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World Food Supplies

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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8.55 a.m.

A great many reasons are given to explain our present economic ills and the problems of inflation, recession and unemployment. Some people blame the trade unions. Others blame the Common Market. Yet others regard the oil-rich States as the main culprits. But a major factor in our economic difficulties was the disastrous failure of world harvests in 1972. There was a widespread failure across the world, and in both hemispheres, in the harvests of the major grain-growing countries and, consequently, a shortage of grain and animal feedstuffs which pushed up prices, leading to an escalation in the price of raw materials throughout the world.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves from time to time that, despite all our advanced technological knowledge, the world's economy still depends greatly on the work of farmers and farm workers. The disastrous fact is that mankind has run out of reserves of food to tide over the lean years when harvests fail. For people in this country it means dear sugar, expensive meat and rising costs for other food, with the inconveniences and, to the poorer people, hardship which this undoubtedly causes. It is said that one Bangladesh farmer commented to another "There is a world food crisis because the British are short of icing sugar for their Christmas cakes".

However, for people in other parts of the world these problems mean not expensive food and hardship but famine, starvation and death. We have seen this at its grimmest and most obvious in the Sahel region of West Africa where years of drought have brought appalling tragedy and total destruction to entire peoples across the African continent. Similarly, in Bangladesh, for the opposite reason, the great floods caused by the rivers flowing from the mountains, the torrential tropical rains and the monsoons have washed away the crops and land. But whatever the cause, the problem is there and for many people it is not a question of being short of food; it is a question of having no food at all.

In the shadow of these events—harvest failures, great droughts, floodings—the representatives of 130 nations gathered in November last year for the first great World Food Conference, held in Rome. It was called by decision of the United Nations General Assembly following a suggestion or initiative by the American Secretary of State, Dr. Kissinger. I do not intend to weary the House by going over all the arguments and counter-arguments adduced at the conference, but I wish to draw attention to the four major decisions taken by it.

First, it was agreed to set up a World Food Council whose duty it would be to co-ordinate the international agencies involved in agricultural matters and to create a body at ministerial level to try to devise a world strategy and world policy on the provision of food. The World Food Council will consist of members nominated to the United Nations General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council and will be serviced within the framework of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the FAO. It will be a high-powered body designed to evolve policies and strategies by international agreement to ensure that a repetition of the kind of disaster that occurred in 1972 will not have the appalling consequences which we have seen within the last 18 months and which may yet continue into the next year or two unless strong action is taken by the richer countries.

Since I am fairly certain that Britain will become a member of the World Food Council. I should like to know whether we shall be represented by someone from the Ministry of Overseas Development or by someone from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This could be a decision of some importance because we saw at the World Food Conference that the British contribution, which was fairly widely criticised, seemed to be dominated by the fact that our main representative came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rather than from the Ministry of Overseas Development, which many people woud have preferred.

If the council comes into existence and begins to work effectively, British policy within it and the British contribution to it will be greatly influenced by whoever is chosen by the Government to put forward the British viewpoint. I should like to know whether that viewpoint will derive from strictly British agricultural interests and strictly British food interests or whether there will be a fairly strong streak of consideration for the world food position expressed by someone from the Ministry of Overseas Development, who may have a somewhat broader view than we can reasonably expect fom the Ministry of Agriculture. While I cannot reasonably expect my hon. Friend—the Parliamentary Secretary to answer that question this morning, I shall be glad if he will pursue it later with the Government.

The second main decision of the World Food Conference was to set up an international fund for agricultural development. This proved to be a matter of considerable controversy because many of the Western Powers in particular took the view that there were enough existing funds—for instance, the United Nations Development Fund—within the FAO and many other agencies through which help to agriculture could be channelled as and when required.

The conference also took the view that if extra funds were to be provided they might perhaps come from the newly-rich oil-producing States rather than the Western World. The only country which has so far pledged any financial help to this international fund is Iran, which I understand has offered $150 million.

The question then arising is whether we are to contribute to the fund at all, if so how much, when and on what conditions, if any. Shall we take the view that our existing contributions to other international agencies or through Common Market institutions are sufficient, or shall we be prepared to give something to this new special international fund for agricultural development? If so, how much?

