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Food Security (Africa)

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2010

I will start my speech, although I am not sure that the Minister is yet here to listen to my remarks.

I am pleased to have secured my first Adjournment debate and to be speaking about food security in Africa. I declare an interest: in September, I was lucky to be part of a parliamentary delegation to Kenya that was organised and paid for by the all-party group for agriculture and food for development. I am pleased to say that one of my fellow travellers, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), is in the Chamber. I plan to limit my remarks to 10 minutes in the hope that he and other hon. Members will be able to speak before the Minister responds.

My week in Kenya is undoubtedly one reason why I applied for the debate. I am not an expert on food security or on Africa, but I am, I admit, a child of the ’80s. The television images I saw as a 10-year-old of starving children in Ethiopia made a deep and lasting impression. I have called the debate because I never want to see those images again, because emergency food relief has to be the last resort, and because I believe that Africa has the ability to feed itself and that we in the UK should be doing more to help African agriculture to realise its potential.

I also passionately believe that at a time when much of our political discussion is focused quite understandably on the state of our domestic economy, it is important that we all remember that there are 265 million people suffering from chronic hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. That is the UK’s population four times over, and a third of the region’s total population. Sadly, that number is set to grow by 2020, when it is estimated that, if current trends continue, half Africa’s population will be affected. We must not let that happen.

I have come here today to ask the Minister to put tackling hunger and malnutrition for millions of Africans at the heart of his Government’s fight against global poverty. I also come to remind him—although I hope that I do not need to—that the primary aim of our overseas development assistance must be to tackle the basic needs of the poorest people in the poorest countries, and to help them help themselves. I also come to say that while maternal health, access to family planning and the fight against disease are all vital, so too is investing in smallholder farmers, most of whom are women. Ironically, it is those smallholder farmers who are most likely to face severe hunger and malnutrition.

I also wish to ask the Minister to increase the UK aid that we spend on helping African farmers so that they can improve their harvests and the productivity of their livestock, to increase the amount of agricultural expertise provided by his Department within African countries, and to use our influence within the international community to ensure that African Governments honour the commitments that they made at Maputo in 2003.

I know that I have set out a long wish list, so let me tell hon. Members why I am convinced that refocusing UK and international efforts in this area could make a significant difference. The availability of adequate food of the right nutritional quality is fundamental to people everywhere. Undernourished mothers give birth to underweight babies. Children who are malnourished in the first two years of life are at a much greater risk of ill health when they are older. How will a child learn if he or she is starving? How will the child’s mother fight off malaria if she does not have a decent diet? How will women be empowered if they cannot feed themselves?

When I was preparing this speech over the weekend, I came across reports of fishermen in Malawi using malaria nets to secure their catches in Lake Victoria. If ever there were an example of the way in which food security underpins so many other development goals, surely that is it. If there were a ready supply of food in Malawi, I would suggest there would have been much more chance of the nets being used for their intended purpose.

When the all-party group visited Kenya in September, we met family after family who told us that while their livelihood was their land, that land often did not produce enough for them to live on. They are not even subsistence farmers; they are sub-subsistence farmers, and there are millions of them in Africa. Given the effects of climate change and more irregular rainfall patterns, there are likely to be many more in years to come.

The sad thing is that it does not have to be that way. The use of better seeds, appropriate fertilisers and access to basic knowledge about planting and irrigation can have a dramatic impact on yields. The current agricultural output in Africa, measured in tonnes per hectare, is less than the UK’s wheat output in 1680. Better storage, cross-breeding of livestock and access to micro-finance can mean the difference between feeding one’s children or not, and the difference between having a small surplus to sell at market or not. None of that is rocket science, yet there is a huge challenge in getting the basics right, and getting the best seeds and right sort of agricultural knowledge to the farmers who need them.

