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World Food Programme

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 13 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Finlay.]

11.14 p.m.

I invite the House to shift its attention from South Wales to Rome, and to an event that occurred there last November, when the eleventh conference of the Food and Agriculture Organisation came to a very important decision, to establish, in consultation with the United Nations, a world food programme, leading to a world food bank, which would organise the disposal of surplus foodstuffs throughout the world in such a way that it would benefit under-developed areas, both with a view to relieving distress in these areas and helping them with their economic problems.

I want to put tonight the case for a substantial British contribution to this programme, and to hear the comments of the Government on it. The background to this, obviously, is the appalling scale of hunger and poverty among two-thirds of the world's population. This is something to which we often refer in somewhat prosaic terms, without being able to envisage what it means. But sometimes one has to focus this in a personal way.

I sometimes put it to myself that I have a 10-year-old daughter, and that since she was born about 800 million other children have been born throughout the world, of whom about 100 million have already died, most of them either from hunger or from diseases caused by or aggravated by hunger. Of the remainder who survive, about two-thirds are suffering from some kind of malnutrition and have an average expectation of life of about thirty-five years.

During the 1950s, there was a race between the rise that took place in world food production and the rise in world population, and throughout most of the decade the balance showed a slight improvement, in the sense that food production went up a little faster—but only a little faster—than the rise in population. The report to the F.A.O. conference in Rome suggested that the trend has now been altered—that, in 1960–61, there was a bigger increase in world population than there was in world food production.

It is against this very serious background that we should consider our duty as a nation towards this new project. It is important to get clear exactly what can be done by a project of this sort, trying to organise world food surpluses. Obviously, the surpluses involved are not sufficient if spread throughout the world, to relieve hunger everywhere simply by distributing them to the people.

As I understand it, the project has two purposes. One is that the food available should be used in cases of exceptional difficulty—cases of famine or near-famine, in which there is obvious need to do something quickly to relieve exceptional distress over and above the ordinary poverty of these areas. The famine in East Africa last autumn and the conditions in the Congo prior to that are obviously examples of the way in which the programme would work.

The other aspect, to which I wish to devote a little more attention, is the way in which the world's food surpluses can be used, and would be used, under this programme, to help the economic development of poorer countries. This is a theme which has been developed in a number of books on the subject of aid to under-developed countries, and particularly well in the recent book "Attack on World Poverty", by Mr. Andrew Shonfield.

As I understand, a poor country which is trying to carry out some project of capital development, either with its own resources or with aid from overseas, finds itself in this difficulty: the people working on a new capital project get wages which create new demands for goods of all kinds, particularly a heavy demand for food, that the country may not be able to meet. In a country where there is a poor level of nutrition generally, and where farming is on a peasant basis, it is more than likely that the increase in food production is not sufficient to cope with that sort of difficulty.

Indeed, in such countries, when there is a rise in food production it is often swallowed up by increased consumption by the peasant community rather than being available for the people working on capital projects. In that kind of situation this difficulty can be a real obstacle, and in many cases has been a real obstacle, to capital projects which otherwise would have taken place, and there is a need for substantial gifts of food to coincide with periods of difficulty of this kind. Indeed, I think that it would be true to say that the five-year plans in India have been very substantially helped by gifts of surplus food from the United States which have helped the Indian nation in the kind of difficulty which I have mentioned.

When, in Britain and in some other countries, we had our industrial revolutions they were preceded by agricultural revolutions. There was already an increase in agricultural production before the Industrial Revolution took place. In the developing countries with which we are concerned at present that is not, by and large, the case, and, therefore, a programme such as that which F.A.O. has launched is one which could be a tremendous assistance, I think, in helping those countries with the capital development which they so badly need.

At the conference in Rome this programme was put before the delegates, and certain countries pledged sums to the programme either in the form of food and other commodities or in the form of cash. The programme which was agreed at the conference was to build up in the first instance a 100 million dollar fund either in terms of commodities or cash in a period of three years. The United States Government pledged 40 million dollars in food; the Canadian Government pledged 5 million dollars partly in food, partly in cash; Denmark pledged 2 million dollars partly in food, partly in cash; and some other Governments made promises of help without specifying the exact amounts.

I put a Question to the Minister of Agriculture which was answered on 5th February, and in his reply he used these words:
"As a food-importing country we do not envisage that the United Kingdom will have surpluses of food to contribute to the World Food Programme and with the limit we must impose on our total financial contribution to underdeveloped territories, any cash payment to this fund could only be made at the expense of our contribution in other spheres."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1962; Vol. 653, c. 4.]
I want to put it very strongly to the Under-Secretary of State that this is a thoroughly unsatisfactory attitude for the British Government to take in this situation. I put it to him that we ought to pledge a contribution which is at least proportionate to our assessed share of the F.A.O. budget, that we ought to pledge such a contribution either in food or in cash, but preferably in food if we can manage it, because the target is to get two-thirds of the fund in terms of food rather than in cash.