Our present contribution to development in agriculture is not a very high percentage of our aid budget. The most recent figures that I have been able to obtain show that only 5 per cent. of our project aid goes towards agricultural projects, and this is widely scattered in countries round the world. It is true that there is another 15 per cent. for general infrastructure technical aid to other countries, some of which has a bearing on rural development and could affect agricultural development and agricultural production. But in 1973, according to figures supplied to me, only £7.4 million out of £106 million project aid was devoted to agricultural projects in continents and countries scattered all over the globe.

However, I am pleased to see that last year my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development concluded an agreement for aid of £11 million to Tanzania which will be devoted largely to rural development. I welcome this resumption of aid to Tanzania, and I hope that it will improve relations between our two countries, which suffered because of the cutting off of aid in 1965.

The key point following from the World Food Conference decision is whether the creation of this new fund will spur our efforts to assist financially with agricultural development in the developing world or whether we shall say that we are already doing enough elsewhere.

The third major decision of the World Food Conference was that there should be set up a co-ordinated system of nationally-held cereal reserves supported by a worldwide food information and food shortage service. In other words, there was to be an international intelligence system designed to anticipate serious food shortages, whether caused by bad harvests, bad weather or inadequate marketing arrangements. In addition, although the conference could not come to any conclusion about an internationally-held reserve of grain, there should at least be reserves in individual countries which together might constitute an adequate working reserve in the event of another 1972 lean year.

Britain is an importer of grain. We are not an exporting country. We are not a surplus producer. But one practice in this country which should be given a great deal more attention is that of importing an immense amount of feeding grain for our livestock. I am told that it takes 8 lb. of grain to produce 1 lb. of beef. I have also learned that 400 million tons of grain are fed to livestock in the Western industrial world, which is more than the total consumed by people in China and India.

We in this country should look carefully at this policy of raising livestock on imported grain to the extent that we do and at whether it would be possible, through the annual price review, our agricultural subsidy system and our annual negotiations with the farming community, to try to encourage the greater use of grass, which incidentally is one of our great natural resources, and root crops as an alternative to the use of grain feed for our animal stock. This question probably cannot be answered today, but there should be urgent discussion between the Ministry of Overseas Development and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Is it really preposterous that we might think of rationing bread to save others from starving? Mr. Attlee did it in 1946 at a time of infinitely greater economic difficulty. It might be thought an outrageous proposal in these times when people even balk at the thought of using their cars a little less in the face of an oil crisis. But when it is estimated that between 40 million and 70 million of our fellow human beings may face starvation in the next year, perhaps we might think of some practical way of reducing our own food consumption to a more reasonable level.

The fourth main decision of the conference was that the producer countries should provide food aid finance for at least 10 million tons of cereals each year over the next three years. We are not an exporter of grain, but we could provide money to ensure that that grain went to countries too poor to buy it even if it were available. Moreover the EEC has a stockpile of 8 million tons, a carry-over from last year's harvest. The EEC commitment to food aid at present is 1·3 million tons. I would strongly urge that Britain should use her influence to increase this commitment to at least 2·6 million tons to overcome the shortfall which will otherwise occur in the next 12 months or less.

Those four main conclusions of the conference do not in themselves solve the urgent short-term problem. It is reckoned that between 7 million and 10 million tons of grain will be required within the next seven months to meet the present food crisis, but an additional 1·6 million tons of fertiliser will have to be found to supply countries whose output will otherwise decline disastrously.

A meeting of the main grain-producing nations was held on 29th November and concluded that that amount could be provided if the money was forthcoming. The question again arises whether Britain is prepared to supply any of this money and, if so, how much. We have offered 25,000 tons of fertiliser to help the countries suffering from the shortage. That is not enough, and I understand that the British industry could well double that amount without serious damage to our own agriculture. We are already producers of more than 4 million tons of fertiliser a year. Countries like Holland have already as much as ourselves. We should be more generous. I recognise, however, that our offer is generous compared with what has been offered elsewhere. Also, within the Common Market it is essential to pressurise our partners to be more generous in the provision of grain and money and in their contribution to the fertiliser fund.