There are fantastic projects, however, that have the potential to be scaled up in a way that could offer real results. Take FIPS in Kenya—Farm Inputs Promotions Africa—a Department for International Development-funded, not-for-profit company, which, through a network of village-based, agricultural advisers, works with the private sector to get new seeds and fertilisers out to the farmers who need them. Take Farm Africa’s dairy goat project in the semi-arid area of Kenya around Mwingi, which trains local people in the cross-breeding of goats to increase milk yields and resistance to drought. Better yields can not only feed the family but generate small amounts of additional household income, which creates a virtuous circle of economic activity.

As the recently published Montpellier panel report says, however, there is a “potentially dangerous gap” between a rich patchwork of on-the-ground activities, such as those I have just mentioned, and a “top-down global response” to addressing food security, which is characterised by much-lauded international conferences and big set-piece policy statements. Do not get me wrong: the pledges of large-scale funding at L’Aquila last year are welcome, but they must translate into real improvements in the lives of the poorest in Africa.

I hope that I have been able to explain why I feel that a focus on food security and agriculture in Africa is so important. I ask the Minister, in the light of what I have said, to consider increasing the proportion of bilateral aid spent on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa to 10% of total DFID money spent there. According to a recent reply to a parliamentary question, the sum for agriculture in that area amounted to £51 million in 2008-09. I calculate that that is just 3% of UK bilateral aid for the region in that year.

Does the Minister agree with World Bank estimates that suggest that a 1% increase in agricultural GDP in Africa reduces poverty by three to four times as much as a 1% increase in non-agricultural GDP? Does he agree that agriculture would, therefore, fit neatly with his Government’s desire to get as much bang for their buck as possible from their overseas development assistance? Will he tell me the position that the UK will be adopting on food security at the G20 summit in the next few days? Will he tell me how much of the £1.1 billion commitment made by the UK at L’Aquila last year has been disbursed in sub-Saharan Africa? Does he know how many of the staff his Department has working in Africa have agricultural training or experience? I understand that there is only one DFID employee with such a background in Africa, who is based in Uganda. I ask him to consider how that might impact on the delivery of the £1.1 billion of commitments. Has he thought about how such a lack of in-country expertise might have affected the offer that each of DFID’s in-country teams have been asked to prepare as part of the bilateral aid reviews? If I were the Minister, I would not be too surprised if those returns were characterised by scant reference to agriculture as a route out of poverty, although perhaps he could reassure us. I appreciate that some of my questions are detailed and that the Minister might not be able to reply to all of them today, but these points are critical if we are to make 2010 the year in which we set the agenda for dealing with the fight against hunger in the decades to come.

If I may, I will leave the Minister with this thought. Investment in small-scale farming will help not only the rural poor. On the first day of our all-party group visit in September, we met a man called David, who lives with his three children in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho. His home is a two-metre by three-metre hut, edged by dirt tracks and foul-smelling gullies. David left the countryside because of family breakdown and because he was unable to feed his children. When he got to Nairobi, however, his life was no better. His saviour was, in fact, a cash-transfer project being run by Concern Worldwide and Oxfam. David’s dream is now to own a piece of land to provide for his family. I could not help but think that if the right type of support had been provided to him and his rural community when it was needed, perhaps he and his family would not be trapped in the Nairobi slum in which they are today.

For millions of Africans, food security is not a fancy concept—it is a matter of life and death. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to address the challenge facing Africa and to use the UK’s position as a world leader in overseas development assistance to ensure that this decade is the one when we really make a difference.

I congratulate my colleague, the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), on securing the debate. I also congratulate her on her speech, which outlined the reasons why investment in smallholder farming underpins many of our country’s development goals and why greater investment in agriculture could yield much wider benefits.

At my last “meet your MP” public meeting in my constituency, I was asked why we are spending so much money on foreign aid when our own country’s financial plight seems so dire. The answer is quite simple: foreign aid not only brings untold benefits to the recipient country and its people—when we do it right—and untold long-term benefits to our own economy and country, but produces a sustainable, stable foreign country that helps and grows itself, which in turn helps to make a safer and more secure world.

