Skip to main content

Food Security and Famine Prevention (Africa)

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 15 September 2011

Before I call Amber Rudd to move the motion, I inform the House that after the opening speeches from each side there will be a six-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions in this debate, as a large number of Members wish to participate.

I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the contribution of the British public, via the Disasters Emergency Committee, and the British Government to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa; recognises that emergency food relief must always be the last resort and that improving the productivity and resilience of domestic agricultural systems in Africa must be a priority for the UK and the international donor community; and calls upon the Government to increase its focus on improving awareness around nutrition and agriculture in the developing world to support farmers and secure greater international food resilience and to champion the welfare of those in the developing world in the discussions on food price volatility at the upcoming G20 Summit in Cannes.

The motion was tabled by me and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and is supported by 30 other Members—it is truly a cross-party motion supported by Members from throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that that reflects the seriousness of the subject matter and the settled desire of the House to have the opportunity to debate it.

One might think that things had improved in the horn of Africa if one only followed the media, but unfortunately they have not. The food crisis has, I am afraid, got much worse. Last week, the UN announced that a sixth region of Somalia has entered the famine. There are now 750,000 people at risk and an estimated $2.5 billion is required to prevent that starvation escalating, but there is currently a $950 million shortfall without even estimating the needs beyond December 2011.

Despite such uncertainties, the UK has led the international response. Despite the many economic difficulties we all have at home, the UK Government have led and I believe that they should be commended for that. They have done what they set out to do and have not tried to balance the books on the backs of the poorest, and they have contributed £188 million. The UK public’s generosity through individual gifts reflects their support for the Government in this generosity. By the end of last week, they had given £57 million, which is greater than the amounts given by the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Switzerland put together. The UK Government have a responsibility, however, both to the general public, who have given so much, and to the citizens of the horn of Africa, who have so little, to ensure that that money really delivers.

Famines are political. We all know that the immediate response to a famine must be food, aid and shelter, but we should also look hard at what else can be done earlier on. It is not the lack of food but the fact that some people cannot get access to the food that causes the famine. The main cause of food security in Africa is war and conflict. Famine is about so much more than food: it is about a famine of education, democracy, health, transport and so many other items. The food famine becomes a symptom of that vast failure. The last famine in Europe was the Irish potato famine, which was a failure of politics as much as a failure of the agriculture that season.

I believe that we in this House should encourage and support the efforts towards conflict prevention through the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and any Government Department, and we can work with the organisations that are already settled in such societies to try to do that. I am aware that external interventions in fragile states are fraught with risk. We know that they can make things worse, but we must nevertheless be bold and try always to support good governance so that we can try to promote the emergence of civil society.

As the Nobel prize winner Professor Amartya Sen famously noted, there are no famines in democracies that have a free press. We can and should help support organisations that help with building a free society—that is the true version of early prevention of a famine. We also must not lose sight of the help we can give towards building agricultural resilience to famine. Agriculture is the lifeblood of the national economies of the horn of Africa. In 2009, 50% of the gross domestic product of Ethiopia came from agriculture, and the equivalent figure was 22% in Kenya and 60% in Somalia. The majority of the labour force in those countries work in rural areas and 80% are smallholders working less than 2 hectares. When we consider that the Palace of Westminster covers 3 hectares, we can begin to get a feeling of what a small area they have to work in and how precarious their living is. We should try to focus our support on the organisations working with those small farmers and micro-scale producers who can produce a much greater yield than the large monoculture farms. Seven out of 10 of the world’s hungry are members of those small rural households.

The UK public, generous as they have been, expect results from UK aid. I welcome once more the huge international effort, of which the UK has been so supportive, to provide immediate famine relief, which is saving lives day by day, but we must also focus on long-term agricultural resilience, helping communities to improve their yield. If we do that—if we can help them build up their own incomes—we also help them towards building up their own civil societies. A community who have a surplus can invest in their own education and in their own health service, so we have the twin benefit of helping with the production of agriculture and helping communities create their own incomes, thereby building, from the bottom up, the civil society that can then provide the stability of a democracy that is less likely to go into famine.

We all know that this is complex. When we talk about famine, people start listing, as I have, its many different elements. We must not let the complexity of the subject put us off. We must continue putting our efforts into prevention. We must try to work with the famine as it is at the moment, but above all we must try to make sure that it does not happen again by supporting people so that their own civil society can emerge.

I am pleased to open the debate along with the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time to have this very important debate.

The famine in Somalia and the widespread emergency that exists across the region is the result of many failures. The failure of rainfall is often cited on the news, but just as important, if not more so, are the failures of Governments, both regionally and internationally, the failure to address the underlying causes of famine and food insecurity, and the failure to act in time and in a manner that prevents people from not having enough food. In Somalia, of course, there is also the fundamental failure of the state and the absence of peace and stability for the best part of two decades.

The UK has undoubtedly taken a leadership role in responding to the current crisis. The public’s generosity should be applauded, as should the Government’s contribution to the relief effort and the incredible work of our British charities. However, if we want to consign famine and chronic hunger in Africa to history, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Do national and international Governments respond quickly enough to emerging crises, and are we doing enough now to prevent further deaths in the horn of Africa? As the hon. Lady asked, have we done enough to boost small-scale agriculture production and support rural livelihoods in our international development work in Africa? Have we been too complacent about food price volatility, commodity speculation, biofuel land-grabs and food export bans? I hope that there will be answers to some of those questions during the debate.

I was 10 when I first saw TV images of dying children in Ethiopia. A quarter of a century has passed since then, and it saddens and angers me that yet again we see those scenes on our televisions. The crisis did not start when we first saw the reports in the news; the first warning signs came as early as last August. I have questions about the role of African Governments in facing up to and addressing emerging crises and about their capacity to respond. One NGO worker recently told me that in some parts of Africa they cannot mention the F-word and the C-word—famine and cholera—because the Governments simply do not like to hear them. Denying that the problem exists is not the way to stop it happening.

I also ask myself why, despite early-warning mechanisms being in place, the international humanitarian system waited until people were dying before it responded on the scale that was needed. Surely there needs to be more flexibility in the way that centrally held emergency funds can be released. I know that the report of Lord Ashdown’s humanitarian emergency response review underlines the importance of anticipation, but anticipation must be followed by action if it is to have any significance. I note the reference in the report published by DFID today to slow-onset crises and how we might better respond to those.

That leads me to the situation now. We know that 750,000 people are at risk of dying in the next few months alone. That is the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds. Thousands of people, predominantly women and children, are turning up at already swollen refugee camps every week. We must find a way to address ongoing needs—health and sanitation as well as food needs. As I understand it, many of the humanitarian grants that have funded the relief operation last for only six months, and some start to expire as early as October. We need a plan.

I could speak for longer about the current situation, but I know that the Secretary of State is here to provide an update and I want to turn to the issue of how we prevent such catastrophes from happening again. Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General called for the crisis in the horn of Africa to be turned into an opportunity. Among other things he called for investment in sustainable livelihoods; he is entirely right. One of the best ways to do that would be for the international community to stop paying lip service to the idea of supporting rural livelihoods in Africa—to the smallholder farmers and pastoralists—and get on and do it. We also need to have hard, grown-up conversations with African Governments about their expenditure priorities.

Some 70% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa are dependent on farming. When I visited Kenya last year I met many families who told me that their livelihood was their land but often their land did not produce enough for them to live on. They are sub-subsistence farmers. The sad thing is that it does not have to be that way. There are many brilliant projects run by charities such as Farm Africa, in which small interventions—better seeds, appropriate fertilisers, crossbreeding of livestock and basic knowledge about planting and irrigation—produce hugely increased yields and improve the resilience of local populations. The challenge is to scale up those initiatives, to extend their reach and to get all African Governments investing properly in agricultural extension services and appropriate research and development.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case about what can be done at a micro-agriculture level to support those farmers. Does she agree that the success of that absolutely depends on UK Government leadership in gaining access to markets for those farmers?

I certainly do, and I shall come to some of the wider international issues later in my speech.

If we are serious about addressing these problems, the UK needs to look at how we prioritise our overseas aid expenditure, setting a standard for other donors in respect of investment in agriculture. Between 2007 and 2009, DFID gave on average $32 million per year to agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa—1.8% of our total bilateral aid in the region. When we increase our aid budget in 2013, what will we spend the additional money on? How much will go into supporting smallholder farmers and pastoralist communities? I have seen research that suggests that of the 14 operational or summary plans publicly available from DFID for African countries, six make no reference at all to agriculture or farmers, three make passing reference, two refer to food security in relation to humanitarian spend and only three—Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Mozambique—have any significant focus on agriculture and farming.

I compliment my hon. Friend on her speech. She mentioned land purchases by western farming interests and other wealthy countries—some in the far east, in Asia. Does she not think that there has to be some change in the mechanism so that it is impossible for wealthy countries to buy and take very valuable land which they then keep for themselves and for private food exports to themselves, leaving the people surrounding them in Africa in the very vulnerable and dangerous situation in which they are now?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I am not an expert on these issues, but I think that the international system needs to change. It seems completely wrong that huge amounts of land in parts of Africa are growing crops that go into our cars rather than food that goes into the mouths of the people who live in those areas.

Before I move on to some of the wider international issues, I take the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State if he might update us on some of the things that are already under way in the UK in terms of our contribution to food security. In L’Aquila in 2008, we made a number of commitments. When will the Secretary of State publish the data on disbursements for 2010-ll? I know that the Department claims to be on track, but there are those who would like to see the evidence of that money being spent. Will he also tell us if and when a decision will be taken about investing the funds of the global agriculture and food security programme?

I want Africa to have the chance to realise its potential—

As the hon. Lady mentioned L’Aquila, does she agree that the UK claims to be on track for the disbursements, but other countries, such as Russia, France and the United States, are way behind what they promised?

Order. May I gently remind the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) that the Backbench Business Committee recommended eight minutes for her speech and that of the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). We are now overshooting, so perhaps she will bear that in mind. I know that she has taken interventions, but many hon. Members are waiting to speak so perhaps she could draw to a conclusion.

My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was trying to accommodate interventions. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) makes a good point.

Let me conclude by moving on to the international issues. Oxfam has recently produced an incredible report, “Growing a Better Future”, setting out the serious challenges that exist within the world’s economic system that prevent the poorest people in the poorest countries from accessing the food they need. We have already talked about the purchase of land for biofuels and there is also the issue of excessive commodity speculation increasing volatility in food prices, and those issues need to be addressed. I know that it is not completely in the gift of the Secretary of State or the UK, but let us think about how we champion those issues in discussions such as those at the G20 in Cannes.

I have covered a number of issues this afternoon, but I conclude by saying that our world is becoming ever more interconnected, and the fears of some of my constituents about immigration will be addressed in the long term only if the developing world becomes a place where the local population want to remain. I can understand why a family living on the outskirts of Nairobi, having fled the countryside because they cannot feed their children, may want a better life. The inequalities that exist between the developed and developing world must be addressed. We have a responsibility to do so and, more importantly, it is countries such as ours that have the power to act. The scale of the crisis in the horn of Africa is a wake-up call. I hope that we rise to the challenge.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) on two extremely good speeches on the vital subject that the House is debating.

The motion has three specific points. I want to say a few words about all three, but I start by acknowledging that the motion mentions the generosity of the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. Throughout the country, people have supported that, and nearly £60 million has been raised. That, together with the efforts of the British Government and other Governments around the world, seeks to address the crisis in the horn of Africa and to stop a disaster becoming a catastrophe.

