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21 May 2009 : Column 486WH—continued

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I now turn to two of the key issues that could feature in more long-term development—nutrition and agriculture. The report notes that donors have ignored nutrition for too long, adding:

in fact, it is more than $3 billion, because DFID spends £1 billion as part of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The report continues:


In a way, it is in invidious to compare one budget with another, but DFID’s budget should surely be focused on an issue which affects so many people and which causes so many children to die each year. It is therefore welcome to read in the Government response about the establishment of a nutrition task team as part of DFID’s policy and research division, and today seems like an excellent opportunity to give us an update on the team’s work.

The Government response states that more than 50 per cent. of DFID’s development assistance is spent on

That is a welcome indication of the Government’s recognition of the cross-links that exist with other aspects of international development.

On the reference to water and sanitation, however, I note that we debated the Committee’s report on water and sanitation in this Chamber on 29 April 2008. DFID has admitted that it took its eye off the ball on that issue. Let us not underestimate the importance of water to today’s discussion. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has said, world water consumption had tripled over the past 10 years. A shortage of clean water is almost more important than a shortage of food, because so many people are dying as a result of contaminated water. The Committee’s report on water and sanitation notes that:

and that trend is likely to continue as a result of increasing drought, desertification and extreme weather events. That is all part of the pattern of global climate change, which not only affects water supplies, but leads to food shortages.

As a farmer, I think that our international development programme has neglected agriculture, and that has been recognised by the Committee and by many in the development community. However, I reiterate the Committee’s view that this is not the time for blame, but for looking forward to see how we can redress those issues.

That belief was reinforced last summer, when I took part in a project in Rwanda. I met a man who runs a charity called Send a Cow, and he is a real expert in agriculture. He suggested that 80 per cent. of the people in Rwanda gain their living and income from agriculture in one way or another and that one of the quickest ways to help those people, who are so dependent on agriculture,
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is a free agricultural advisory service. I went away and did a little work on that. I got an institution in my constituency—the Royal Agricultural College—to do a feasibility study. I sent that study to the Minister, who replied that Rwanda’s agriculture is improving significantly. However, I believe that there are many poor countries where a free advisory service to farmers could boost agricultural production significantly.

The report makes it clear that DFID spends only £400 million on agricultural research. In a world where a lot of good research is going on—indeed, research has helped to give a huge boost to our agriculture and that of other civilised countries since this country was kept alive during the second world war—it is important to carry on such work. I ask the Minister to reflect, without preconceived ideas, on whether his Department is doing enough on agricultural research; I am not sure.

The report touches on the issues of GM crops and biofuels—two other subjects that could be better informed by research. The use of GM crops remains a matter of great debate and there are clearly significant and sharp arguments on both sides of the subject, but the correct approach is to enable developing countries to take their own decisions on the use of such crops. I believe, as a farmer, that they can play a significant and useful role in boosting food output, particularly where there are difficult agricultural conditions, such as drought or severe pestilence. As to biofuels, in my conversation with the European Environment Commissioner there was no thought that, in relation to targets for inclusion, we should perhaps lower our aim. Again, the subject is fiercely controversial, but if the west’s over-demand for the inclusion of biofuels in the general fuel mix is causing a reduction in food production that would otherwise help to feed poor countries, we need to think seriously about it.

In conclusion, I want to consider the future and ask what the Minister sees as the route to achieving MDG 1, and the role of DFID and the WFP. The Select Committee has remarked on greater integration between the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Alongside that, it makes recommendations for the WFP to be the UN’s leading agency on hunger. On both those suggestions, the Government have said that they will be supportive and offer their encouragement. I hope that the Minister will update us on how that encouragement has been taking shape.

Let us not overlook the important statement in the report that the problem lies not in a

We can produce enough food in the world, but it is not being universally distributed, and 1 billion or more people go hungry each night. If international development cannot solve that, then we have failed. I ask the Minister what progress we are making.

3.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing this important debate on a significant report by his Select Committee. I also pay tribute to him for his
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leadership of the Committee, which is challenging and critical but always constructive and reasonable. The quality of the debate has been important and has perhaps made up for the lack of hon. Members in Westminster Hall today. There has been tremendous consensus on the importance of the global community stepping up to the challenge of hunger and malnutrition, and recognition that Britain plays a leading role in the world on the agenda in question. However, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, we could still do significantly more. I shall attempt to address all the issues that right hon. and hon. Members have raised.