I want to expand on my comment about “when we do it right”, because the hon. Lady highlighted several charities and non-governmental organisations that do some fabulous work in Kenya. I must also declare an interest, because on our trip to Kenya with the all-party group on agriculture and food for development, we saw not only the excellent examples to which she referred, but the fact that it is not always necessary to spend great deals of money to implement a change for the better. In the smallholder farming stakes, we saw an excellent project in Mwingi, where Farm Africa is doing some fantastic work with the cross-breeding of goats. We were told that a local goat produced a mere 80 ml of milk a day, but if it is cross-bred with one of the stronger breeds of goat, such as a British variety of goat or a German Alpine goat, it produces up to a litre of milk a day. If that cross-breed is then cross-bred further to 75%—that is a goat that is 75% of the stronger foreign goat and 25% of the local goat—the yield of milk goes up to a staggering 3 litres a day.

When that simple, low-cost exercise is carried out by local farmers, it helps them to become much more sustainable within the food chain, because they can sell their milk to hospitals for money that they can use to buy a variety of food to achieve a balanced diet. Furthermore, the resulting milk has tremendous effects by improving the nutrition of newborn children, and indeed their mothers. It is a real “win-win” situation, whereby a low-cost project empowers local people to strive towards sustainability and, eventually, to excel and become sustainable.

Our Government have a huge vested interest in the big society. We need look no further than British NGOs and charities to see examples of organisations that are living and breathing the big society on a daily basis. Through their volunteer programmes, they empower the people with whom they work to map out their own sustainable futures. The power, innovation, leadership and enterprise of our NGOs are absolutely second to none. The NGOs deliver with passion and genuine innovation for smallholder success, without the corruption and self-interest that we often see in national Governments. They are good at mapping out a sustainable future for smallholder farmers but they need help, both from ourselves and our partners.

For the first time in two generations, Africa has a real opportunity to achieve food and nutrition security through agricultural development. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Montpellier report was published recently. It shows that, despite the fact that the international donor community started to pull out of agricultural development well over two decades ago, there is growing optimism in sub-Saharan Africa that the region can achieve its anticipated green goals.

Food security is a key intermediary outcome in the development process and we have seen a new and growing commitment from African countries to increase resources for agriculture and rural development to at least 10% of national budgets within five years. The challenge for our country, and indeed for our European partners, is how to help to co-ordinate those strategies and how to help to ensure that the momentum is sustained in terms of even greater commitment and funding by the key African and European partners.

The Montpellier report believes that we are well placed to take the lead and drive forward that change. It highlights three key areas that need urgent attention: sustaining the momentum, as I have already mentioned; reducing price volatility; and tackling chronic hunger. My main wish is that the Minister accepts the Montpellier report as a solid blueprint for real sustainable change and that the recommendations in the report, as well as the excellent work of our NGOs and charities in agriculture in particular, are incorporated within our aid programme to help eradicate chronic hunger in Africa for good.

One of the basic requirements in life is food. If we can drive forward our quest to empower people to become self-sustainable with food, the human instinct to survive, along with our aid to empower potential, will ensure that other basic requirements, such as education, health care and housing, will follow. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that the key catalyst to a safer and more secure world is investment in agricultural development and food sustainability.

I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate on a very important subject, and on the powerful and passionate way in which she presented her argument. She also presented the context for any debate on food security, recognising the enormous range of challenges, of which food security is one. The question is how we achieve the critical balance between determining what will be most effective, and what will have most impact in assisting Britain to partner countries to help them graduate away from aid over time, simultaneously meeting the needs of the very poorest people in those countries.

I was delighted that both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) had an opportunity to travel to Kenya with the all-party group on agriculture and food for development—there is no substitute for seeing things for oneself in order to bring these issues to life. To some degree, I have seen these things for myself, as I was born in Tanzania and partly raised and educated in Kenya. The scale of this issue is immense. More than 200 million people in Africa—more than one in four of the continent’s population—suffer chronic hunger. Although Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia have all made significant progress in reducing hunger, many countries have made little or no progress and, frankly, some are going backwards. Levels of hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have nearly trebled since 1990, and the levels in Burundi, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia and Gambia have also increased due to conflict, rapid population growth, economic stagnation or HIV/AIDS. In the years to come, climate change and the scarcity of natural resources will add to the challenge.