I recognise, of course, as I think one must, that Britain faces particular difficulties as a food importing country. Canada, Denmark and the United States, the countries which I mentioned, are all countries with food surpluses. We, as a net importer of food, are not in a position to contribute so much in terms of food, but, without pretending to be an expert on agriculture, I can say that I believe that our farming community has been concerned for some time with tendencies towards surplus production in some respects. I am thinking particularly of milk production.

There has been a lot of discussion, as I understand, about the problem of surplus milk production and the way in which that could be used. Some farmers were saying last year, I believe, that it was in their own interests to curtail milk production. There was talk of expanding production of dairy-fed pigs and sheep and other animals as a means of using milk. In that situation, I should have thought that we could think in terms of pledging a substantial amount of dried milk to this programme.

Some of the other countries are already pledging dried milk not only to this programme, but to U.N.I.C.E.F., whereby the milk goes towards the feeding of children in countries where there is a serious deficiency of milk. That is one possibility, and I would have thought that egg production was another, the giving of a certain amount of dried eggs towards the programme. I should welcome the comments of the Joint Under-Secretary of State on these points.

If the pledging of food is a difficulty that cannot be overcome, then I say that we should pledge our share of the programme in terms of cash. It is not good enough just to say that the amount which we contribute is bound to be limited by the fact that if we contributed in this way we should have to reduce our contributions to other forms of technical assistance. I feel that we should be making a much bigger effort in terms of technical assistance, particularly through the United Nations agencies.

At a time when the American Government are working hard to get Congress to make a much larger contribution, I think that the other Western countries ought to follow suit and that our Government have dragged their feet to some extent on this issue. I would particularly emphasise the point that the United Nations and its agencies are the best medium for giving technical assistance—better than unilateral arrangements with specific countries—because by being given through the United Nations it does not in any way appear to be a form of disguised colonialism. The receiving countries are members of the United Nations and are able to accept the assistance in that sense.

Particularly as a Foreign Office Minister is to reply to the debate, I make the point that we ought to do everything to build up the work of the United Nations in every possible way. There is, I believe, a Government view to the effect that when projects of technical assistance are undertaken by the United Nations agencies they ought to be undertaken through the medium of the regular budget rather than by voluntary funds of this kind.

For my part, I believe that there is a certain amount of merit in this view, and I think that it would be legitimate for our representatives to argue this at the United Nations. But if our view is not accepted, and if the F.A.O. or any other United Nations agency maintains a programme based on voluntary funds, then, as a good member of the United Nations' family, we ought to accept the fact that we have been outvoted on the point and contribute to the funds. There are many other examples of where we have not done this, and I hope that this will not be another example. It seems to me that the problem which we face is so urgent in terms of the world food situation that we cannot drag our feet on the issue.

I began my speech by referring to the background of misery that exists throughout the world and I would end by saying that for every mouth that needs to be fed now there will be two at the end of the century. We ought to play our full part, and I would welcome some assurance on the point from the Joint Under-Secretary of State.

11.29 p.m.

When I was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour it used to be frequently my task to meet the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) both in debate and at Question Time. One of his many qualities is that he is usually up to date in his information and in his interests, and this debate is no exception.

The resolution on the World Food Programme was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations as recently as 19th December, 1961, and therefore, this is a new and important matter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Ham, North for raising it with his customary efficiency.

Her Majesty's Government are, of course, keenly aware that there is in some countries in the world an overabundance of food while in many others, as the hon. Gentleman so graphically described, there is hunger and malnutrition. We obviously recognise the appalling nature of this deprivation and, indeed, the essential absurdity of the situation.

We realise the importance of finding suitable means of transferring food surpluses from countries which have them but cannot sell them to countries which need food and cannot pay for it. We have, therefore, always sympathised with attempts which have been made in the past to find satisfactory solutions to this problem. The major effort hitherto, as the hon. Member said, has been by the United States on a bilateral basis. He mentioned, in particular, the help that was given to India. In our view, these efforts have been of great benefit, but we accept, also, that there is a place for a multilateral approach to food aid. We think that such an approach may well have considerable advantages for both donor and recipient countries. The aid that is given could well be better coordinated and adjusted to the needs and programmes of developing countries.

However, while we certainly do not see any objection to the utilisation of existing food surpluses in the aid programmes of developed countries which hold surpluses, we do not consider that aid in the form of food should be accepted as an integral part of every country's aid programme. Obviously, to devise and operate a satisfactory scheme for food aid is not simple. The mass transfer of surpluses can disturb normal patterns of trade and damage those countries which live by the production and sale of food, some of which are developing countries, such as Burma, Thailand and Argentina. Others are Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Another difficulty is that, unless carefully managed, it can retard the effective development of food production in the recipient countries. Then there is the risk of perpetuating existing surpluses or even of creating new ones. Again, in schemes such as the World Food Programme, where contributions may be in the form of shipping services, flag discrimination and the disruption of freight rates need to be guarded against. These are important considerations, but they are not just the views of Her Majesty's Government. They are shared by many other members of the United Nations.