The House will be aware of what is happening in the horn of Africa. The rains have failed. Enormous numbers of people are moving first from the centre of Somalia down to Mogadishu and then from Somalia out across the borders into Kenya and Ethiopia. The Dollo-Ado camps in Ethiopia now contain 120,000 Somalis, 80,000 of whom have arrived there in the last few weeks. In Mogadishu, which I visited just three weeks ago, camps have sprung up all over that city. The World Food Programme is today feeding some 327,000 refugees there, in particular in therapeutic feeding.

In Dadaab, which I visited earlier in the summer—I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has been there recently, too—huge numbers of people have come across the border into Kenya. I saw a sight that one rarely sees in Africa—large numbers of mothers and their children waiting in the early morning in complete silence. I was able to talk to some of them; they told awful stories about being attacked and beaten as they came with their children out of Somalia. Many had lost children on that march, and their feet were cut to pieces by that long march. I pay tribute to the Kenyan Government who are housing 430,000 people in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, which was built originally for 90,000.

I also visited Wajir, where I was able to see the brilliant work that has been done by British non-governmental organisations—in particular Save the Children, but many others—in trying to cope with the crisis. I acknowledge and pay tribute to my shadow, the right hon. and learned Lady, for the way in which she, too, has emphasised the importance of placing help for girls and women at the centre of what we are doing—they are in the forefront of the crisis—and for the work that she has done in ensuring that this issue stays at the top of our international agenda.

The people in those camps are in many ways the lucky ones. Inside Somalia we are probably reaching about 1.2 million of the 3 million people who are in serious jeopardy at this time. Those who have followed these things will have seen that the global acute malnutrition and the serious acute malnutrition rates in Somalia are horrific. We have not seen such rates since the 1992 famine. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye made clear, it is not often starvation that kills people who are caught up in famines, for the reasons that she eloquently set out; it is disease. When the rains come, the immune systems of large numbers of people, already shredded by hunger, will not be able to withstand the waterborne diseases that will cut like a knife through that very vulnerable population. Cholera is already endemic in Somalia and Mogadishu, and measles and malaria will also affect huge numbers of very vulnerable people when the rains come.

Will my right hon. Friend use his considerable leadership in his capacity as Secretary of State, within the international community, to get to the root of this issue? We want to deliver humanitarian relief now, but if we had spent half the money that we will now have to spend in advance, we would have avoided the problem and people would not have been in stress and dying. Spending money in advance rather than waiting for the crisis is surely the way we will have to deal with this in future.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, which I am coming to directly.

Britain has engaged vigorously over recent months in addressing all these issues, and I pay tribute to the outstanding team that Britain has in Nairobi, across Departments of the British Government, working with our partners and providing real leadership and advice across the international system.

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the emergency situation, which he has described in great detail, I congratulate him on his early and substantial response, but I am concerned about the details of a written answer that he gave me in which he suggests that the regional financial shortfalls in the horn amount to $918 million. In spite of our own considerable contribution, that is a very worrying figure. I know that my right hon. Friend is working hard to encourage the international community to contribute more, but is there anything else that can be done?

I will come to that point directly. Let me set out what we in Britain are doing to help. First, in Somalia, Britain will be vaccinating more than 1.3 million children against measles and 670,000 children against polio, and providing mosquito nets for 160,000 families. During the last week, we think that we have managed to reach an additional 40,000 families inside Somalia, and 10,000 tonnes of food to treat and prevent moderate malnutrition have now arrived in the country. In Kenya, we are providing clean water for more than 300,000 people in Dadaab, and in northern Kenya more generally, we are helping 100,000 who have received 600 tonnes of UK-funded food aid during the last month.

We have been working in Ethiopia for many years—this relates directly to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)—and it is for that reason that since 1992 the prevalence of malnutrition has fallen by about 50%. That shows the difference between working in a country where development can take place and Somalia, where it is very difficult. In Ethiopia we are feeding more than 2.4 million people. We recently provided 50 tonnes of seeds and 60 tonnes of fertiliser, and we are helping to vaccinate 300,000 livestock, which is important in enabling people to continue with their livelihoods when the famine is over. We are working extremely hard to persuade others to support that effort, with some success. Around £400 million has been pledged for Somalia since 1 July, and I will be working on that, along with other Ministers, at next week’s meetings of the United Nations and the World Bank. Progress is being made, but insufficient progress.

I come now to the central point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, who chairs the International Development Committee, and which is dealt with in the final part of the motion: the importance of trying to ensure that these crises are addressed upstream and that food insecurity is replaced by food security.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to women as the prime victims of the famine and rightly paid tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). As he is coming to this passage in his speech, will he ensure that DFID continues the work that we did on recognising that women make up the majority of food producers in Africa and the need to involve women where they often have few rights and decision-making powers in their communities? Will he ensure that his Department puts women at the heart of all its policies in Africa and continues to do so?

I can vigorously reassure the right hon. Lady that that is the case. One cannot begin to understand development unless one realises the importance of putting children and women right at the centre of everything one does.

The population of Ethiopia has grown fourfold in the past 50 years. The populations of Somalia and Kenya have grown threefold and fivefold respectively. Between one quarter and one third of the married women in that region would like to avoid or delay pregnancy. I understand that there are an estimated 76 million unwanted births a year. Will access to modern contraception be part of the Government’s plan?

It absolutely is. I wrote to the hon. Lady about that in June. She is entirely right: it is outrageous that less than 25% of women in sub-Saharan Africa have access to contraception. A prime part of the Government’s development policy is to try to ensure that up to 10 million couples who currently do not have access to contraception get it.

I was talking about the importance of food security and of people being able to feed themselves. At the end of last week, I visited an extremely important project, run by Britain and the World Food Programme, that seeks to build food security in Karamoja in northern Uganda. It encapsulates the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will be able to feed himself.” We are engaged in a project that hitherto has spent £28 per person on securing food aid. Over the next three years we will spend £33 per person. As I saw for myself, that food security is developing well. In 2009 more than 1 million people in Karamoja were receiving food aid and the region was suffering from deep food insecurity, but by the end of this year we believe the figure will be below 140,000.

In looking at that programme we saw all the things that need to happen, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon knows so well. We saw effective irrigation, the harvesting of water through reservoirs, families growing food for themselves and market traders turning up on the sites where that food is being grown and buying the surplus. We saw feeder roads developing and warehouses springing up, which is very important. That is the way ahead to ensure that deep food insecurity is tackled. That is what we have been doing in Ethiopia, and the approach has helped to ensure that Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are not now experiencing famine.

I compliment the Secretary of State on visiting Somalia and Mogadishu and on the work he has been doing there in particular. The situation in Somalia is clearly very difficult and dangerous. Did his visit give him any hope that there will be greater political stability and physical security for refugees that will enable them to return home once the famine is over and resume their farming businesses and practices?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the key issue: the deep insecurity and ungoverned space in Somalia. I underline our strong admiration and support for the brave people who go in to try to deliver life-saving aid and support there. An announcement was made last week by the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia on political developments and their intention to hold elections of some sort in a year’s time. He will also know of the work done in the Kampala accords earlier this year, not least by President Museveni. I do not hide from the hon. Gentleman the very great difficulties in achieving what he underlined needs to be achieved. All this emphasises the importance of the work on resilience. The hon. Member for Lewisham East mentioned the humanitarian and emergency response review that we commissioned, which was carried out so well by Lord Ashdown. The Government have adopted all the points that he made in that report, lock, stock and barrel, and in some cases we will go further.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very often the world’s poorest people who are most dependent on the free services provided by ecosystems and that therefore, economic development of any sort that undermines those ecosystems or is un-green will not only not help those people, but actively harm them? Will he continue to put an increasing focus, as I know he is, on tackling the environmental causes of some of the base poverty we see in the world today?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Had he been with me in Karamoja last week, I think it would have warmed the cockles of his heart to see the work being done by the World Food Programme and Britain specifically to address those concerns.

I must draw my remarks to a close. I wish to end by making four points. There are 400,000 people, mainly children, in danger of dying as a result of the famine in Somalia. Britain has set out clearly what needs to be done. People across all parts of our country, as well as the Government, have given their money and support. We cannot put a price on a life, but we can put a price on saving one. It is time for other countries to recognise that fact and reach deeper into their pockets.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) for tabling the motion. We strongly support the terms of the motion. The House obviously wanted the opportunity to debate the terrible suffering in the horn of Africa, which is why so many Members have attended the debate to speak.

I very much endorse what has been said by the Secretary of State. As he told the House, he has been to the horn of Africa and to Mogadishu, and I pay tribute to him for that—it was a brave thing to do. I imagine that he was advised absolutely not to go there. He is the first Minister to go there since 1992. I really give him credit for that. I also pay tribute to the tremendous work of the Department for International Development and our high commissions in the region. They are doing important work for people who face such terrible suffering.

When Islamic Relief took me out to see its inspiring work in the area, I saw for myself the effect of the worst drought for 60 years. It is an area where the land is not bare. There is abundant vegetation, but the trees and shrubs are all parched because of the drought. The area should be teeming with cattle, goats, camels, donkeys and giraffes, but instead the shrubs and trees are white and grey and everywhere the skeletons of cattle and goats can be seen. I saw a huge, majestic giraffe lying dead at the side of the road. The women we met in Wajir in the north-east of Kenya told us how one by one their animals had fallen victim to starvation because of the drought. Their herds had dwindled almost to nothing—herds that had provided them with their livelihood, milk, meat and income. They do not have any money left, and they and their children do not have enough to eat, but although the women and children are so thin, they are not starving, because they are getting food, such as that I saw being given out by Islamic Relief with the support of DFID. Let us make no mistake: our aid and the work of our aid agencies is saving lives. I pay tribute not only to Islamic Relief, but as the Secretary of State did, to Save the Children, Oxfam, World Vision and the multinational organisations such as UNICEF and UNHCR, to which we contribute. They are alleviating suffering and saving lives, and every person in this country who contributed to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal should be really proud of what the money they have given is doing.

My right hon. and learned Friend represents in her constituency, like I do in mine, a considerable Somali community. Will she take this opportunity to acknowledge the huge contribution that the diaspora are making either by giving aid through DEC or by sending aid directly home through mosques, community associations and all the others? They are showing a real sense of solidarity.

I absolutely agree, and that was going to be my very next point. Not only should everybody who gives to the DEC feel proud of what their money contributes to, but so should every one of the many members of the African diaspora, from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, who not only work hard in this country and support their families here, but send remittances back to their country of origin. We should be proud of what they do, too; it makes an enormous difference.

The right hon. and learned Lady is making an important point. Does she agree that the huge contribution that individuals have made to the disaster relief fund, plus the actions of her own Government, give the lie to those who say that the British people do not want their aid budget maintained or their commitment to the UN target achieved?

Absolutely. Everyone should be proud of the work that our Government, through DFID, are doing, and that is why I support so strongly their promise to maintain our commitment to increase aid to 0.7% of gross national income by 2013. I know that they will do everything they can to step up their efforts to get other countries to do the same. We are doing our bit; so must other countries.

The drought has hit a wide area of the horn of Africa, but its impact on people is dramatically different in different areas. For example, in Ethiopia—and I underline the points that the Secretary of State made—for a number of years our aid and the work of our aid agencies with the Government of Ethiopia has put in place measures to protect against the impact of drought. They have prepared systems of what they call cash transfers—systems to give money to people whose crops have failed and cannot feed themselves; they have stockpiled food ready for such people; and they have built roads so that remote areas can be reached even when there is drought. Although those people are suffering hardship, they are not starving. They are able to stay on their land and in their villages, and they are not forced to abandon them and flee, but work will have to go on, and, as the Secretary of State said, the danger is not over when the rains come, because they can bring with them cholera and malaria.

