and murder to enforce its inequalities and starvation, as the British Empire did in India with the Great Famine of 1876 to 1878. That system has now clearly failed due to the long series of disasters predating the Russian invasion, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, set out. These disasters include, but are far from limited to, the creation of the new geological age of the Anthropocene.

In attempting to tackle the structural failures created by an extractive and exploitative political system, the work has concentrated—again unsuccessfully—on a few narrow aspects of human ingenuity and thought. There has been so little innovation in our mainstream economic, social or political thought that has been in the hands of a neoliberal consensus which has, for decades, dominated an extremely narrow band of what has been considered mainstream politics. This has even further concentrated financial resources in the hands of the few, frequently parked in extraordinarily unproductive and pointless tax havens, and robbed by a corruption that steals at least 5% of the world’s total production—a figure from the International Monetary Fund.

The noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, spoke about food waste; 5% of the world’s entire resources have been wasted and stolen. Collectively, those in power have shown enormous hubris in treating soil ecosystems, of which we have had no understanding, such as inert substrates, and in assuming that, by focusing on the handful of crops that now form the majority of human diets, we would be able to tackle whatever pests and diseases nature, with its hundreds of millions of years of biological development, would throw up. Their military forces continued to support despotic dictators; Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are two of the most frequently cited examples, but I have been reading recently about the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Should an alien be unfortunate enough to land today on the island of Hispaniola, blighted by centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism, they would get a crash course in the nature of the world that we have created—a world built on exploitation and inequality.

That exploitation, inequality and repression started close to home. I am not sure how many noble Lords know the history of why wheat became such a dominant crop: the aristocracy wanted to eat white bread because it was the posh thing to do, so peasants who wanted to grow a variety of crops were forced by feudal systems to grow only wheat—a much more dangerous and riskier crop—rather than other alternatives.

We can see a parallel in maize, a crop that came from the new world, where it was grown in ecological systems, mixed with beans and squash—yet we have brought it here and grown it at huge expense, with desperately bad human, animal and environmental impacts, to feed to animals and into our car engines. But that is all the past; we cannot change it—what we have to do now is look to the future. In the days, weeks and months ahead, we have to focus on getting people fed. We know of some ways. We have seen, at least at a trial level, the institution of universal basic income to give people cash transfers that they can use to meet their own needs and make their own choices. That is far better than imposing on them whatever food aid, often from our own resources, we think we can deliver to them.

The Government’s official development aid policies, already referred to by many speakers, have taken a disastrous direction, not just in slashing the volume of that ODA but in an explicit redirection towards our own trade interests. I know that the Minister will not be able to make a commitment, as we do not know what the new Government will be like, but we can hope that they might take a different direction in future.

What we need to do is to get away from the hubris of the narrow areas of what we have called science. We need to draw on, develop, enhance and support traditional ways to produce food and traditional agricultural systems. I shall give one example of the kind of system that is so essential to meeting our future food needs. There is a traditional practice in Niger, known as tassa. Farmers dig small pits uniformly across fields to collect rainwater and place manure in the bottom of each pit to increase soil fertility. Seeds are then planted in the long ridges of each pit. In one trial with millet, a matching piece of land planted without the technique yielded 11 kilos per hectare. The tassa land yielded 553 kilos per hectare.

Small-scale agriculture can and must provide a good secure living, with some essential prerequisites, including security of land tenure, with democratic local structures of input and information enabled among farmers, and crops grown that are suited to the natural environment and are diverse and resilient. We can start at home by supporting our own farmers to move fast towards agroecological systems, to feed ourselves, as work at the Centre for Alternative Technology has demonstrated is possible. What right do we have to rely on other people’s soil, water and labour to feed ourselves? Sure, if they produce something extra-special, tasty and attractive, such as spices or coffee, there is nothing wrong with swapping that for something we produce that they want, but we should not be taking essential staple foods or nutrients out of the mouths of others, particularly the world’s poor.

It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, is not in his place, because I want to address some of the points he raised, starting with the free trade deal with Australia. Noble Lords may not know, but I suspect it will come up a lot in our future debates that a major “state of nature” report has just come out in Australia. It is a bit of a contest, but it is probably even worse than our “state of nature” reports. It says that Australia

“lacks an adequate framework to manage its environment”,

yet we are planning to take food from there.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, said that the last place on earth to experience man-made famine was North Korea. I am not sure that he was actually listening to the introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in which he gave a very long list of famines experienced in the world now and in the recent past. Relying on the market for food means the rich can get what they want while the people without money cannot. Relying on the market for food has left us, since the 1990s, when most of these figures started, with a world in which about the lowest figure we have managed to get is 750 million people regularly going to bed hungry. We have never done better—if that is the right word—than that. That is a failed model.

The idea seems to be that we will just ship this food round and round the world. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a really important point about the sheer fragility of relying on global supply chains, which of course the situation in Ukraine only helps to highlight.

I come to a final point and a direct question for the Minister. I talked about small farmers needing land security. I believe it is time that our Government spoke out strongly against the transnational land agreements that are stealing the most basic resource, particularly of Africa, from people who are effectively powerless to resist. Will the Minister comment, and perhaps update the figures I have from 2008 and a study from the Wilson Center, which say that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and the eastern nations controlled more than 7.6 million cultivated hectares overseas? I have no doubt that that figure has since grown. I am almost out of time, but—