In the long term the problem remains. It has been estimated that the world needs about 20 million tons more grain every year to keep up with the expansion of the world's population. In some parts of the world, fortunately, there has been an increase in output in 1974. Production of wheat, rice, and maize in Latin America and Asia increased. There are encouraging signs that China, with her immense population of 800 million, is making successful efforts to produce the food to feed her own people. But although there was an increase in some parts of the world last year, there was a decline overall—and the world's population is inexorably increasing.

In conclusion, I want to touch on the specific points in the British aid programme. It is clear that to solve the problem in the long term we must help the developing countries to help themselves. We must increase our technical assistance in agriculture, with particular regard to subsistence farmers who represent so high a proportion of the food producers in Asia and Africa. We need more research and development into better strains of seed and pesticides. We need a higher output of fertiliser. In this regard I wonder how far this country is helping developing countries to create the fertiliser plants to produce this essential commodity for themselves.

A little while ago I read a very interesting suggestion that it might be possible in the future to produce high-yield crops without fertiliser as a result of some special research which apparently is being carried out by the Agricultural Research Council's nitrogen fixation unit at Sussex University. I do not have the scientific expertise to evaluate this effort, but if it is as revolutionary as is suggested I should be interested to know from my hon. Friend what attention his Ministry is paying to this development and what effort the British Government are prepared to make to exploit this scientific breakthrough and to see that developing countries have a chance to exploit it as well.

The crucial question is whether our aid programme is geared to a substantially improved effort in agricultural development. I very much welcome the initiative which my right hon. Friend the Minister has taken in calling the Commonwealth Rural Development Conference, which I understand will take place in March, but it is essential that the conference should be followed up by practical effort and cash.

The world has allowed itself to drift into a dangerous situation with regard to food supplies, despite ample warnings. For us this means the dangers of inflation, recession, unemployment and social unrest. For the Third World it means hunger, famine and outright starvation. We can avoid most if not all of these by a generous outpouring of our wealth and scientific knowledge for the general benefit of our comrades throughout the world.

9.19 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Overseas Development
(Mr. John Grant)

The whole House—if I can use that phrase at this hour of the morning—should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for raising this subject. I am a little disappointed that there is no one on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that it does not reflect the Opposition's view of the situation.

My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the crisis dimensions of the food problem being faced by many people in many parts of the world today—the problem of hunger, malnutrition and starvation, and, as he said, the problem of death. It is right that the House should be deeply concerned about this situation, and right to expect that the Government should do all they can to help to relieve the problem.

My hon. Friend mentioned Bangladesh. The stark suffering that I saw for myself so recently in the refugee camps and during a brief stay in India, where I saw some quite frightening urban poverty, has left an indelible impression on me of the dire needs of the developing countries. That is an impression that no attendance at the conference table could possibly convey.

That is not to minimise the importance of the World Food Conference, which was concerned essentially with the longer-term problems and underlined the need to improve food production and distribution and improve rural development in the developing countries. The Government are anxious to do all they can to help the developing countries increase their own production and produce more food for themselves, getting it to the poorest people so that they may eat better. Britain has for a long time paid special attention to agricultural development, particularly in the least developed countries, and we have encouraged those countries to give adequate emphasis in their development programmes to this sector.

About 40 per cent. of our overall bilateral aid now goes to rural and agricultural development, and we are determined increasingly to direct our aid effort this way. It was very much in line with this policy that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development took the initiative in Rome in suggesting the Commonwealth Ministers Conference on Rural Development which we shall be hosting in London in March. My right hon. Friend anticipates that this conference will get down to discussing some of the practical difficulties which arise at grass roots level, and how best we donor nations could help our friends in the developing world to overcome them. I am convinced much of the answer lies at grass roots level. I was most impressed by the activities I saw at first hand in local communities in South Asia—the bare-foot doctors, the para-medics, the farming co-operatives and so on. They were rays of light in a generally dismal scene, but there were too few of them.

I hope that we can co-operate more closely than ever before with the voluntary agencies in rural development projects, and we are currently discussing with the agencies plans for joint funding so that their experience in these matters can be bolstered by direct Government cash aid.