Ethiopia shows that aid works, but it is a tragically different story for Somalia, which shows that, because of conflict, when people do not have access to aid and there is no preparation for drought, people are left totally at the mercy of drought. The best that they can hope for is to flee their lands and become refugees; the worst is to see their children die of starvation. With preparation and with humanitarian aid, people can cope with drought, but they cannot cope with drought and conflict, and that has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee Somalia for the Dadaab camp in north-east Kenya. The numbers are absolutely overwhelming. A camp that was built for no more than 90,000 people now has more than 430,000 and is growing by 30,000 a month. Every single day, there are more and more people: between 1,000 and 1,300 arrive every day, and each day those who come are more dehydrated, more undernourished, more exhausted and more traumatised.

Some people, in order to avoid the effect of the searing heat on their children as they walk from the Somali border, travel at night through a no-man’s land, but that makes them even more vulnerable to attack. Aid agencies are organising buses from the Somali border, but although they are putting on more and more buses, they cannot keep pace with the flood of refugees. The accommodation in the camp cannot keep pace, either. When people arrive, they have to stay under makeshift cover outside the site. They wait in makeshift shelters until they are registered, and then they join the other—soon to be half a million—people in this camp in the middle of nowhere.

It is hard to describe how bleak the camp is. When we came into land on the small landing strip, we flew over terrain that looks like the surface of the moon. It is so barren, there is just nothing, and then suddenly we saw hundreds of thousands of tents in the middle of nowhere. It is just desperate. For all the work of the camp staff and of the aid agencies, it is not a safe place, either. Of the group of women whom I met in the camp, which is 80% women and children, all said that they wanted to go back to their homes in Somalia—that, if only there was peace, they would go back to their land there. They said that they had fled not the drought, but the conflict.

The camp director said that he wanted me to take back to this country just one message: “Whatever you do, please do what you can to sort out the situation in Somalia.” Of course there have to be high-level meetings at the UN and the EU to ensure that the wider international community plays its part, but the deep and long-standing conflict in Somalia will not be solved just by summits in Brussels and New York. We need to support the work of organisations such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Governments of Muslim states, who can help, and the African Union. We need to draw not only on the diaspora in Canada, America and continental Europe, but on the Somali diaspora in this country—on their advice, support and wisdom.

In Bristol, there is a very large Somali community, many of whom are my constituents, and their work to send remittances and to support development in Somalia and, indeed, in Somaliland is fantastic, but it is done individually. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that we could do more to encourage them to come together so that big projects might be funded along with commercial operations, particularly in Somaliland, where ports could be opened up and infrastructure built? Can we do more on that front?

Yes, I absolutely agree. We need to do a great deal more to recognise remittances. People sometimes think that such activity is undertaken only by Government Departments or by people giving to organisations such as Oxfam, but many individuals give their own money. The cost of sending money is also quite high, and we could do more, such as by creating diaspora bonds to enable people to invest. There are many ways in which we can support remittances, and we should do so.

We have no embassy in Somalia, but aid agencies such as Islamic Relief are working on the ground there, and the Government should draw on their expertise in order not to get them involved in politics, but to use their connections with the civil society, which must be built up.

In the immediate term, our Government must continue to give aid to Somalia. They have rightly prioritised aid for conflict-affected states, and Somalia is certainly conflict-affected. They have rightly emphasised, as we did, value for money, auditing and monitoring, but in reality, on aid spent in Somalia, that level of scrutiny will not be possible. We must still give the aid, however, otherwise the Somali people will suffer terribly as they flee and then just become aid-dependent miles from their home, in a camp where there is no future for them. We must continue, and the Opposition will support the Government in continuing, to give aid to Somalia.

The Government must also redouble their efforts to work internationally to tackle climate change and to protect people who are affected by it. Our aid is making a huge difference, but we will prevent suffering in future if, as Oxfam has so clearly demonstrated, we bring about a major change in the way food is produced and distributed. The world produces more food than it needs, yet here in the 21st century 1 billion people go hungry. What is needed is support for greater long-term investment in agriculture, an end to exploitation by international land speculators and action to stop speculation on food commodities which causes prices to soar and means that hungry people cannot afford them.

Our Government will be at the G20 summit in November. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that the issues that have been raised by hon. Members in all parts of the House will be high on the agenda, with all the G20 countries not only keeping their promises on aid—Britain has, but others have not—but tackling the inequality and exploitation that sees global wealth accumulate while the poor starve.

I spent time with Oxfam in Ethiopia during the famine of 1984. It is difficult to describe the horror of famine—its scale, one’s helplessness, the Martian-headed skeletons of marasmus, the swollen bellies of kwashiorkor, and the glassy eyes of children one knows, notwithstanding all efforts, will be dead by tomorrow. Then and now, these famines of biblical proportions kill fellow human beings slowly, painfully, and desperately. It is the death of their humanity and a collective test of ours.

I want to make three points in the short time available to me. First, we need to do more to enhance and improve food and crop production in the horn of Africa and elsewhere in Africa. It is not sustainable to seek to keep alive millions of people in the horn of Africa in the hope of yearly grain surpluses from Nebraska, Australia or elsewhere. The UN estimates that $2.4 billion is required to meet immediate humanitarian needs until this December. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) observed, there is a funding gap of $1 billion, and no funding for ongoing needs and recovery. This is simply not sustainable. We need to enhance agricultural production in Africa and the horn of Africa.

Secondly, we have to face up to the reality of population growth as a development issue. If a country’s economy is growing each year by 3% and its population is growing each year by 7%, then each year its sustainability is going steadily backwards. For example, the population of Ethiopia is now twice what it was at the time of the 1984 famine. Here is the wake-up call: in Ethiopia, even in a good harvest year, aid agencies are still feeding the same number of people as the number who received food aid in 1984. It is difficult to cultivate large parts of Ethiopia because of endemic malaria. Elsewhere, land is exhausted by over-use. Up in the Simien mountains, I have seen farmers with oxen and ploughs seeking to cultivate ever more marginal rocky outcrops, desperate for any extra land. The situation is unsustainable. Along with Lynda Chalker, I represented the UK Government at the UN population conference in Cairo in 1994. That conference, held over 15 years ago, was the last attempt by the international community to address the issue of population growth, and it needs addressing again.

Thirdly, the deliverers of the apocalypse ride together: hunger, illness, death and conflict. As the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) made clear in her very welcome contribution, Somalia is a failed state—a basket case. It is a liability to itself and to its neighbours, viz the recent murder and kidnapping in Kenya: a personal tragedy and a broader tragedy for the Kenyans’ tourism industry and economy. Al-Shabaab has brought chaos to Mogadishu and terror to the rest of the region. The African Union deserves our support in seeking to bring stability to Somalia, but that process needs focus, concentration and consistency. For far too long, so-called Somali warlords have been ripping off the west in phoney peace talks in the luxury of Nairobi resort hotels, running their businesses from the comfort of Kenya while pretending to try to find peaceful solutions for Somalia.

Nor should we forget that the one part of Somalia that is stable, peaceful and potentially productive is what was once the British Somaliland Protectorate and is now Somaliland. For 20 years, Somaliland has had repeated democratic elections, a functioning presidency, a functioning Parliament and defined borders, and it has been wishing for and wanting de jure recognition by the international community. At the first consultative meeting on ending the transition, which was held recently in Mogadishu, I observed that it had delegates from all sorts of places, including the EU and the UN, but, as far as I am aware, no invitation had been sent to Somaliland for observer status or to take part in those discussions. Of course we need stability in Somalia, but the international community also needs to resolve the legal status of Somaliland. Unless we resolve the conflict in Somalia, we will never have peace in the horn of Africa, and until we have peace in the horn of Africa, we will continue to have famine.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my colleague from Oxfordshire. I agree with everything that speakers on both sides of the House have said so far. It is very heartening, faced with such an appalling situation, that there is this extent of agreement between us. I join what has been said in commending the response of the British public, the Department for International Development, the non-governmental organisations and the diaspora communities. That is good to see, but we are all aware that there is so much more to do.

First, I stress the importance of global action to counter the role of financial speculation in driving up food prices and increasing their volatility, as shown in research by the World Bank and UN bodies. It would be helpful if the Government could confirm UK support for effective EU regulation in this respect, as well as action at the G20.

Secondly, I draw the House’s attention to a good point that has been made to me in a helpful briefing from CABI—the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International—which is based in Oxfordshire: that losing less food is as important a contributor to food security as growing more. Currently, farmers lose an average of 40% of their crops to pests and diseases, and most of that is unnecessary. Using existing knowledge and providing timely, practical and specific advice through local clinics to farmers on the management of plant pests and diseases can have a significant impact on food security right now, with no need for additional water, land or other resources. Obviously, people need extra water in places where there is not any, but the point is well made. To this end, I commend the Plantwise initiative, which is supported by DFID and by the Swiss aid agencies.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, tragically, these countries will suffer worse conditions, certainly with less water, if climate change continues unabated, and that in the interests of preventing famine in Africa, the international community needs to redouble its efforts to tackle climate change?

I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend—that is imperative. When we see these awful experiences of people, we are reminded of the real human consequences of climate change and the necessity of action.

Thirdly, I want to refer to the situation in Sudan. The role of conflict and political strife in creating and exacerbating chronic food insecurity is well known, and it is important to push for greater humanitarian access into regions of Sudan, including Darfur, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. However, we have seen in the past how the Government of Sudan have used negotiations over access to further their own narrow political interests—for example, tactically negotiating for restrictions on its opponents during the wet season, when their own army is at a disadvantage and guerrilla groups have the advantage, and then nullifying agreements for humanitarian access during the dry season, when traditional forces have the advantage. I urge the UK Government to take that into account when engaging in the vital discussions that are necessary on improving humanitarian access.

I should also like to highlight the importance of engaging with diaspora organisations that are organising relief—for example, the Nuba Mountains Welfare Association. We can all see how, in politically sensitive situations, these organisations may get more access to displaced people through informal networks than established NGOs, which may be understandably cautious about getting involved or directly blocked by restrictions imposed, in this case, by the Government of Sudan, or in other areas by local warlords. Improving DFID’s relationship with diaspora groups and pursuing innovative partnerships can bring real benefits for civilians in conflict areas who cannot be reached through traditional means.

In the specific case of Abyei, where displacement following the invasion and occupation of the region by the Sudanese armed forces disrupted the traditional planting season, it is imperative that the UK Government prioritise the pursuit of a solution on its political status and do not just focus on implementation of the temporary interim agreement.

On the humanitarian efforts, we have given substantial funds and indeed pre-positioned resources to the common humanitarian fund. On Abyei and the border, which the right hon. Gentleman is right to prioritise, we continue to give strong support to the process led by President Mbeki to get all parties together.

I welcome what the Secretary of State says. I am sure that he will take into account the repeated and as yet negated promises for a referendum for the permanent residents of Abyei. Continued political insecurity, even after the displaced people have returned, may lead to a near-permanent reliance on food aid in a region that is actually fertile and where communities could otherwise return to self-reliance in the medium term.

My final point relates specifically to South Sudan, but has broader application elsewhere. It relates to points that others have already made. It is vital that resources are focused on programmes that support individual farmers and that, in particular, support is targeted towards women, given the traditional breakdown in responsibilities, whereby women are often the agents in cultivation among the Dinka and other significant tribes in the region. That will help to ensure that aid improves cultivation, rather than simply increasing cattle herd sizes or inflating bride wealth prices. Support for the formation of co-operatives, offering advice on issues such as the management of plant pests and diseases, and helping with marketing and so on would be especially useful.

