Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements: Food Crisis

Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements: Food Crisis

The response to the war in Ukraine dominates the agenda of this European Council, and rightly so. We would fully expect that. I have just emerged from a Dóchas briefing in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, where it was spelled out in real and very stark terms how the impact of the conflict in Ukraine extends far beyond just European borders. The UN Secretary General António Guterres has said that the war goes far beyond Ukraine and “a sword of Damocles hangs over the global economy – especially in the developing world”.

It is that crisis unfolding across the developing world, across Africa, and the Horn of Africa in particular, that I want to address. We are aware that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia play a critical role in global food markets. They are major producers of wheat, grain, barley, sunflower seeds and oil, potash and fertiliser. Together, those three countries produce 12% of the world’s traded food calories, which is almost one eighth. It is an amazing figure.

In March 2020, Russia announced a temporary ban on exports of grains and fertilisers, which has led to supply scarcity and further market destabilisation. In addition, Russia has attacked Ukraine’s transport infrastructure and instituted a de facto blockade in the Black Sea ports from which 90% of Ukraine’s agricultural products are normally exported. Damage to Ukraine’s crops, food warehouses and agricultural machinery caused by Russian forces is going to affect grain production for months to come. Even though Ukraine harvested a record 84 million clean weight tonnes of grain in 2021, more than 20 million tonnes of that have been trapped in silos since Russia invaded Ukraine and subsequently blocked its ports. That has knock-on implications. In countries like Kenya, the price of flour has trebled. Worldwide, 95 million people could fall into poverty as a result of the conflict according to the World Bank and 47 million could fall into acute hunger.

If we look at this through the prism of our sustainable development goals, there is massive retrenchment in our progress. Goals 1 and 2, for example, are no poverty and zero hunger. We have travelled so far back in such a short space of time. This will also affect goal 5, gender equality, because as is always the case in conflict and crisis, women and girls disproportionately bear the brunt. The chief executive of Dóchas says 23 million people are at risk with crisis hunger levels in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, the area referred to as the Horn of Africa. Jane-Ann McKenna said Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated the crisis in east Africa because it imports 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. The UN tells us that one person is likely to die from hunger every 48 seconds in the region. Around 5.7 million people are acutely malnourished, which has long-lasting developmental implications. Some 350,000 children could die by the end of the summer. These numbers are so big and so mind-boggling we become immune to them. We do not hear them. The situation was put to us in very real terms at the committee by Paul O’Brien, who humanised it. He said that in the Horn of Africa, there are parents making a decision about which of their children they are going to feed today. As a parent, I found that extremely difficult to hear.

We have to accept that, as the UN foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles said, this is a real war crime. Food generation is being weaponised, maybe not in Europe but further afield, just as energy is being weaponised here in Europe. We have to take account of the fact that this is also a multiplying factor of climate change. At least, climate change and this conflict are working together to produce a crisis of unprecedented proportions across the developing world. We have to acknowledge that rich industrialised countries like ourselves have contributed about 95% of historical emissions, whereas Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where this crisis is unfolding, produce less than one tenth of 1% of the global total. I will read out a long quote from NPR’s Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. It is important because it is first-hand testimony from where the crisis is at its worst. He stated:

If you look at satellite data, this is the worst drought in 40 years. But if you look at the 120 years of records kept by Ethiopia, this is the worst drought ever recorded. Some places have already gone years without rain, and the U.N. is predicting that the next rainy season will also fail. And so they’re warning that if the world doesn’t do more, we could be looking at a situation like the one in Somalia in 2011, when 260,000 people, most of them children, died of hunger…

It’s all about climate change. Ten years ago, this was an area full of cows and green pasture. People here are nomadic herders. And now this place looks like a desert. It’s sand and rocks. And in some places, the acacia trees, which are these thorny trees, have dropped all of their leaves. The people we’ve talked to say that over the past seven years or so, they have slowly lost their livestock. Some people who had hundreds of goats and cows say they’ve all died. And as we’ve been driving, we’ve seen very few cows. The ones that we have seen look skinny and sick. And sometimes in the middle of these dusty fields, we’ve seen the carcasses of cows and sheep who just couldn’t get enough to eat.

We’ve been to small villages that are now totally abandoned. People have been living without water for years, and now that their livestock are dead, they’ve been left with no choice but to go to the bigger towns to find a job or some help. And the context is really important here. Remember that livestock is the wealth and life in this region. Many people don’t farm, so the cows and goats and camels are the food. So the animals represent not just their savings, but everything that was carefully built by their ancestors. So when someone here tells you that they’ve lost all their animals, what they’re telling you is that they have lost their home, their wealth and their livelihood, that they have lost everything.

What should we do about this, as a small actor on an international stage? What should we be thinking about as we go out to the Council of Europe? Dóchas has told us we should be able to lead at international level, call for radical mobilisation of aid and use our voice at the table to demand action. That is not just the table in Europe but also the UN Security Council. We need to act now. The crisis is unfolding before our eyes. As we hold the pen on the conflict and hunger file at the UN Security Council, we should leverage that. We should draw attention to it. We should be making sure our response to the Ukraine crisis does not subsume all else and all our other ODA budgets. Irish Aid has a proud track record but it is one built on consistency and long-term delivery. We need to continue that consistency to build capacity within our partner countries so they become more resilient to shocks of this kind which, unfortunately, will become more common in the future. We should be looking to promote the principle of loss and damage internationally ahead of COP27, which will take place on the continent of Africa. We should be giving clear commitments and clear parameters on climate finance, because a just transition cannot be something we just talk about in Ireland for Irish citizens. It has to go beyond our shores and must encompass everybody.

Regarding the World Food Programme and food supply chains, Germany and other countries are working on enabling grain export via land routes, or so-called solidarity lanes. This needs to be discussed at the Council meeting. It would release at least some of the crops that are sitting in silos in Ukraine, blockaded from its ports. At home, we can vindicate the programme for Government commitment to commit 0.7% of our gross national income to ODA by 2030.

I may have strayed far beyond the shores of Europe but we are all connected. Crisis and instability in one part of the world affects everywhere else. We have seen this over and again. The crisis of refugees in the Mediterranean is one clear example. This is something I would like the Minister of State to bring to Europe, to make sure the eyes of Europe are not solely on itself but also on people within the developing world who are bearing the brunt of this crisis.