The Select Committee report could not, sadly, have been timelier, as the right hon. Member for Gordon knows. It coincided precisely with a period of unprecedented high prices for many foods. In April last year, the international price of wheat was close to $500 a tonne; the price of maize was nearly $300 a tonne; and rice, which is a staple for half the world’s population, briefly touched $1,000 a tonne. The number of people who were unable to get enough food to eat surged above 900 million, which is a shocking and stark statistic—one in seven of the world’s population. Since that time the price of food commodities has fallen sharply, by about half. Wheat is now about $200 a tonne; maize is about $150 a tonne; and rice is about $550 a tonne. In part that is due to record harvests last year—nearly 2 billion tonnes of cereals—but it is more due to the general collapse of commodity prices in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Despite the welcome fall in prices, the food security of the poorest, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, has actually got worse. The World Food Programme now predicts that the number of people who do not have enough food to eat is likely to rise above 1 billion during 2009. In Kenya, for example, 70 per cent. of the population are unable to meet their basic food needs. In Zimbabwe, one in eight households cannot afford to eat every day, and in India 50 per cent. of children show signs of permanent intellectual impairment before their second birthday, because of poor nutrition. Those, too, are truly shocking statistics.

Why is that happening? Right hon. and hon. Members have alluded to the reasons. Historically speaking, prices are still much higher than they were in 2000. Prices in many developing countries have continued to rise because of local shortages, and they remain well above the international price. The household incomes of many have fallen due to the global economic crisis, increased unemployment and lower remittances and tourist receipts. Of course, serious humanitarian challenges continue in Sudan, Zimbabwe and the horn of Africa.

I thought that it would be useful to inject some personal experiences into the debate, and I have seen much of what I have outlined at first hand on my recent visits. A slow-down in economic growth in South Africa to just 0.2 per cent. in the last quarter of 2008 has led to sharp falls in the incomes of those working in mining and manufacturing. There is a continuing and massive humanitarian emergency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sierra Leone, which is stubbornly at the very bottom of the human development index, is suffering a sharp fall in remittance income, and the problems of food affordability that that brings to the poorest. In
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Uganda, desperate poverty in the north following years of conflict and a population set to double by 2030 are putting massive pressure on land and food supplies. Those issues are now hitting many parts of the developing world, particularly in Africa.

Even before the latest developments, the UK Government had been leading the international response to tackle the problem of food insecurity. Agriculture and rural development remain priorities for DFID. Our current portfolio of projects and other activities tops £1 billion, and since the FAO food summit last June, we have committed more than £900 million in response to the food crisis. Last year, $169 million of short-term food aid was delivered through the World Food Programme—a record amount for DFID. We have strengthened social safety net programmes in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and given direct budget support to countries affected by the crisis, such as Ghana, Uganda, Malawi and, as I have said, Sierra Leone. We have doubled our support for agricultural research and technology. That comes to £400 million over the next five years, and a new director of research, Dr. Chris Whitty, has been appointed.

In response to the comments of the right hon. Member for Gordon about the WFP, it is true that we have contributed $48 million so far this year, which is more than we had contributed at this time last year. We cannot say at this stage how much we are planning to give. However, we will respond nimbly to appeals that the organisation makes.

The other issue raised by the right hon. Member for Gordon and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was whether the WFP should become the single agency for hunger. We believe that the WFP has demonstrated its strength through its humanitarian response. Generally, we need a much greater level of co-ordination between the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme. The challenge for development generally, but particularly for this agenda, is to make a reality of what is described as the “One UN” approach.

The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about the relationship between the WFP and DFID. I can only say that it is not my job at any time to do anything other than to agree with my Secretary of State. However, there is a serious point to be made. We believe that our judgments on our relationship with the WFP are appropriate. We have made a strategic decision to contribute to specific appeals rather than to core funding, and we believe that our approach boosts and supports accountability for UK taxpayer resources. Nevertheless, we remain one of the WFP’s most flexible donors. For example, we do not impose procurement restrictions or bag marking, which is more generally known as branding.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am sure that the organisation wants a different relationship, perhaps one in which we contribute to its core funding. In our judgment, however, our current relationship is the best way to help not only with cash and resources, but to be a force for reform. We do not apologise for that; we believe that it is appropriate and in our national interest. Ultimately, we have demonstrated that during global crises; we have stepped up to the mark, made UK resources available and enabled the WFP to respond efficiently and quickly to the humanitarian challenges that it frequently faces.