To conclude, although the volume and reach of aid is clearly crucial in the short term—I echo what has been said about the importance of keeping up our efforts and of other countries starting to match them—it is critical that there are well-directed measures on conflict resolution, security, farming methods, pest control, infrastructure and price stability, because it is those things that will enable the parts of Africa that are suffering to become more self-sufficient in the long run. It is vital that international effort is directed towards that end.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. Further, I congratulate all the British people and residents in my constituency who have contributed so significantly to the DEC appeal.

Today’s debate is critical and my contribution will focus narrowly on an issue that has been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). We must ensure not only that we have sustainable high-yield agricultural practices, but that they tread lightly on ecosystems and the environment in parts of the world that are very vulnerable. Way back in 2003, the Governments of the African Union committed in the Maputo declaration to the need to provide not just high-yield agriculture, but sustainable high-yield agriculture.

The environment will, of course, be vital in any discussion of sustainable food production. Over the past 30 years, we have become increasingly aware of our own environmental impact. I would argue that we have not focused enough attention on the equally important issue of food production, which can have a serious environmental footprint. The Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member along with several hon. Members who are present, is currently looking at sustainable food production, focusing largely on this country. We were lucky enough to visit a farm in my constituency that has high standards of sustainable food production. However, it is not good enough just to know the answers here; we must spread the message around the globe.

If we want to prevent global poverty and famine from becoming an even bigger problem for the developed and developing world, we must invest in the communities that need the most help. There is a clear humanitarian interest in ensuring that development aid is used to create sustainable agricultural practices that move people towards food security and nutritional self-sufficiency.

One way in which that can happen is through the technique of conservation agriculture, which the United Nations defines as being based on the three principles of minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotation. Leading members of the Tropical Agriculture Association, such as Professor Amir Kassam, propose that this type of farming is the only viable option to ensure the long-term sustainability of food production in the horn of Africa. Conservation agriculture recognises the need for soil to contain nutrients and biological matter to support plant growth. That is achieved by covering the field in mulch obtained from waste crops, which protects the moisture in the soil, thus ensuring its viability over the long term.

That practice has proved successful and there is a significant increase in peer farming. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that peer farming is not something that happens in the other place; it is where farmers spread the message to their neighbours and colleagues and learn from one another to increase their yield and sustainability. This could be the key farming technique in tackling hunger across the whole of the developing world, as there are currently 450 million smallholders worldwide trying to meet the needs of 2 billion people.

The UK does not feel the impact of climate change as severely as the horn of Africa. British farmers can plough their fields, partly because they are much bigger, but also because rain is not in short supply, as we have learned this summer. Where drought is a real danger, it is crucial to maintain soil so that it can yield a crop in good seasons and in bad.

The net results of these methods can be very impressive, with less impact on the environment, increased food yields for the domestic population and improved livelihoods for the farmers. That is the basis of the Maputo declaration, which calls for 10% of the development aid budget to be allocated to improving agricultural techniques. In countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, where 80% of smallholders farm less than 2 hectares, food production is labour intensive and inefficient, and as a result the yields are low. These countries suffer extremely from poor food security and we have to focus on priming the pump of sustainable food production to ensure that it is not the exception, but the rule. As a result, dependence on aid will lessen, building dignity, self-sufficiency and economic growth.

There are very good examples in Africa of conservation agriculture making impressive strides in improving the output of products, creating genuine movement towards self-sufficiency and increasing nutrition for the population, in a way that has a low impact on the environment. For example, in northern Tanzania, against the backdrop of poor quality soil and soil erosion, the adoption of these techniques has led to a dramatic increase in yields from just over 2 tonnes per hectare in 2004 to 14 tonnes per hectare in 2009. Currently, 7,000 acres in this area are farmed according to the principles of conservation agriculture, and that is set to triple by 2015.

There is reason for optimism that through the responsible application of these principles, the parts of the world that most need to move towards self-sufficiency will be able to do so. I would argue that the horn of Africa needs to have its own 21st-century agrarian revolution. Therefore, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that Government spending on aid, although it seems to be a huge controversy for some of my constituents who write to me suggesting that we should reduce it, is something that we must do. If it is deployed in the right way, promoting sustainability and self-sufficiency, it can be the building block of poverty reduction and famine relief.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing the debate, and add my tribute to those who have given so generously to the appeal. Over the past few months, dramatic events at home and in other parts of the world have diverted attention away from the huge and ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in east Africa. We have an important opportunity today to highlight what is going on in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The fact that people have been so generous to the DEC appeal and to the appeals of other agencies shows that there is public concern about this issue. It is sad that the response of citizens stands in such sharp contrast to the response from parts of the international community. Oxfam estimates that there is a shortfall of $1 billion in the funding needed to meet the immediate humanitarian needs in this year alone. I am glad that the UK Government have done their bit and I wish the Secretary of State every success in his efforts to persuade people in other donor countries that they need to do likewise.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the crisis is the fact that the famine was preventable. As other speakers have said this afternoon, early warning systems were in place that worked and were effective, but we collectively ignored those warning signals. It is always easy to be wise after the event, but there is no reason why a potentially manageable crisis in east Africa was allowed to become a catastrophe on such a monumental scale. Although the short-term focus has to be on humanitarian relief—keeping people alive through health interventions and the provision of food, sanitation and water—we also need to look at the underlying causes of the crisis and ensure that the UK’s longer-term development work invests heavily in preventive initiatives that reduce vulnerability to famine in east Africa and other parts of the world.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the very complex political situation in east Africa, which has led to long-standing problems of conflict, political instability and weak governance. I will use the short time available to me this afternoon to focus on two other aspects of the crisis, the first of which is the impact of climate change.

A key factor in the crisis is the changing weather patterns in the region, which has always been prone to drought. In recent years, the frequency of drought has been increasing and there have been long and repeated periods of unpredictable weather. Over the past few years, those changes have been wearing down people’s resilience and changing the way they live, as they find that traditional farming methods no longer work. As has been mentioned, life for the pastoralists has become extraordinarily difficult. Without enough water, their livestock die and they lose not only their economic livelihood but their only assets. I know that some aid agencies, including the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, have been buying up livestock before they die from pastoralists in northern Kenya and other parts of east Africa, so that they can give people money to keep themselves alive through the crisis. In the longer term, however, at the global level, we need to invest in the climate fund set up at Cancun and persuade other donors to honour their commitments and put money into the mechanisms that have been established to pre-empt and prevent such crises.

The second aspect I want to discuss has already been raised by others in the context of food security and economic development. Despite the importance that we all attach to agriculture, it has been very unfashionable in development terms for a number of years and now represents a very small part of development aid budgets. An awful lot more emphasis is needed on supporting smallholders and investing in technical support for them. Since the L’Aquila summit in 2009, there have been commitments to boost agriculture spending, which has put those issues back on the agenda, but we are still looking for clarity on what that is achieving. I make a plea to the Government not to consign those commitments to the collective recycling bin, but to hold donor countries accountable for the commitments they have made.

Let me briefly draw particular attention to the role of women in agriculture. Although they form the majority of smallholder agricultural workers in Africa, they rarely own their land and they have very poor market access; in addition, they rarely have access to the kind of credit facilities that farmers in all parts of the world need to sustain themselves. Given the imbalance of power, we must not reinforce those inequalities. I think we all recognise the importance of putting women and girls at the heart of efforts in health and education, but when we talk about business and climate change, we become a lot more gender blind and start talking in more general terms. We have to understand that if we reinforce existing inequalities, we will entrench poverty even deeper in those communities.

My time is running out, so I shall conclude. We are responding to an immediate crisis, as we have to, but let us learn the lessons and try to look ahead, on a multilateral and international level, at how we can reduce the vulnerability of people economically to these shocks and put them in a better position to withstand the crises they face as a result of climate disasters and erratic weather.

I, too, commend the hon. Members who secured the debate, which gives us an opportunity to express our appreciation to the British public, as well as to DFID and the non-governmental organisations who have played such a vital part in tackling the crisis. Our efforts have been seen throughout the world as effective, generous and brave, but continuous intervention in terms of food supplies is also needed. That will prove particularly difficult in areas that suffer from political and military instability and for those people who have been displaced and are in refugee camps.

I want to touch on two issues that will be key to reducing food insecurity around the world: science and land tenure. I believe we all need to embrace science in agriculture. I was speaking to Derek Stewart at the James Hutton Institute which, with many similar organisations, does fantastic work in the science of improving the yield and nutritional value of crops. For example, golden rice has a significantly higher level of vitamin A and is a clever, effective and relatively cheap way of getting more nutrients to those who desperately need them. We need to give such institutions financial backing so that they can develop more such crops.

The “Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming” report that was produced for the Government by Sir John Beddington and chaired by the Secretary of State, I believe, states that investment in new science and technology is critical to: producing more food, increasing the efficiency of food production and sustainability,

“securing ecosystem services…keeping pace with evolving threats such as the emergence of new and more virulent pests and diseases…addressing new challenges, such as the development of new varieties of crops that are resistant to increased drought, flooding and salinity”


“meeting the particular needs of the world’s poorest communities.”

Britain used to be at the heart of agricultural research and our scientists are still highly regarded, as I found when I visited Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Organisation, during the inquiry of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into food production to 2050. Sadly, as is often the case, success has meant that Government investment has reduced; in addition, anti-science attacks on genetic modification technology have meant that many commercial plant breeding businesses have moved out of Britain.

In the past, food productivity has increased faster than the world population through investment in science, but Sir John Beddington foresees a perfect storm of a rapidly increasing world population and threats to world food production through climate change. The need for more scientific research is well made and should be responded to. We need to increase investment in methods of growing crops, both traditional and GM, which can achieve yields in drier conditions and are more resistant to disease. The role of the agronomist has been sadly reduced, with fewer being trained or employed by Governments, NGOs or commercial organisations. Britain used to export its agricultural expertise; it could still do so.

I was particularly shocked by one statistic in the foresight report:

“half of the world’s undernourished people, three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children, and the majority of people living in absolute poverty can be found on small farms”.

It is a huge contradiction that the very poorest and the worst nourished people live on the farms that produce food. We can give those people the tools and knowledge they need to feed themselves. There is an excellent example of that in my constituency. Hay-on-Wye, well known for its literary festival, has twinned with Timbuktu in Mali, well known for its library of Islamic literature and books. They have been working to help Mali’s people through fair trade for their crafts and measures to improve health and education. On a smaller scale, a project called Jump4Timbuktu, based in Hay-on-Wye and exported to Mali, has responded to the challenges of climate change and has had great success with drip irrigation, which is incredibly simple, requiring only water, a bucket and gravity, and which shows how to use scarce resources to maximise food production in sub-Saharan areas suffering from both drought and desertification.

Some say that food security can be achieved by improving the productivity of all smallholdings and small farms. Although I have no doubt that improvements can be made, smallholdings are probably as much a cause of the problem as a solution, and in any case there is constant movement of people from the countryside to urban areas. That has gone on ever since cities came into existence, but this year was the first in which there were more people living in urban areas than in rural settlements. Small farms entail physical hard work for little reward; larger farms allow economies of scale and better results. The challenge is to enable people to make the move from these smallholdings from a position of strength, with the skills and resources necessary to make a success of urban living, rather than as economic migrants. There is nothing noble or virtuous about living in poverty and being undernourished in smallholdings.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate on such an important topic.