The Government are determined to make faster progress in helping to reduce hunger. That is why, at the millennium development goals summit in September, we reaffirmed our determination to tackle malnutrition and to focus our efforts on “the first 1,000 days”—the period from conception until a child’s second birthday—after which intellectual and physical damage from chronic under-nutrition is irreversible.

In doing so, we agreed to work with six major donors to co-ordinate and accelerate our work in countries with high levels of malnutrition. Ghana, Malawi and Uganda are among the first countries to request assistance to reduce under-nutrition rates, which will please the hon. Lady as she referred to a very good example of this type of work in Malawi. It is also why, soon after taking office, the Government reaffirmed our commitment to the L’Aquila food security initiative, which was agreed at the G8 summit in 2009. The agreement aims to increase food production in developing countries, make food more affordable for the poorest and most vulnerable, create wealth and lift the poor out of poverty.

The hon. Lady asked how much of the £1.1 billion in L’Aquila commitments have been spent so far. Although that figure is not yet available, we will certainly write to her as soon as it is. However, I can tell her with confidence that the UK will have met its commitments, which I hope reassures her. Within the G20, we have committed to improving food security by making agricultural trade and markets function more effectively and reducing food price volatility in order to protect those most vulnerable to food price increases.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate. Does the Minister agree that one of the most important things that can be done for food security is to improve food storage facilities? On the ground, I have seen food go to waste many times simply because appropriate food storage was lacking.

I defer to my hon. Friend’s experience and expertise in such matters, as he has shown great commitment to them over the years. He is right. No supply chain can be managed without the ability to store foodstuffs and distribution points that make it accessible, particularly to the hardest to reach. He is right to emphasise that we should consider a well-designed, holistic approach to solving the big challenge.

I would like to bring to the Minister’s attention a fantastic resource in this country, the Natural Resources Institute, which I was lucky enough to visit during the past couple of weeks. Its researchers are working on technical solutions to some of those storage problems. I urge him to look into the work the institute is doing, as it holds some good potential solutions.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight that. There is nothing more important than an evidence base and designing in what works to ensure that the programmes and resources being supplied in partnership to other countries have the greatest impact.

The point is well made. It also ties in with the hon. Lady’s question as to whether Department for International Development personnel could include more agricultural technicians and professionals. I can confirm that we currently have more than one, which will come as some relief. A newly appointed senior economist in Tanzania used to be the head of the agriculture team in the policy division, and we are in the process of recruiting senior agricultural advisers for Rwanda and Mozambique. I am due to visit Mozambique before long and have been to Rwanda and Tanzania.

Early next year, the Government will publish a major new foresight review of the future of farming and food that will consider how the world can continue to feed itself sustainably and equitably over the next 40 years. I hope that the foresight review will have the opportunity to learn from the research and support that the hon. Lady mentioned. We expect its recommendations to influence a wide range of practitioners and policy makers.

I assure the hon. Lady that we are making a difference. In Rwanda, our work on land tenure reform is helping to underpin wealth creation and food security, particularly for women and girls, who drive it. In Malawi, our support for the Government’s agriculture programme has helped farmers produce a maize surplus in each of the last four years. In Ethiopia, our support for the productive safety nets programme has benefited nearly 8 million people previously dependent on emergency aid. In South Africa, we are funding work on zero tillage technology that conserves soil, reduces water losses and improves yields. This year, our immediate assistance in response to severe food shortages in the eastern Sahel—she will have read about them—helped avert a major humanitarian crisis.