As the hon. Member knows, it was thought necessary to incorporate in the framework of the scheme for a world food programme express safeguards against these risks and it was partly for these reasons that it was decided to establish it on a purely experimental basis. Her Majesty's Government accordingly voted for the scheme both at the Food and Agriculture Organisation conference last November and a few weeks later, in the General Assembly, and we certainly wish it well.

That is not to say, however, that we in Britain can ourselves make any contribution to this programme. There are three possible forms of contribution. The hon. Member mentioned, in particular, two of them, contributions in kind and in cash. In addition, there is the contribution by way of services. When examining these we should do so against the background of our already considerable provision of aid to developing countries. This aid from Government funds has been increasing steadily and has risen from £80 million three or four years ago to over £160 million in 1961. The trend is still upwards as disbursements catch up with the increasing commitments undertaken in these years. But, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in the House on 25th July last year, we have to try to ensure that aid expenditure does not rise much above the present level. This means that, generally speaking, we must avoid new commitments.

The hon. Gentleman referred to contribution in kind. This method of assistance—I think he appreciated this—is quite inappropriate to the United Kingdom. This country, as he said, is a large food importer and does not normally produce surplus foodstuffs. As he mentioned, the United States, Canada and Denmark have food surpluses. So far as there may from time to time be small and temporary production in the United Kingdom which is in excess of domestic requirements at current prices, the Government take the view that it is for the producers themselves to dispose of it; and the Ministry of Agriculture and other Departments are always glad to put manufacturers in touch with agencies that might help them to find markets for their products.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we might have surplus milk available for contribution to the world food programme. The fact is that up to now, and save in very exceptional circumstances, we do not produce surpluses in this country. Milk which is not required for liquid consumption is processed into butter, cheese and condensed milk and other milk products. We are net importers of milk products as a whole, and it would hardly be sound economics to be both importing milk products and giving them away at the same time.

As to eggs, we are much closer to a situation in which domestic production virtually meets our requirements, but we are still importing small quantities.

It is conceivable that some stock of processed food might be available at a time when some call was made for aid in kind on an emergency basis. But that would have to be examined as a special case, and is quite different from any suggestion that a regular continuing contribution of this sort could be made.

On the question of a contribution in cash, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, we must be very careful before we add to our existing aid expenditure. We already have a difficult enough task to earn sufficient foreign exchange to pay for our imports. On the whole, the countries with food surpluses, such as those described by the hon. Gentleman, are among the more prosperous.

I do not think that we could arrange a contribution to the world food programme in such a way that this would be in substitution for part of our existing aid. This consists of sums firmly committed to the recipient countries concerned for agreed purposes, and we could not repudiate any of At so as to make room for a contribution to the food programme. In any case, I cannot think of any recipient country, even though it might badly need food, which would want food aid to be at the expense of the imports of industrial machinery and materials which it needs to expand its own productive capacity.

Despite the reservations which I have made, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are fully sympathetic to the idea behind the World Food programme. We welcome it in principle, and we welcome the move to deal with the problem of food surpluses in an international forum. This might be the best hope of achieving a satisfactory solution to what is, despite its simple appearance, a highly complex problem.

But, as things now stand, we honestly doubt whether a British contribution to this programme would be the best way our limited resources could be used to the advantage of the developing countries. As I have said, we are a food importer on a large scale. So far as cash is concerned, we are already giving financial aid to less-developed countries in ways which we believe most acceptable to them and best suited to their needs.

Having regard to our economic situation, this aid is at a very high level, and, despite our well known difficulties, we have not sought to cut it back. But we must obviously be careful about adding to it. Nor, in our view, can a contribution to the World Food Programme be used as a substitute for any of our existing commitments.

I have already congratulated the hon. Gentleman on his choice of subject. We applaud the initiative of the United Nations—

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said, but am I to take it that this is a permanent refusal of the Government to contribute to this programme, or is the hon. Gentleman saying that there are these difficulties and that the Government may or may not make a contribution later?

I was expressing the view of the Government on this matter at the moment. I do not think that I conveyed the impression—I certainly did not intend to—that the view I was expressing was a wholly inflexible one, and that there might not come a situation when we might be able to take a different point of view. I was dealing with the situation as it is at present, having regard to our economic difficulties, the fact that we are an importing country, and that we have no food surplus.

As the opportunity was available, I thought that it was right to mention those reservations. As I said, we appreciate the principle behind the world food programme, but, nevertheless, we feel that in the present situation Britain is in those difficulties that I mentioned. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity of putting these points before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.