There is no doubt that even in difficult financial times, when the disposable incomes of people in this country are squeezed, the British public are instinctively generous in their support for those in other parts of the world who are less fortunate. The work of the Disasters Emergency Committee in highlighting the famine and relief efforts in the horn of Africa has been vital in saving the lives of many hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in that region. Many of my constituents who have contacted me strongly support the work of the aid agencies and the resources that the UK Government are putting into the horn of Africa, and people in the region are very grateful for those resources. There is concern, however, that those in the most severe need and the areas most beset by conflict are the least likely to get access to the aid that they so desperately require.

As we have heard, according to the UN, as many as 13 million people across the horn of Africa region need food aid; as many as 750,000 people could die in Somalia alone over the next four months; and, worst of all, half of all deaths have been and will be of children. UN representatives on the ground have described the situation in parts of the region as worse than anything previously recorded. The question has to be asked, therefore: why do we get to such a stage of famine? Famine injects urgency, but it is often too late. That is not a new phenomenon. Since 1980, 42 droughts have occurred in the horn of Africa, almost half in the last decade alone, affecting more than 100 million people.

The situation is progressively worsening, nowhere more so than in Somalia. Not only do people need greater access to food, but there is acute need for safe water, sanitation and disease control. Famine in Somalia is coupled with massive displacement of people both within the country and to neighbouring countries. The large influx of refugees has overwhelmed local host communities, led to conflict over ever more scarce resources, exacerbated the problems massively and had a negative effect on already fragile ecosystems.

There is an urgent need to support countries that are susceptible to drought and to help to mitigate the impact on fragile environments. The summit on the horn of Africa held last week in Nairobi stated that

“we reaffirm that freedom from hunger is one of the fundamental rights of citizens of any nation. Every effort should therefore be made—by governments, citizens and the international community alike—to bring the current emergency to an end”.

More importantly, it went on:

“Every effort should also be made to ensure that in future, drought will not cause undue human suffering, including in particular famine”.

High food prices and price volatility are major contributors to the difficulties, and I want to highlight the impact that food commodity speculation is having on high food prices. That was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). Banks and hedge funds are betting on food prices in the financial markets, causing drastic price swings in staple foods such as wheat, maize and soy. Massive food price hikes are catastrophic for the world’s poor because they are more likely to spend more than 40% of their income on food, as opposed to about 10% to 15% in countries such as the UK. Food becomes unaffordable, which leads to increased hunger and malnutrition as less dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables are consumed, so that people can buy staple food; to an increased burden on women, particularly as they are often forced to earn more money by taking up exploitative employment; to households using up savings, getting into debt or selling assets, including critical assets such as livestock and equipment, to pay for food; and to families being unable to afford health care and education, as more of their income is needed to buy basic food.

Historically, futures contracts were set up in US financial markets to help farmers to deal with price uncertainty in growing crops, but those contracts are now being bought and sold by bankers who have little or no involvement in the actual food being traded but who bet on food prices to make money. The World Bank lead economist, Wolfgang Fengler, highlighted that the price of corn reached a staggering 70% above the world average in east Africa as a result of a small number of farmers having control over the market and so keeping prices artificially high. It is extraordinary that it was cheaper to buy corn in the US and Germany than it was in places such as Somalia. Since January alone, the price of corn has increased by up to 200%.

While some are reaping huge profits from betting on food, poor families and people across the world are paying the price of hunger and malnutrition, but the problem could be easily solved by the UK Government backing proposals to regulate betting on food prices in financial markets. The Obama Administration in the US and, as we have heard already, the European Commission are calling for regulation to curb betting on food prices in financial markets. The UK has to play its part in backing the European proposals and not block important progress towards regulation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. It is important that food commodity speculation across the world is dealt with because it is exacerbating many problems. If Ministers gave a commitment at least to consider regulation, as the US and European Commission are doing, it would be incredibly helpful to efforts to deal both with the immediate problems of famine and drought in the horn of Africa, and with the long-term issues, as many of the organisations and the horn of Africa summit have suggested we need to do in order to prevent such crises from arising again.

The World Development Movement has led the charge; now the UK Government have to support two simple proposals that would be hugely helpful—again, it would be useful to hear whether the Government support them. First, all futures contracts should be cleared through regulated exchanges. Most contracts are currently made in private, which means that it is impossible to know how much and what is being traded; monitoring is impossible. Secondly, strict limits should be set on the amount that bankers can bet on food prices.

Combining risky financial gambling with a basic human need is a recipe for global hunger. Excessive speculation on food prices needs to be curbed and the UK Government should back the European proposals for regulation. Drought and famine are avoidable. Just two years ago, the G8 acknowledged that increased investment in agriculture was vital and committed $22 billion over three years to assist affected areas. We have to act now and the G20 summit in Cannes must reaffirm that commitment.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), as well as the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray).

Many people have already elaborated much better than I could on the issues facing Africa specifically. I do not apologise, therefore, for using this debate to examine wider global issues of food security and how the global food security system impacts on the UK domestic market. The situation in east Africa is a tragic human disaster, but it is also an illustration of a global system that is at breaking point. The impact is being felt locally, domestically in the UK and globally. Unlike so many other international development issues, food insecurity and food inflation are not exclusively about overseas or foreign parts or the developing world; they are about us here and those who sent us here. In food, more than in any other sector, we are as one—with the soy growers in Brazil as much as with the families in Somalia facing the challenges of crop failure. There is no more globally traded product group than food, so the crisis in east Africa is our crisis.

Anyone who does not believe that we need to address the long-term underlying problems of food production, famine resilience and demand and supply in the developing world in support of our domestic constituents is not living in the real world. I shall outline some of the domestic realities that we face and illustrate how crop failure, food shortages and famine anywhere in the world impact on our supermarket shoppers.

This country imports 50% of its food, which might be too much. Food inflation domestically has been running at about 6%. The price of staples such as grain and sugar in particular have been rising significantly, and the situation has not been helped by the rush for biofuels. There is no drop in food prices on the horizon; they are still going up.

We are facing the global reality of food consumption per head of population in developing countries rising even faster than population growth. Global population growth and increased consumption are putting increased pressure on marginal land, and global populations are moving from the countryside to the towns, depleting the food production labour force. Inflation is rampant. In Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland and Malawi, producers are selling locally for a better price than they get for their exports. That is causing price rises across the world.

Protectionism is probably the most dangerous development for domestic consumers here in the UK and for the global food market, and it is becoming much more prevalent. Tanzania recently imposed an export ban, and other countries could follow suit. Climatic shocks, such as the one that caused the crop failure in Somalia, are increasingly becoming the norm. All this is creating a new paradigm for our domestic consumers. Food is becoming much more expensive, and the trade in food is declining due to greater domestic demand in the producer countries. The availability of commodities at low prices is becoming rare, and the markets on which we have depended for years to deliver cheap food to our supermarket shelves are being seriously challenged.

Before anyone accuses me of being too UK-centric, let me point out the anomalies surrounding food production globally. Many experts state clearly that enough food is produced to feed the global population. There is not a food scarcity; the fundamental flaws in the food supply chain need to be addressed. The Department for International Development could play an important part in that.

An alarming quantity of food in the developing world is ruined before it can get to market. Storage is not available and productivity has not increased significantly in decades. Crops are ruined by disease, and by mismanagement due to a lack of agricultural education. Distribution is often ineffective in getting products to market, especially in the developing world. A lot of work needs to be done to get food from the farm to the fridge, but we are losing a lot on the way, often unnecessarily. Every time an African farmer does not get his food to market, or has a crop failure, a price rise in our domestic market becomes more likely. Every time we fail to support agricultural development and food education in Africa, we make our constituents more vulnerable to food inflation.

Globally, we need to address some important initiatives. The G20 initiative must be taken seriously, and I hope that the report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Food Policy Research Institute will be taken seriously. The World Trade Organisation must be a priority for the Foreign Office, and food trade must be the most important issue.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) for securing the debate, and to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for her excellent speech. My reasons for speaking in the debate are twofold. First, I want to raise awareness of this issue and thank those who have given, and to appeal for continued backing for that support. Secondly, I want to discuss some of the causes of the problem and some of the strategic issues involved.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the British support for famine relief. There are some in the House and elsewhere who argue that charity begins at home. Looking into the eyes of a starving child gives the lie to that argument, however. In this debate, we have acknowledged our moral responsibility to uphold the dignity of the people affected by the famine. Let the message from the debate be that Britain will continue to offer support to those who need it, wherever in the world they live. I thank from the bottom of my heart all those in my constituency and around the country who have given through the Disasters Emergency Committee, and we call on Governments around the world to do likewise and to stand up for the needs of the most vulnerable people in the world. The famine might no longer be on our TV screens, but that does not mean that it is not happening and that people no longer need our support. We have a moral duty to show our support for the people who are affected.

Other Members have given a good account of some of the causes of the problem, especially those relating to agriculture. There are interesting questions about the role of agriculture in development, and about whether the Department for International Development might do more work in that area.

I want to talk specifically about food speculation, although many other factors are involved. It has already been pointed out that famine is neither an accident nor a natural disaster; it is the result of human failure. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye mentioned the comments of the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, about the causes of famine and their link to democracy. That point was well made, and needs to be listened to. People in the poorest countries do not have a voice, and that is part of the problem.

I want to ask the Minister some specific questions about food speculation, although I understand that he might not be able to respond to them as he will not be summing up the debate. If he wishes to intervene on me, or if he can answer them in any other way, that would be welcome. The evidence on food speculation is inconclusive, but that does not mean that there is no evidence; quite the opposite. Part of the reason for its being inconclusive is the way in which the speculation is happening. I shall come to that in a moment.

Let us be clear: famine involves political as well as economic failure. The food market is not serving the people of the world, as the hon. Member for South Thanet said. Mike Masters, a fund manager at Masters Capital Management, has done a great deal of research into this issue. He testified to the US Senate in 2008 that food speculation was certainly driving up food prices. He said:

“Most of the business is now speculation—I would say 70-80%.”

He went on:

“Let’s say news comes about bad crops and rain somewhere. Normally the price would rise about $1 a bushel. But when you have a 70-80% speculative market it goes up $2-$3 to account for the extra costs. It adds to the volatility. It will end badly as all Wall Street fads do. It’s going to blow up.”

The hon. Lady is making an important point. High food prices and increased volatility seem to coincide with reduced world stocks of food, because that makes the trade more excitable. Would it not be a good idea for Governments to hold strategic stocks of food, so that they could intervene directly in these markets?

We need an effective market that encourages trade between poor countries and richer countries, because increased flows will help people in both. The threat implied by the hon. Gentleman’s question is protectionism, but in the end, if countries close their borders and try to stockpile, that will help none of us. However, that is a detailed question.

As a member of the International Development Committee, I have spoken to DFID about food speculation. I am told informally that the Treasury is leading on the issue and that it is not certain that there is any evidence. However, as the issue is clearly a development matter, I would be grateful if the Minister said at some point what role the Treasury has been asked to play in spotting and dealing with food speculation bubbles, specifically in relation to the G20. What action will be taken about over-the-counter trading? We need transparency and clarity on this matter—the reason the evidence is so inconclusive is that a lot of trading does not take place in regulated commodity exchanges—and the G20 is the way to get it. Will the UK support limits on speculation, either at the G20 or in other forums? Will we question the need for high-volume or high-frequency trading? Will the UK support the regulation of commodity trading alongside the regulation of financial products? If we go from having sub-prime market speculation undermining our global economy to having food speculation undermining it, we will have made the same mistake twice. I hope that at some point the Minister will comment on that regulation.