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Malcolm Bruce: The Minister is giving a straightforward and fair reply, and I do not argue with it. However, the WFP is beginning to demonstrate to other donors that it can do more, and it is getting a response. My question is straightforward, and I am sure that the Minister will not have a problem with it. May I suggest that the Department should keep the matter under active review?

Mr. Lewis: I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that it is appropriate that we keep our strategic relationship with the WFP under review. The WFP has raised the matter in the past and the Select Committee has asked questions about it, so we are constantly revisiting it. None the less, we believe that we are right to stick with our judgment, although we respect other views and will always take them into account when reviewing the nature of the relationship.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will intervene before the Minister moves on, so that he can keep his speech roughly in logical order. He said that DFID is spending £400 million on research over five years, which is only £80 million a year.

Mr. Lewis indicated assent.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister nods. I assume that he will shortly come to that point in his speech.

Mr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Several hon. Members have raised the question of investment in research, and I shall deal specifically with that in some detail in a moment.

We very much welcomed the Committee’s inquiry last year. Its report was generous, giving credit to the WFP’s work in providing a front-line response to hunger in some of the most challenging and difficult environments—for instance, in Burma, Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

The WFP recognises the leading role played by the United Kingdom in drawing attention to the growing crisis earlier in the year. It recognises the importance of nutrition in helping to achieve the millennium development goals. It acknowledges that food security is not only about giving more food aid to people in humanitarian situations, nor even about growing more food in developing countries, although these are both important elements. Social protection—the provision of cash or food for work programmes for the most vulnerable—is another hugely important part of the equation. Indeed, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) has raised that particular issue.

The right hon. Gentleman made the point strongly that it is important to get the international policy agenda right. We have to make progress on Doha; we must press ahead in that process. We must also consider how to dismantle subsidies to farmers in rich countries, to ensure a level playing field for farmers in developing countries. We need to end the practice by some donors of dumping surplus agricultural produce on poor countries as food aid, because it undermines incentives to grow more food locally.

The Select Committee report has had a significant influence on Government policy, but it is respected globally because it came at a time when some of the questions that it raised need to be considered from an
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independent perspective. Since the report was published, international action to address the food crisis has continued, although this has now become inextricably linked to efforts to mitigate the impact of the global economic crisis, particularly on developing countries. That is understandable.

Most people are hungry because they are poor. As Members have said, hunger cannot be tackled without tackling the root causes of poverty. With strong UK support, the European Union has finalised its plans to provide an additional €1 billion of new grants to developing countries to improve agriculture and food security.

At the Madrid food security conference in January, which I attended on behalf of the UK, the international community signed up to our proposal for a global partnership on agriculture, food security and nutrition. Work is going ahead in Rome and in developing countries to firm up the details.

At the highly successful G20 summit in London in February, led by the Prime Minister, $100 billion of additional lending by the multilateral development banks was pledged for developing countries. Increased access to trade finance was also promised, as was a UN proposal to develop a system to monitor global vulnerability and to enable donors better to target those groups most at risk, especially women, children and the elderly.

The World Bank has committed itself to increase spending on agriculture by 50 per cent., and its global food crisis response fund is fully earmarked, and substantially spent, with $1.2 billion for food-stressed countries, and 27 million people being able to gain access to seed and fertiliser, or to expanded social protection programmes. It has recently been agreed to continue and expand that programme.

The world has had a food crisis, a fuel crisis and an economic crisis. Throughout, the international community can be proud of the fact that it has responded quickly and effectively to the needs of the poorest. Britain has led that debate in every international forum, with all-party support from the House. The challenge is to ensure that the commitments signed by world leaders, particularly at the G20, are delivered and implemented. Communiqués are one thing, but the need to transfer the commitments and the necessary investment into making a difference for the poorest people in the world is pressing. That is why we have a continued role, after leading the G20 summit, in ensuring that those commitments are implemented and delivered.

DFID is working with the Foreign Office and other Departments to ensure that we continue to hold the international community to account for the commitments that have been made to mitigate the impact of the current crisis. However, we should not forget that the fundamental importance of the long-term reform of international financial institutions and other global organisations is vital, if we are to learn from the global recession.

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