In the Queen's Speech at the beginning of this Parliament the Government stated that they recognised the economic problems confronting developing countries and would seek to increase the provision of aid. Moreover, unlike our predecessors, we have accepted in principle the United Nations target that the provision of official development assistance should amount to 0·7 per cent. of gross national product. But the speed at which we can move towards this target must be determined in the light of our own very serious economic circumstances.

Nevertheless, we expect that our gross spending on the aid programme during the current financial year will be around £350 million compared with £293·5 million for 1973–74. It is our firm intention that an increasing proportion of that programme should be devoted to the countries most seriously affected by the rising oil and other prices and to the development of their rural sectors. Increased food production, of course, must depend very much on the availability of agricultural inputs, and my hon. Friend mentioned fertilisers, which is probably the most important.

There are difficulties in the supply of fertilisers arising mainly out of an acute shortage on the world market of the raw materials used in manufacture. We have to import these materials, and there are limits to what we in Britain can do directly in the short-term. We have agreed to make available through the FAO Fertiliser Supply Scheme 25,000 tons of fertiliser. In addition we have recently provided 10,000 tons for Bangladesh. Commercial exports to developing countries have been much greater than in previous years.

My right hon. Friend is considering with my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Industry and the United Kingdom Fertiliser Manufacturers' Association what more can be done to help those developing countries most seriously affected.

We are also using the aid programme to assist developing countries to create their own sources of fertiliser supply. This is immensely important. For example, since 1970 Britain has committed over £25 million in capital aid to India alone for the construction of fertiliser plants.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Agricultural Research Council unit at Sussex University, which is looking into the production of fertilisers from non-petroleum products. Although I gather that recent findings there show some advance, I am told that it will be some years before any process can be effectively developed for commercial use. However, we are very interested in the project.

In addition to capital aid, technical assistance has for long been provided under the aid programme. British experts have been provided to serve in posts relating to agriculture, and British consultants have been engaged to carry out surveys and studies in the agricultural sectors. We also recognise the importance of research generally into agricultural production. Our bilateral assistance for agricultural research is concentrated on specific problem-solving projects carried out both overseas and in Britain. International agricultural research is supported by the Government's giving grants to several international research institutes.

To help meet the short-term food problem we expect to spend about £20 million on food aid in the current financial year, of which roughly £18 million is our share of the cost of the supply and delivery of cereals and other products being provided as EEC food aid. The expected expenditure on EEC food aid in 1974–75 represents an increase of £13 million over the expenditure in the previous financial year.

Our actions in this respect have been concentrated on the countries in most need. For example, 54 per cent. of the 1973–74 commitments was with Mali, Bangladesh and India; 21 per cent. is held in reserve for use in emergencies; and the remaining 25 per cent is for refugees in the Canal Zone and for the World Food Programme. We have taken great satisfaction since we became a member of the EEC from seeing its distribution policies for food aid financed from the EEC budget similarly concentrated more and more on the most needy countries. My right hon. Friend has played a significant rôle in this.

We cannot solve the world food problem on our own. It requires a massive international effort from both developed and developing countries. The World Food Conference was not the beginning. A great deal was being done before that, but the conference emphasised the magnitude of the problem. Since the conference the proposed World Food Council has been formally established by the United Nations General Assembly, and the United Kingdom has been elected to the council for a three-year period. I cannot say which Minister will be involved in that work, but I noted my hon. Friend's points and will see that they are noted elsewhere.

We are waiting for the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene a meeting of all interested countries and institutions to work out the details of the proposed International Fund for Agricultural Development. We shall be represented at that meeting. Pending a satisfactory outcome of the meeting, expect us to contribute our share.

Although we had our doubts about the creation of new institutions, there was a hope at the conference that the fund would mobilise food aid money from new sources. We very much hope that that will happen.

We also supported the move to achieve international co-ordination of national food stocks, but there are practical difficulties to be resolved. The FAO is due to discuss the matter again next month.

My hon. Friend has made many valuable suggestions, some of them perhaps a little contentious, but none of them preposterous, to use his own word. The Government will take all of them very seriously. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that the Government in general, and my right hon. Friend and myself in particular, consider that it is vital that our policy to provide in hard times the greatest help for those in the greatest need should not stop at the white cliffs of Dover. Our aid programme is being increasingly geared to the needs of the poorest people of the world community, whose greatest single need is for an adequate supply of food.