The Minister will be unable to respond to the points that my hon. Friend has made today, owing to the time constraints in this debate. However, I have met Michael Masters and I know his concerns about commodity index funds. Will she join me in urging the Minister to write to those Members who have expressed concerns in this debate about the action that he might take, the conversations that he might have with his colleagues and the position that will be adopted in the upcoming discussions in Cannes?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly helpful suggestion. The Minister might consider writing to those Members who have raised the matter in this debate or, indeed, to the Chair of the International Development Committee to explain what exactly DFID is doing to work alongside the Treasury.

I hope that the Minister is about to tell me how the Treasury will assist DFID in tackling food speculation bubbles.

I am not going to give an immediate response because that is not how this debate has been designed. However, I can say that before the previous intervention I had already made a note that says, “Write a letter to the hon. Member”.

I thank the Minister for that. My fear is that we have an absence of leadership on some of these issues. I hope that his clarification will help us to move away from that.

At the end of the day, Britain has shown over the last decade what can be achieved to tackle global poverty if people right at the top of our politics are prepared to stand up and perform their moral duty to help poor people wherever they happen to live. I hope that all of us in this debate are behind that approach, and that the Minister will assist us in taking forward our aim of tackling not just today’s urgent problem, but the long-term strategic difficulties with food speculation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken—particularly the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has just spoken—on such a united debate.

As many Members have mentioned, smallholder farmers are one of the keys to food security, and therefore to poverty reduction and creating sustainable livelihoods. That in turn will lead to less aid being required, which must be the goal that we are looking for. However, corruption in many countries in Africa must be tackled, including the secret sales of mines, with the money going to tax havens and no directors’ names being available, which means that it cannot be tracked. Not enough emphasis has been put on agriculture in developing countries, but I believe that the world has woken up to the importance of the agricultural potential there.

A couple of months ago, I along with several colleagues went with the International Development Committee to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, three very different countries. Whereas Rwanda is investing in terracing, soil nutrition and irrigation, the DRC is in chaos, spending money on things that will not reduce the poverty of those who live there. Burundi has land that is extremely impoverished. The crops that we saw were extremely poor, and the farmers there need help to use fertilisers to aid crop intensity. The soil is so poor because of erosion and the lack of crop rotation. Each family in the village that we stayed in—or that most of us stayed in—grows its own food, but a more intensive project could help them to move from poverty to a higher standard of living by selling any excess, which unfortunately they currently do not have; indeed, they do not even have enough to feed themselves.

In Uganda, where I have been involved in an agricultural project, farmers are beginning to reap the rewards of working harder and working together. They now need a machine to grind the maize into flour so that the excess can go to the markets. In Kenya, an organisation called Free the Children works with schools and women to encourage them to have a kitchen garden for use in school kitchens and at home. Children are much more likely to attend school when their parents know that they will receive a meal—any meal, never mind a nutritious meal. At home, the parents can also provide a much more varied diet if helped to begin growing a diversity of fruit and vegetables. A well-fed child can learn better and is less likely to succumb to diseases; and if they become ill, they have more reserves to recover than some of the children we see all too frequently on television. Ghana has done well over the past two decades in stimulating its agriculture. We should encourage different countries in the continent of Africa to learn from each other about what works.

In India, the Select Committee saw a farmer who had moved away from the traditional subsistence crops to grow chillies. His income had improved tenfold and he was an extremely happy man because he could afford to send his children to school.

Much of what needs to be done is simple and straightforward—for example, building rural roads, funding agricultural research, ensuring that rural people have access to clean water. Other things, such as finding effective ways to stimulate rural financial systems or to conserve soil and water, require trial and error to find effective solutions in local circumstances. It follows that those efforts need to be sustained, allowing enough time for promising developments to become embedded before switching attention and funding to some other issue.

Women make up the majority of smallholder farmers, on top of all the other jobs they do, and we know that when women earn the money, they spend 90% of it on the family—in comparison with men who spend 40% or less, as they do not see the family as being so important. As in all countries, women are more concerned with the welfare of the family, so they spend on health, education and nutrition.

In order to increase their production and therefore their incomes, smallholder farmers need access to affordable inputs, like seeds and fertilisers, and to technology, credit and advice. With climate change affecting so much of the African continent, they must also have access to drought-resistant varieties and crops with higher nutrition; they need to be shown how drip irrigation goes specifically to the roots of plants so that they do not spray water on to soil that does not need it.

The UK is committed to spending £1.1 billion over the three years since the L’Aquila summit, but we are not delivering, so I call on the Minister with responsibility for Africa to step up the finance in all areas to provide better opportunities for these countries. The Department for International Development has the opportunity massively to increase its funding to food security and agricultural development when it increases its aid budget by £1.3 billion in 2013.

When there is a crisis like the one that we see in east Africa, flying humanitarian aid in in the form of food is so costly that it makes perfect sense to invest in helping people to become self-sufficient before the next drought and famine, but African countries need to do their bit as well. They are committed to spend at least 10% of their budgets on agriculture, but that is happening only in seven countries—

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which shows the value of having Back-Bench debates in which there is perhaps more to agree on than divides us. We have heard some moving speeches and contributions from people who have seen first hand what is happening in the crisis-hit areas. That is important. I do not think that anyone who has seen the images on our television screens could fail to be moved by them.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, at this time of stringency and belt-tightening, it is important to convince the public that it is right to continue to protect—and, indeed, to look at how to increase—aid budgets. I recognise that the Government have listened to Parliament on this issue. I recognise, too, the generosity of the public, many of whom are, like many of my constituents, on low incomes themselves, yet they continue to give generously to the various appeals. Initiatives like the “Give a Day’s Pay” campaign, which was supported by The Independent, provide a welcome addition to the organisations appealing for aid. There was also the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, to which the public contributed about £57 million in just eight weeks.

Members have spoken about the famine problems in Somalia. The UN estimates that a quarter of its population, 1.8 million people, have been displaced. Such figures easily trip off the tongue, but as hon. Members have pointed out, we are talking about real people, real lives and real human tragedies. No one could fail to be moved by the images of mothers who have lost their children on the long march to find food or who must watch their children die in front of them from lack of food.

As someone who has worked in such countries—and my wife has worked in the horn of Africa as an International Committee of the Red Cross delegate—may I point out that the problem is that the region has historically not been able to sustain those who live there? Perhaps now we should think about moving people to a better place that can sustain them, rather than building up camps that attract people who are then trapped, and whom we must feed for years. Does the hon. Lady agree?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Although we are short of time, I do want to move on to the issue of sustainability. Some of the organisations that briefed us were worried about people being displaced from their natural areas and ways of life, and about the process whereby people come to sit outside the camps and are screened before they come in, with all the associated difficulties. I accept that the problem is complex. The political situation in countries such as Somalia can easily discourage those involved in dealing with the issues, but we ought to continue to deal with them none the less.

I pay tribute to those in the aid agencies who have risked—and, indeed, have lost—their lives trying to ensure that aid is delivered in sometimes very difficult situations. I also recognise the work of a Scottish charity, Mary’s Meals, which has launched an emergency relief response in Somalia as part of its latest effort to support starving people affected by the food crisis across east Africa. It is providing 100 tonnes of food aid to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to which tens of thousands of people have fled in search of food. It is estimated that the charity’s efforts will provide about 900,000 meals in famine-hit Somalia. The organisation has already been feeding more than 24,000 children with a daily life-saving meal in northern Kenya. As we approach the weekend, when many of us may be thinking about going out for a meal or having our favourite takeaway, it is worth noting that the cost of one life-saving Mary’s meal is 4p, so perhaps we could skip one of our meals out or takeaways this weekend and make a donation to that worthy cause instead.

We must learn from the various crises about how best to avoid such situations happening again. Many of the organisations who spoke to me said that warnings of the crisis were there, and that although they are well geared up to coping with crises when they occur, they are not as good at preventing them. The warning bells were ringing loud and clear, but the current systems made it hard to intervene and to get everyone to move together. I am sure that Ministers will comment on that issue, which I know they take very seriously.

Several Members have referred to food crises being caused not simply by a failure of food production or lack of food, but by some people not being able to access it. I am sure that the Minister will comment on that too.

We have also heard several good contributions about resilience. With the best will in the world, there are still occasions when we do not spend aid money on the right things. I have been told of instances in which irrigation schemes, introduced with the best of intentions, led to the displacement of some pastoral communities, who were forced to move into other areas because they could no longer keep their livestock alive as they had in the past.

When I was in Rwanda I saw some examples of how aid had helped local farmers to produce more indigenous crops. However, one of them told me that, having traditionally grown cassava, he was now being encouraged—with the best will in the world—to grow mandarin oranges, which he did not like very much, and that he did not find it helpful. That example reinforces the point that we must always work with people in those communities and listen to what they say.

I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing a debate on a subject that should be receiving far greater attention from the world’s leaders and press than it has to date.

My own recent experience of Africa has been through annual trips to Uganda with a group of Northamptonshire sixth-formers. I set up a project in 2006 with the aim of linking schools in the two countries and helping young people to gain a greater understanding of one another's lives and culture. Each year since then we have held a youth conference in Uganda, where the topics discussed have ranged from the role of women to fair trade, the environment versus development, and the role of supranational institutions. The conferences provide a fantastic opportunity for students to learn from each other’s very different experiences, but the one message that we have always heard loud and clear from those young Africans is that they want to make their own way as equals, and that aid for the poorest should offer a hand up rather than a handout.

The situation in the horn of Africa is devastating. More than 13 million people are affected in Ethopia, Somalia and Kenya, and the number is increasing. Tens of thousands of people are already dead, and the United Nations estimates that three quarters of a million risk dying in the coming months. However, to my great sadness, I have received one or two letters from constituents asking why we are bothering to try to help. They point to the fact that we have problems in our own country, and suggest that because of AIDS, civil wars, disease and natural disasters these people will die anyway, so it is all a waste of money. That is a pretty shocking attitude, but one that requires a serious and logical response. The problems of African famines are a stain on the conscience of the developed world.

I recently met a successful Asian Ugandan business man in the United Kingdom who argues that Africa subsidises the west, not the other way around. He analyses the price of a tonne of fresh pineapple or a tonne of coffee beans, which is the only income for the African producer. He then calculates the margin added by the processing of the produce—usually in the west—and the margin added by the western retailer, and concludes that the vast bulk of the value from primary goods is earned in the west. One can see his point.

I am proud that the Government stuck to the Conservative manifesto pledge to donate 0.7% of gross national income to aid. The United Kingdom is at the forefront of the relief effort in the horn of Africa, and is the largest humanitarian donor to the region apart from the United States. It is also good news that more donors are stepping up to the plate, and that the African Union and Saudi Arabia are now providing aid. However, we must accept that the international community has been slow to react. There were warnings of impending drought as early as August 2010, but little was done until the rains failed in May 2011.

We need to learn the lesson once and for all that prevention is better than cure. We must not only provide support early with the aim of avoiding repeat disasters, but achieve maximum value for British taxpayers’ money so that our constituents do not conclude that it is all wasted. We may not be able to predict droughts accurately, but we can do much more to prevent famine. Let me briefly outline three possible ways of doing that.

First, building community resilience is key. Improving access to markets for smallholders and giving targeted support to women who often provide the main support for the family can make a big difference. It is vital to focus on reducing trade barriers and tariffs for exports.

Secondly, we should work harder to address the real issues of poor government. It is a well-known fact that democracies have far fewer famines than non-democracies, even when differences in wealth are taken into account. Ethiopia, with a GDP of £18 billion, could afford to feed her people. Freedom of the press and a powerful opposition would have a dramatic impact in promoting prevention measures. Likewise, introducing property rights that allow farmers to own, rather than just lease, their land would give them greater ability to manage their own livelihoods.

