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World Food Production

Volume 893: debated on Thursday 12 June 1975

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Q3.

asked the Prime Minister how Her Majesty's Government will support the view of the Heads of State Conference in Jamaica on the need to increase world food production.

Q6.

asked the Prime Minister what actions the Government propose to give effect to the Commonwealth Conference view of the need to increase world food production.

As I informed other Heads of Government in Kingston, we have adopted an aid strategy geared to the poorest countries and to rural development. We intend to intensify our efforts in these directions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that adverse movements in the terms of trade for primary products often have a disastrous effect on the economies of developing countries? Does he agree that these are best countered by a framework of commodity price indexing? Will he let the House know his thoughts on this matter? Will he tell the House whether the Government will have anything substantial to contribute in that respect to the meeting of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers in August and to the special session of the United Nations General Assembly in September?

Yes. My hon. Friend will be aware that the point he raised was at the centre of my proposals on commodities, including food and other primary commodities—namely, that boom and bust in commodity prices has the worst possible effects on developing countries—and our determination, with other countries, was to obtain some redress or reversal of the balance between the developing and the developed countries in these matters. That was the purpose of my proposal. It was widely welcomed by the Commonwealth and has been welcomed by many other countries since then.

Indexing is a highly technical and difficult matter. I said in that speech that it must be studied. I spelled out some of the practical difficulties. If my hon. Friend has not read my speech I shall be glad to send him a copy, as it might weary the House if I went into all the technicalities of indexation while answering this question.

The working party that was set up was due to meet this week and is expected to produce its report in time for the Ministers who attend the special session of the United Nations in September. It will also be available to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers because they meet in the same week in September.

Has consideration been given to the possibility of a formal approach by the Commonwealth to the member nations of the OPEC group, many of the richest of whom are extremely keen to develop food production but have been finding difficulty in identifying suitable schemes and, when they do so, in finding technicians for development?

I think that the idea is right but that the machinery proposed by the hon. Gentleman—that the Commonwealth as a whole should meet the OPEC countries for this purpose—is not necessarily right. A number of OPEC countries have, with considerable generosity, approached developing countries in Africa, Asia and elsewhere and given them considerable financial and higher technical assistance. We are all concerned over this matter.

I welcome these developments, but I am not sure that it should be a kind of bilateral Commonwealth-OPEC approach.

Does the Prime Minister accept that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the increase in food production to feed a hungry world? What is the Government's attitude towards the Common Market policy of encouraging people to discontinue horticultural production rather than providing money to allow them to continue?

While not wanting to take the House back into those exciting weeks which ended last Thursday, I should have thought the opposite was the case. It may be true with regard to individual products. But the hon. Gentleman will know that the widening up of the developing world to the markets of Europe, and, indeed, more widely, is essential to what I know he has in mind.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is not only the production but the distribution of food which is important? What proposals will the Government be making to other members of the European Community in future to prevent the immoral accumulation of surpluses deliberately taken off the market?

I certainly agree about distribution. I think that distribution costs are important. This ties up with what the Prime Minister of Jamaica strongly pressed on me. There have been recent inquiries in this country, for example, about the distribution of fruit and other produce from the Caribbean, to see whether the costs were excessive. That is the line on which we should be working at this time. My hon. Friend will know that we recently had a conference in this country, on our initiative—the Commonwealth Ministerial Meeting on food production and rural development, at which these questions were considered.

Regarding food surpluses in the Common Market, my hon. Friend will know that as a result of the negotiations undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, a number of steps, such as tighter price and cost control, are likely to lead to a much lower accumulation of surpluses in future. We ourselves are not involved in storage. We have secured other means of dealing with surpluses. My hon. Friend will also know that when a mountain developed, since the renegotiations began, it was the British Government who insisted that, instead of selling it off to the Soviet Union, as was done by the previous Government, it should be made available to pensioners in Britain at specially subsidised cheap prices.