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21 May 2009 : Column 492WH—continued

Having responded to the Select Committee report and dealt with matters relating to the WFP, I shall now deal with some of the specific points raised during our debate. The right hon. Member for Gordon and the hon. Member for Cotswold spoke about nutrition, and I want to make it clear where we are in that process. We established a nutrition task team in June, and Ministers have asked it to recommend ways in which DFID can
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strengthen its focus on improving nutrition outcomes in the context of rising food prices. The team is currently looking at what DFID and other development partners are already doing, to see where the gaps are and what support can be given to building a common global agenda on nutrition. That is the sort of progress that has been made, and we will report further in due course.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the US policy of providing food aid essentially in kind. President Obama has already indicated that he is keen to expand the amount of food aid purchased in-country or within the region. That is a significant move in American policy. It is also worth noting that at the G20 meeting plans were announced for a $1 billion package of assistance, including for humanitarian aid and research and technology; and again that came from the new Administration. These are very encouraging signs of a clear and distinct shift in policy and will help the entire international community do what it has wanted to do for some time with regard to food security.

Right hon. and hon. Members have asked about research. I want to be very clear about the level of DFID’s commitment on this issue. We will spend £400 million on international agricultural research over the current five-year period. That includes £20 million a year to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, but that figure is likely to rise significantly once reforms of the CGIAR system are complete. We have been at the forefront of efforts to reform that organisation and have been instrumental in levering substantial new funding commitments from a range of donors.

Reform will focus on increased accountability and oversight, streamlined financial arrangements and the targeting of resources more effectively and to a smaller number of strategic objectives. We are committed to spending nearly £40 million over the next four years on our “research into use” programme to ensure that small farmers can access new science and technology as quickly as possible. Technology transfer is a key element of strengthening agricultural extension programmes, especially in relation to adaptation in the face of climate change. That will therefore be one of our priorities when spending our research resources.

The hon. Member for Cotswold asked about assumptions about food prices and DFID policy. The assumption is that prices will remain above trend price. Our position remains that we must address poverty, encourage economic growth and support, as the solution, increased household incomes. That returns to the point that most people are hungry because they are poor and that hunger cannot be dealt with in isolation from a total poverty reduction strategy.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about biofuels. It is important to make it clear that the impact of biofuels on food prices is not yet properly understood. Much work is still going on in this area. For example, rice prices saw the greatest increase last year, but rice is not used for biofuel production. However, we need to do much more research, and we are currently engaged in research partnerships with the World Bank and others to try to get much more empirical evidence on the impact of biofuels on food prices.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I said in my speech that—this is my experience as a farmer—one of the best ways in which to help a country suffering from food shortages is to get its indigenous farmers to grow more. I prompted the Minister on Rwanda, but he said that an extension service is not necessary. Will he undertake to establish whether every poor country in which DFID operates has an extension service, and if it does not, consider providing one? There is no way of transferring the technology that he says is a priority, if no extension or advice service is in place to give farmers that advice.

Mr. Lewis: I agree that such technical advice is crucial. However, with respect, DFID cannot do everything in every country—as the hon. Gentleman knows—although we have made strategic decisions to lead in some sectors in some places. We can help to identify gaps in the availability of technical assistance and to decide on the appropriate person to fill that gap. We cannot always lead that process, however, because in some places we lack the expertise and leadership roles, but we can certainly identify gaps where technical assistance is required.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the deep-rooted history, attitudes and cultures of many countries. Often people produce just enough food to feed themselves and their families, if they are lucky. The potential to turn many of those freeholds and family-type situations into small businesses is massive. The President of Uganda made that point to me when I met him relatively recently. The international community needs to be more imaginative and innovative.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, over the past 10 years, agriculture has been de-prioritised with regards to development and global community. There is little doubt about that. The view was that urbanisation was the new challenge and reality. However, many people in developing countries will say that it is not a choice, and it would be a mistake to believe that it should be a choice. Indeed, it could be undesirable not to capitalise on the massive opportunities in real areas. If we do that, there will not be massive population displacement, which can lead to urban crowding, slums and, ultimately, conflict and violence.

It is absolutely right for right hon. and hon. Members to focus on our capacity to support the agricultural sectors in many developing countries. But they must, of course, show leadership and tell us that it is appropriate to their economic and industrial vision for their country. However, assuming that is so, the hon. Member for Cotswold is right to throw that point into the mix. The international community might have taken its eye off the ball in recent years.

Malcolm Bruce: The Minister is making a very good point. As it happens, the Committee is visiting Nigeria next month to investigate urban poverty and urbanisation. I completely agree with him: this is not an either/or situation; we must address both. However, do we not have an opportunity here? The migration of people to cities, owing to greater economic opportunities—even though most remain poor—might create scope for more land and development reform to increase the productivity of agriculture. In some countries, reform has been resisted ironically because too many people live in the rural areas. If that population reduces, there might be scope
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for reform and increased production. However, I completely agree that that should be led by the country, not outside donors.

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. In any country, what needs to be clear is the potential for economic growth and progress, the potential for trade outside its borders, and the way in which to use the benefits of development to reduce poverty. The job of any state is to maximise economic growth and prosperity, and to ensure that that is distributed fairly. In countries with abject poverty, the priority should be to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate that poverty.

The way in which agriculture fits into the mix is fundamental. If agriculture is deemed to be a major part of the solution, the international community’s job is to make available all necessary assistance. If rural communities are to take maximum advantage and contribute towards economic growth, the international community needs to provide technical expertise, to carry out research, and to enable crucial capacity building and reforms. I also think that developing countries should come together and learn from each other about how progress has been made.

The President of Uganda told me very proudly about a pilot project in about half a dozen—or perhaps 10—districts. It is addressing the question of how to transform family-type farming into small businesses, and how to reflect that in a register of small businesses nationally. That might create a new small and medium-sized enterprises sector, which could be a vibrant driving force for the country’s economic and social progress. I agree entirely, in retrospect, that it was not a good thing that the international community took its eye off the ball. However, it has got the picture now. The question
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is how we work together to ensure that we can support developing countries most effectively.

On that note, I once again pay tribute to the Select Committee for a thoughtful and thought-provoking report, which certainly came at the right time. It has influenced DFID’s thinking about future policy. We shall continue to keep the House informed of the UK’s contribution in this area and about how we intend to respond and rise to some of the challenges and opportunities facing us.

3.49 pm

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Minister for his response.

We have had a good debate. Given that it is Thursday, perhaps we should not be surprised that the Chamber is not fuller. None the less, I genuinely think that some important points have been raised, and the Department might wish to address them in its annual report. Given the refocus on agriculture and the commitment to nutrition—if not through the WFP then through other means—with regard to famine prevention as well as emergency response, the Committee will continue to monitor the progress that is made. We look forward to hearing how the Department takes such matters forward. As the Minister acknowledged, this is work in progress. We welcome the work, and also accept that not all of it could have come to fruition at this particular juncture. We hope that we will hear more from the Department in the coming months about how things are shaping up. Beyond that, I thank you, Mr. Key, for chairing this very useful debate.

Question put and agreed to.

3.50 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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