Finally, when this immediate crisis wanes, I think we should look closely at Save the Children’s policy of distributing food vouchers rather than food. I am no expert, but it seems to me to be essential to enable the means of exchange. Families who are able to use vouchers to buy food and clean water to meet their own needs are empowered by that, and that creates better incentives for farmers to produce in order to meet demand. British aid is best spent helping Africans to help themselves. I fully believe in the old saying, “It’s better to give a fishing rod than a fish.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) on both securing the debate and their speeches. Several other Members have also made powerful contributions. They focused on the horn of Africa, and rightly so given current circumstances.

Given the breadth of the motion however, I want to touch briefly on food security in Malawi. I should first declare an interest: I am the co-chair of the all-party group on Zambia and Malawi. Some positive signs are coming out of Malawi, which it is useful to bear in mind when considering wider issues across Africa. In 2004, national food production in Malawi was 0.9 million metric tonnes in deficit. In 2011, it is estimated that there will be a food surplus of 1.2 million metric tonnes. That is a remarkable turnaround, and is in no small part thanks to the farm input subsidy programme introduced in 2005 by the Malawi Government and supported by international aid.

Agriculture is the backbone of the Malawi economy, contributing more than one third of entire GDP and employing 80% of the country’s work force. The programme targeted support at the most vulnerable households, allowing them to access the fertiliser and maize seed required to improve agricultural productivity and food security. A voucher system was used, which targeted millions of maize farmers and hundreds of thousands of tobacco farmers. Farmers used the coupons to purchase fertilisers and seed.

Combined with sometimes favourable rain seasons, the programme resulted in dramatically increased maize harvests. That has allowed the Malawi Government to transform the country from a land of perennial famine to a net exporter of maize. Malawi now exports 400,000 tonnes of grain to Zimbabwe and 80,000 tonnes to Swaziland and Lesotho. Not only has harvest yield increased, but the programme has improved the food loss situation. In talking about the importance of food production, other Members have touched on reducing food loss, and post-harvest food loss in Malawi has fallen to 7.6% in 2009-10, which is a dramatic improvement on the previous figure. As the United States Agency for International Development confirms in its most recent assessment of food security in Malawi, the outlook is good.

There are, however, considerable diplomatic and governance issues in respect of Malawi, as the Minister will know, and there are still pockets of the country where the situation is not so positive, mainly in the south. Concerns have also been raised in some quarters about various elements of the programme, particularly the multinational seed suppliers and some issues touched on earlier by the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). However, the Malawi successes are worth highlighting as examples of where, beyond addressing initial, pressing famine needs, long-term planning can make a positive difference, as there may be lessons for other parts of Africa.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), I want to use this debate as an opportunity to pay tribute to the Scotland-based charity, Mary’s Meals. It started its work in Malawi back in 2002, providing school meals to impoverished children. Incredibly, it now provides meals to 450,000 Malawian schoolchildren a day. Food security is central to the raison d’être of Mary’s Meals. The organisation was set up after a conversation between its founder and the eldest son of a Malawian woman dying of AIDS. When he was asked what he wanted from life, his response was that he wanted to have enough to eat and to go to school one day. Those are not particularly lofty aspirations, but for very many people in Malawi they were but a dream. It is on that basis that Mary’s Meals adopts a very simple approach in Malawi, which is that education is the best route out of poverty and food insecurity. A hungry child is a restless child, and a restless child is less likely to learn. Education is key to climbing out of poverty and to ensuring food security for the people of Malawi and other countries.

As I stated, Malawi is far from perfect. There are many problems there and many issues still need to be addressed: too many of its citizens still live in inhumane poverty; too many children go without food; and too many people still die of HIV/AIDS. However, at a time of great famine in other parts of the continent, the progress made in Malawi is a timely reminder of what specific and targeted Government action can do to increase food security for some of the most impoverished in the world.

I am pleased to be able to participate in this afternoon’s debate. I know that quite a few Members still wish to speak, as we were a bit later starting this debate than we might have been, so in the hope that everyone who has waited so patiently will have an opportunity to make a few remarks, I will cut down my comments and therefore not get to the aspects of my speech relating to food security and our united belief that prevention is better than cure.

I wish to associate myself with the comments made by all those who have paid tribute to the voluntary organisations that are doing such fantastic work. I also wish to reflect on some of the things that the Government could learn from the current humanitarian crisis and on how we might improve our response in future. I wish to pay tribute to ShelterBox, a great Cornish charity set up by a group of Rotarians, that provides humanitarian aid. It does so mostly in the form of shelter, but it also enables people to cook food and ensures a good supply of clean water through its boxes. It was set up in 2000 and has responded to more than 140 disasters in more than 70 countries. This voluntary organisation relies totally on individual donations and does not receive any funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee appeals.

The ShelterBox team that is currently in east Africa went out there in July. ShelterBox response teams are made up of highly trained volunteers, and they have been working with people from the UK, Australia, Canada, the USA, France, New Zealand and Germany. So far, they have been able to assist more than 8,600 families, contributing more than £2.2 million-worth of aid. They have been doing that in the refugee camps in Ethiopia, as well as in Somalia. They often undertake such work in extremely difficult circumstances, at great risk to themselves, and it is important that we pay great and fulsome tribute to all those volunteers.

In Kenya alone, ShelterBox boxes have assisted 7,000 families and in the Dadaab refugee camp approximately 1,000 people a day are being helped, with 100 to 150 tents put up daily. The teams are working with a great number of organisations from all over the world and with local people, who are assisting with putting up the tents. The people in the teams wanted me to say to the Government that they have really noticed the improvements that have been made—the much better co-ordination among the non-governmental organisations and the various supranational organisations on the ground—which are making their life much easier. However, they are able to address only a fraction of the need.

Other hon. Members have set out how much more needs to be done. On 15 August, Adrian Edwards, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, said:

“As well as needing food and water, these new arrivals urgently need proper shelter, medical help and other basic services”.

The UNHCR estimated that another 45,000 tents were needed, which brings me on to the recommendations that I would like the Government to consider.

I welcomed the humanitarian emergency response review carried out by Lord Ashdown and published in March. I remind my hon. Friends that the aim of the review was to deliver the maximum possible benefit to those affected by disasters while at the same time delivering value for money for the UK taxpayer. I also welcome the Government’s response for two particular reasons: first, they recognised the important role of independent charities and the value of their role in disasters emergency relief; and, secondly, they made a commitment to set up a rapid response facility to pre-approve high performing UK charities and to enable them to do more of what they do so well.

At the time, the Government announced that there would be a consultation on the rapid response facility. I hope that while the consultation is going on the Government will learn from the excellent work of ShelterBox. A key message the charity has given to me is that, despite the fact that we are all going to work and redouble our efforts to prevent problems, disasters in the world are increasing as a result of climate change and other issues. It is important that we should be able to build up reserves so that when disaster strikes we can quickly get aid to where it is needed. Of course, tents take time to be manufactured, and it is important that the Government should enable organisations such as ShelterBox to manufacture its very specialist tents, which can provide so much important shelter and comfort.

I hope that the consultation can be speeded up and the recommendations implemented so that more UK charities, such as ShelterBox, can provide desperately needed help and do what they do best. Although charity begins at home, it does not end there. I urge the Government to do all they can to enable this great little Cornish charity to carry on making its substantial contribution.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate. I went out to Kenya with my hon. Friend about a year ago and I shall touch on some of the things we saw during that visit, which had a profound impact on both of us, not just negatively as we saw the problems faced by people out there, but positively as we saw what incredible things could be done for a very small outlay.

Let me start by talking about Somalia. As I said in my intervention, there is a Somali community of significant size in Bristol—some say that it is about 20,000 strong. Many arrived as refugees but others arrived from the former British colony of Somaliland. It is obviously no coincidence that Somalia has coped a lot worse with the drought situation than neighbouring countries, such as Ethiopia. Ethiopia has in place a food safety net to deal with such situations and when I went out there with the all-party group for Somaliland, we stayed in Addis Ababa and had lots of conversations with individuals from the Department for International Development and from the embassy. We then went out to Hargeisa to see the situation in Somaliland.

I was struck by the efforts that have been made on the aid front in Ethiopia, including the food safety net and public service agreements, which, despite political instability, problems and issues caused by the climate, were there as, indeed, a safety net. There is a complete lack of that in Somalia. There is also an effective early warning system in Ethiopia, which is not possible in a country as unstable as Somalia.

Constituents have time and again expressed their concern that Somalia has never had the political attention it deserves, and questions are always asked about why Sudan is seen as a political imperative as opposed to any other country that is riven by tribal conflicts or that has problems. I suspect that it is partly because Somalia is seen as such an intransigent and difficult-to-solve problem. One thing that could be done, however, is to give recognition to Somaliland. I was one of the founder members of the all-party group for Somaliland and it has been politically stable since the civil war of 1991, it has fair and free elections and there is huge potential to build the infrastructure and work with the diaspora to set up commercial organisations and use the ports at places such as Berbera for exports, making the country a lot more profitable and cementing its stability.

On food security, according to the World Bank, investment in agriculture in the developing world is between two and four times more effective in reducing poverty than investment in any other sector. As my hon. Friend said quite compellingly, agriculture has not been at the forefront of aid efforts; often the sector does not appear in country plans. It is important, and I hope that today’s debate helps to put down a marker that it should be given more priority.

When I was in Kenya last year with the all-party group I saw the work of the UK organisation Send a Cow, which has been working for over 20 years in Africa, and subsequently went to visit its offices near Bath. The organisation tells me that it takes an average of three to five years for an extremely poor community to become self-sufficient through one of its programmes. It would argue, and I agree, that that is a much better investment than having to provide food aid every time the rains fail. Self-sufficiency is key. The organisation achieves that by creating a network of peer farmers, so that the people who benefit from its initial work then train others in the community. Each family that the organisation works with passes on livestock, seed and skills to an average of 10 others in their community.

We saw in Kenya what a difference is made by small changes to farming methods—such as planting fertiliser pellets a certain distance from seeds so that they do not burn the seedlings as they come up—and investment in barns to improve grain storage. We saw the work of FIPS-Africa—Farm Input Promotions Africa—and FARM-Africa in developing disease-resistant strands of crops and we learned more than we ever needed to know about the insemination of goats. Those are small changes, and sometimes they are surprising because we think that they are things that people should have learned through farming the land over years.

When I went to India I spoke to a farmer who had just moved back to organic farming. He had come under huge pressure from companies selling pesticides to adopt what we in the western world would call modern farming methods, but when he switched back to organic methods his crops were far better and he was able to sell his food at market and make more money as a result. Some of these things have to be relearned, and we have to be careful that we do not try to impose our way of doing things.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that highlights the point made earlier about the question of DFID’s focus on agriculture and whether there needs to be a shifting of emphasis to some of the points that she is making?

That is true. In Bangladesh I went to a village where free-range chickens were running around. We went down the road and saw a structure made of twigs which was basically a battery cage for hens. The person I was with said, “This is progress. We are doing things the way that you do them.” In the western world we are trying to move away from battery cages and towards free-range farming. I worry—if I can end on a political note that has not yet been struck in this debate—that in this country the farming agenda has moved very much more towards speaking up for the farmers, for the vested interests and for the producers of food, and it is not about welfare methods or the consumers. There is an increasing emphasis on intensification, as we saw with the farming Minister’s support for the intensive dairy farm at Nocton. We need to set the standard in this country and abroad, and say that there is a sustainable way of feeding the world which does not involve locking animals up in battery cages and putting cows in the equivalent of multi-storey car parks.

