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 2:58 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:58 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, have focused on this geographical area towards the conclusion of this debate. In my view, it is the natural area where our focus should be as the consequence of Putin’s aggression. It is in that area, in Somalia in particular, that this summer 350,000 children are facing not just acute hunger but starvation.

When a young boy or girl starves because they are not receiving sufficient calories, their body starts to feed itself on its own carbohydrates, fats and proteins. When these are diminished, their body cannot regulate its own temperature so they have painful chills. A number of days later, their kidneys fail and their immune system weakens. Then their body has no other choice but to feed on itself, with muscle and heart failure. This is 350,000 children in Somalia this summer. That is the equivalent of all under-fives in Scotland.

So this debate is about the children, and I am so pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, secured it and opened it so comprehensively. As others have been, he was so comprehensive with the statistics that they need not be repeated. He and others including the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to this region. I have a particular interest in Sudan, of which the Minister is aware; I was there just a couple of months ago. But a number of years ago, I visited one of the regions that the noble Earl singled out, Gedaref. I met with sorghum farmers who are seeking to innovate but under enormous difficulties, being so close to the border. They need resilience against flash-floods and they continue to struggle against the political oppression that there had been under the previous regime, a dictatorship. This is not simply a discussion about innovations in agriculture or about free trade; it is the confluence of all these complex areas, especially for those people who have very little resilience themselves.

I declare an interest in that I chair the UK board of Search for Common Ground, which is the world’s largest peacebuilding charity. Coincidentally, I was chairing it this morning. I left the meeting to ask the question about Sri Lanka, which is linked to this issue, in many respects, with people suffering because of a lack of fuel and food. There has been a consensus in this debate that one of the consequences of the Russian aggression is that more states are now vulnerable to conflict and instability. That means we are also likely to see a struggling harvest in Ukraine in the coming year, which will add to that. This is after the convulsions of the pandemic, in which the world’s most vulnerable saw the West operating with a degree of vaccine nationalism and selfishness, and, as we heard in the debate, a lack of full replenishment of the requests for support from western countries.

We are at a very dangerous point in the world, at the moment. That is why today’s debate, as we break for a summer holiday, has been of such a sombre nature. It is also depressing, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, because to some extent we thought that one part of history would never repeat itself—what I would term the weaponisation of wheat. It is that truly awful element of using starvation of children as a tactical or geopolitical weapon. I am so pleased that my noble friend Lady Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the update to the Geneva convention and the ICC. We have heard about the difficulties with Russia for the ICC and know about these complexities, so I would be grateful to know if part of the UK’s support for the ICC to capture evidence of war crimes is looking at this area, in particular. What is the evidential base that the UK Government consider when building evidence of starvation as a war crime?

When I saw the full Russian invasion, I knew almost immediately that there would be long-term impacts. There were two reasons. The first is because, having represented an agricultural community in the Scottish Borders, I would speak to farming friends—this is a number of years ago—who would monitor the Ukrainian wheat market almost as oil traders or financiers would in the City of London. They would know what the impacts would be of likely yield on harvest, likely prices, those who were buying ahead or those who were effectively shorting on this market. They knew that the impact of the shocks on the Borders economy would be immediate.

Equally, as the Minister and the House know, because I referred to it when I came back, during the first week of the full Russian invasion I was in both Baghdad and Beirut. In these countries, the supply of bread is fundamental not only to their diet but to their culture. From conversations I had with people there, they knew the impact would be immediate. We therefore see the consequences of prices going up and staggering inflation—food inflation of 44% in Ethiopia, nearly five times the global average, and a 78% increase in maize prices in the Horn of Africa. The impact across the Middle East and other regions has been enormous.

During Questions today I raised the fact that the geostrategic interest is perhaps moving east into Asia, with other countries now having an impact in this area. We are seeing a global element. As much as our press will consider that we are perhaps winning the war within Europe, we know that the consequences are spreading wider.

I find it slightly distasteful that the Foreign Secretary is touting the Ukraine example as part of her leadership credentials; I think this issue should be left out of that. She seemed rather uncomfortable this morning when asked about her Liberal Democrat heritage.