Increasingly, African Governments are giving agriculture higher priority, with support from the comprehensive African agriculture development programme, which we strongly support. The CAADP is leading to increased budget provision in the sector. Above all—I think this is the point the hon. Lady was hoping to elicit from me—it is an Africa-owned and Africa-led initiative. It aims to increase productivity by 6% a year.

As the hon. Lady knows, however, farmers do not work for this or any Government. Agriculture is a private sector activity, whether it involves subsistence farmers, smallholders—as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley mentioned—or large-scale commercial farming. The bulk of the investment needed to ramp up productivity will come from the private sector: from farmers’ own pockets, from banks and micro-credit agencies and from local and national investors.

That is why the Government are seeking to increase our engagement with the private sector. A new private sector department is being created within the Department for International Development, and we are working to encourage increased levels of responsible investment in all aspects of agriculture, including production, processing, transportation and retail. That will be recognised as the results of the bilateral aid review emerge. The results on food and agriculture are much more positive than was suggested, although the hon. Lady will not be aware of that, inevitably, as we have not yet been able to aggregate and publish them. We shall do so in due course.

Food security in Africa is high among my priorities. Since taking office, I have visited Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone, and I am off to Nigeria this evening. During my visits, I have seen what a contribution agriculture makes to combating poverty and hunger. It is also hugely important for empowering women, who provide much of the agricultural labour but control just a tiny fraction of the productive assets they need to support themselves and their families. That is why we have made it such a priority.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady was able to visit Kenya as a member of the all-party parliamentary group and to see for herself something of how food security works and should work. I hope she was able to see some of the projects that DFID, under the coalition Government, supports. Much of our work aims to ensure that new agricultural technology, which she was keen to highlight, is taken up swiftly by smallholder farmers, who make a substantial contribution to food production in Africa. Our cash transfer programme for Kenyan pastoralists has reduced the poverty of 376,000 people and had a clear impact on nutrition. That relates to the point about agriculture versus nutrition, which is often a false dichotomy but must be addressed. Increasing private sector investment is clearly important, but the ultimate prize is reducing hunger and malnutrition.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing a debate on an issue that would have justified an hour and a half of debate, had we been given more notice. The Minister has highlighted the role that science will play in many such programmes; I am pleased that the Government safeguarded the science budget in the comprehensive spending review. How will the Department for International Development, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments co-operate on science and consider how it can be delivered in Africa?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful point. The commitment to science can lead to an evidence base that gives us the confidence and sustainability to design the programmes that will have the greatest impact over time. That is precisely why holding on to our precious science budget in the comprehensive spending review was so important. He makes an equally important point: this is not just about a single Department’s efforts, but must involve cross-Department working. We have a number of the inevitable committees and other initiatives. Importantly, I was talking yesterday to my counterpart at DEFRA about precisely such issues of food safety and how the expertise within DEFRA can be harnessed to ensure that the design of our programmes is even more likely to secure the impact and benefits of spending our money well, transparently and in areas of greatest need.

The hon. Lady asked for us to allocate a certain percentage to the issue. It is always more complex than calling for a simple amount within a budget to be allocated; clearly, trade-offs would have to be considered. I hope she will recognise that, as we go through the bilateral and multilateral aid review and, indeed, the humanitarian and emergency response review—coupled with the regional reviews, where there is a real opportunity to look at some regional sharing—she can look forward to seeing how we will aggregate the call for a greater emphasis on food, farming and agriculture with the nutrition elements.

I noted that the noble Lord Cameron—the leader of the all-party group on agriculture and food for development, of which the hon. Lady is a member—highlighted a particularly interesting point about Shujaaz FM radio, which I think all the team must have seen. Important evidence from such trips comes back to DFID, which we can incorporate into our thinking as we move forward, particularly as the foresight group will be reporting early next year.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for introducing the debate and raising the subject. I look forward to working with her and other hon. Members as we find the best way to support those concerned, particularly smallholder farmers, in playing a role in tackling hunger where it is most necessary to do so. We need to ensure that we do so on the basis of evidence and knowledge.