I am very sad that the hon. Lady has chosen to introduce a degree of party politics to this debate. I cannot let her comments stand. This country, quite rightly, should be very proud that it has some of the highest, if not the highest, standards of animal welfare, some of the best farmers and some of the best farming practices in the whole world. Of course we can always do more, and we should aim to do so, but that is the position.

That is the position because over the past 20 years or so there has been significant progress on animal welfare. That is not a matter for today’s debate, but I have real concerns that the tide is turning in the wrong direction and that is a problem.

I want to end with a quote from Oxfam’s Grow campaign, which states:

“The vast imbalance in public investment in agriculture must be righted, redirecting the billions now being ploughed into unsustainable industrial farming in rich countries towards meeting the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries. For that is where the major gains in productivity, sustainable intensification, poverty reduction, and resilience can be achieved.”

That is the way forward, and I hope that we can play a major role in helping the developing countries—particularly those stricken by the famine that we are debating today—to adapt and secure their future livelihoods in that way.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I also thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) for calling for the debate. I pay tribute to the outstanding work of the all-party group, which has provided so much information to so many of us. In addition, I thank all those in the country and, in particular, in my constituency, who have contributed to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and the UK Government for their most generous response. In particular, I pay tribute to the Government of Kenya, who have hosted the refugees in a tremendously welcoming way, which should not be forgotten.

So many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken eloquently and with great learning about this matter that I want to touch on only a few points in the hope of allowing others to speak. The motion states that food aid

“must always be the last resort and that improving the productivity and resilience of domestic agricultural systems in Africa must by a priority for the UK and the international donor community”.

I absolutely agree. Agriculture, as many hon. Members have said, has been given insufficient attention over many years. It was seen either as something of the past or as a cash cow that could be taken for granted. Instead, much Government and aid money was ploughed into factories, which in many cases are now out of production, sitting there idly. But the farmers are still there, and what more they could have done with that investment themselves. It has not been ignored by NGOs, such as Oxfam, Tearfund, Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Islamic Relief and many others, which have ploughed a perhaps lonely furrow over the last couple of decades, but I am glad to say that the tide is turning.

There has often been stirring rhetoric about the importance of agriculture, but in reality it has been heavily taxed, budgets for support have been low, and investment in infrastructure has been lacking—roads, storage capacity, power, irrigation, and many other things, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) mentioned, research.

I recall calculating in the 1990s that the marginal tax rate for a smallholder coffee farmer in Tanzania was far higher than the highest income tax rate then prevailing in that country due to the crop levies that were being imposed locally and nationally at a time of low prices. I am glad to say that the Tanzanian Government listened and took action.

What can be done? First, agriculture must be at the heart of any developing country’s plan for economic growth. I draw particular attention to the many comments that have been made about the centrality of women who do most of the work in this area and their importance to development. Agriculture provides food security, exports, employment, and, most importantly, cash direct to ordinary people. This priority has to be reflected both in the national budgets and in the taxation systems of those countries.

It follows that agriculture must also be at the heart of international development. I join colleagues who have called on the Government to put more money into supporting agriculture in the coming years. The Government are moving in the right direction, but they are not going far enough at the moment. I am delighted that the CDC will be looking to invest more in agriculture, and I urge it to live up to those words. I also welcome DFID’s increased interest and support through programmes such as the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, where it is investing directly in smallholder agricultural products.

Productivity has to be taken seriously. It is not just a matter of improving yields, although that is essential. It is also a question of proper logistics, warehousing, cold storage, transport, packaging and marketing. As many have said, too much has been wasted.

Thirdly, the technology that is available to large-scale agriculture must be available to smaller farms. I have seen excellent examples of very small-scale farms with drip irrigation, which can improve yields dramatically, but much more could be done. Measures could be introduced to check and maintain soil fertility, ensuring the availability and affordability of fertilisers, training and extension.

I would like to make one further point, on the impact of neglected tropical diseases such as worms and schistosomiasis. The Minister knows all about this. In fact, he rightly introduced the topic to the all-party group on malaria, which published a report on neglected tropical diseases this week. It is absolutely vital that these diseases are tackled, which can be done at very low cost. They have a significant impact on productivity, as people suffering from them have a downgraded ability to work, particularly in the fields. If we can tackle these neglected tropical diseases, we will also be tackling problems of productivity and agriculture.

Finally, as has already been mentioned, borders must be opened up to trade. We have seen recently that countries in an area affected by drought are tempted to ban the export of cereals to needy neighbours because of fears for their own food security in the medium term. Although their caution is understandable, it should surely be possible to take a regional approach. I urge bodies such as the East African Community to deal with food security on a regional basis and co-operate as fully as possible. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and welcome the contributions from all Members who have spoken on this important subject.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose comments on the role of agriculture in development I agree with strongly. I too congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and the whole Backbench Business Committee on calling this important debate.

I believe that few people across the country could fail to be moved by the scale of the disaster that has inflicted itself on the horn of Africa. More than 13 million people have been affected in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, and 800,000 people have become refugees. Christian Aid and Oxfam have said that the crisis has three main causes: the worst drought in the region for 60 years; high food and fuel prices; and conflict, particularly in Somalia. Somalia’s per capita gross domestic product is only $333—among the lowest in the world—and 43% of its population survive on less than $1 a day.

It is clear that long-term solutions to prevent a repeat of such a famine will require good governance, sound growth policies and active preparedness through the building of food reserves in the affected countries. However, a major factor contributing to the crisis has been underinvestment in the smallholder agriculture sector across the whole east Africa region. I welcome the contribution made by the G20 Agriculture Ministers in their June summit in Paris, where they called for an increase in food production, made food security a central issue in the G20’s reforms over the next year and pointed out the need for a 70% increase in agricultural production by 2050 to deal with a global population that is likely to rise to 9 billion people.

In developing countries there is a need to double food production to prevent future crises. Three out of every four people in developing countries live in rural areas, and 2.1 billion people still live on less than $2 a day. We know that investment in the agricultural sector does more for growth and poverty reduction than investment in any other sector. I strongly welcome the launch of Oxfam’s Grow campaign, which is aimed at highlighting the importance of food security and calls for the regulation of commodity markets and policies that promote the production of food rather than biofuels. Currently, subsidies for first-generation biofuels amount to $20 billion a year.

There is a clear and pressing question for the international community on food price regulation. The 2010 agriculture and commodity prices report of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that in June 2008 the prices of basic foods on international markets had reached their highest levels for 30 years, threatening the food security of the poor worldwide. In 2007 and 2008, as a result of high food prices, an additional 115 million people were pushed into chronic hunger. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation this May in Rome, rising global food prices since last June have pushed a further 44 million people into extreme hunger.

The World Economic Forum’s report on global risk describes the link between water, food and energy as one of the future drivers of social and economic instability across the world. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts a 30% increase in demand for water, and the International Energy Agency forecasts that the world economy will require at least 40% more energy by 2030. Half a billion people throughout the world face chronic shortfalls in water now, and that number that is likely to rise to more than 4 billion by 2050 as a result of climate change, with food production being particularly exposed.

The UNFAO outlined in its June report on crop prospects that food insecurity has reached alarming levels in east Africa, and throughout the continent some 23 countries are in need of external assistance to feed their populations. The OECD secretary-general, Angel Gurría, spoke in early June at the International Economic Forum of the Americas of the imperative to increase public and private agricultural investment and of an end to export bans.

There is an ongoing debate among non-governmental organisations and economists about the contribution of commodity price speculation and trading in commodity derivatives to the volatility of global food prices. Last week, Members were lobbied by Michael Masters and David Frenk of Better Markets, who also spoke to Governments in Paris and in London, about the need for concerted G20 action on commodity derivatives. They established the clear link between speculation from index funds and the monthly spike in commodity derivative stocks.

Such speculation does not add liquidity to those markets or help farmers, and we need the Treasury to join Governments throughout the G20 to put in place a global version of the Dodd-Frank Act, making sure that all transactions are regulated by the stock market and that, in such transactions, position limits are placed on the trading of financial institutions.

Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being present for the whole debate. I wanted to be but could not. I was not going to speak—I was going to listen—but I have decided to say something.

Africa is one of the richest continents in the world, and if the conditions were right it could feed itself properly. I speak as someone whose wife started an International Committee of the Red Cross camp in south Sudan for 100,000 people. She was often shelled by the Government there, and because of that she slept most of her six months at the camp in a slit trench.

That brings me to the point that I want to make, and forgive me if it has been made already, but in so many countries it is the authorities that are the big obstacle. In so many countries in Africa, it is the leaders who tend to think that, because they are the president, the prime minister or whoever, they own that country and everything that goes on in it; and, of course, so much that goes in goes out somewhere else—to offshore bank accounts, on Mercedes cars or whatever—and does not get through. I do not know how we are going to correct that problem, but I do know that that is largely the problem. The Department for International Development is under this Government, and was under the previous Government, fully aware of it, and is doing its very best to make sure that the money that we give, either as a Government or through our wonderful charities, some of which we have mentioned today, gets all the way through.

Personally, I think that the forum of the world, the United Nations, should get a grip and somehow come up with a plan to make sure that people in Africa are fed properly, either by moving them to a place where they can be sustained or by getting some sort of arrangement with authorities whereby they do not interfere and we do not have to pay a levy—like I had to, not in Africa but in Bosnia, where we stopped the practice—to get food through to the people who need it. That is disgraceful. I very much hope that the United Nations, which is the highest authority in the world, can somehow get its act together to make sure that the people of Africa get fed properly and are not prevented from receiving proper aid by the authorities, either locally or nationally.

I hope the House will forgive me for speaking.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will wind up the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is always interesting to hear from him about his passionate support for the people of Africa and about what his wife has been doing to support them.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for attending and thank their opposite numbers for kindly coming here as well. The common theme of the debate has been that we need to do all we can to help the people of the horn of Africa. All Members have taken the time to congratulate the UK public on their contribution and express wholehearted support for the Government’s efforts, only stopping to try to redirect those efforts and introduce their own examples or themes regarding things they think can really make a difference.

I should like to repeat a couple of the points that have been made and ask the Under-Secretary to respond to them in due course. Sadly, he will not speak on this occasion, but I am sure that he will come back to us individually. First, I will comment on food price volatility and commodity trading. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said she was not sure whether that is a matter of concern although it has been suggested that it is. It would be helpful to those of us who are concerned about food security to achieve a settled view, if that is possible, on whether it is something that we should be concentrating on. If it is, we absolutely need to address it, but if not, we do not want it to distract us from all our other efforts. Time and money are limited and we need to know where to focus them. It has also been interesting to hear so many Members speak strongly about the importance of focusing aid towards women, who support their homes and families, and I emphasise that point to the Under-Secretary.

The complexity of the causes of the famine has not put the House off; instead, each Member has dealt with them with in their own way, drawing on their own experience to do so. The House should be proud of the fact that Members have put in such effort, resulting in a very good debate. The most important message to emerge is the urgency of improving agricultural resilience in these countries. If we can help people to grow their own food and feed themselves, we will help them to mitigate the difficulties that cause the famine we are now witnessing.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate and congratulate everybody on their speeches. I have very much enjoyed hearing so many Members speak so strongly and passionately about other people and countries that they care about. It is good for the House that we have done that. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the contribution of the British public, via the Disasters Emergency Committee, and the British Government to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa; recognises that emergency food relief must always be the last resort and that improving the productivity and resilience of domestic agricultural systems in Africa must be a priority for the UK and the international donor community; and calls upon the Government to increase its focus on improving awareness around nutrition and agriculture in the developing world to support farmers and secure greater international food resilience and to champion the welfare of those in the developing world in the discussions on food price volatility at the upcoming G20 Summit in Cannes.