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Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021

I remind Members that the House authorities request people to wear face coverings, except when they are speaking in the debate. I am also asked to remind Members to have a covid lateral flow test twice weekly if coming on to the parliamentary estate—that may be done either at the testing centre on the estate or at home—and to space yourselves out. Clearly, we have spaced ourselves out nicely already.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 2021 Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for affording me the opportunity to propose the motion.

It is almost exactly a year since we last gathered in Westminster Hall to debate the role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in tackling global malnutrition. At the time, I, the all-party parliamentary group on Nutrition for Growth—which I co-chair with Lord Collins of Highbury—and the Members present at the debate urged the FCDO to make an early Nutrition for Growth commitment at an event co-hosted by the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh. Indeed, the UK was represented at that event. Of course, it took place because the Nutrition for Growth summit had been postponed for a year because of covid. The summit is finally scheduled to happen in just a few days.

On 7 and 8 December, the Government of Japan will convene Governments, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations and business leaders in an online summit to commit finances and to make policy changes that will help to end malnutrition. It will be the fourth Nutrition for Growth summit since the initiative was launched by David Cameron and the UK Government in 2013. The focus of the Nutrition for Growth APPG had obviously been on the Tokyo summit, but the delay because of covid has allowed us to continue to press the issue at every parliamentary opportunity. I thank our secretariat, Results UK, and Tom Guha in particular, for their help and support in doing so.

I also took the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister last week to discuss the issues and to reaffirm the prime ministerial support that Nutrition for Growth has always enjoyed. I know, therefore, that he will be taking a significant interest in the summit and its outcome, and he wants to see the continuation of the global leadership that the UK has demonstrated to date.

Before I get on to the summit itself, I will lay out why malnutrition is a problem that demands our urgent attention. I will start with one very grim statistic: in 2019, more than 5 million children under five died. Malnutrition was linked to 45% of those deaths. That is a staggering number, and the reason for it is that malnutrition during critical periods of growth—for example, during pregnancy or the early years—stunts the growth of the immune system, making children more likely both to get ill and to die as a result.

The problem does not stop there. In 2020, 149 million children worldwide suffered chronic health conditions due to stunted growth. That number is more than double the population size of the UK. In some regions, such as central Africa, stunting affects 40% of all children. Malnutrition not only has dire health consequences, but malnourished children are 13% less likely to be in the correct school year for their age. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs some countries up to 11% of GDP annually through productivity losses and healthcare costs.

Nutrition is a foundational investment in people. It prevents ill health, rather than treating it, it ensures that children learn at school rather than simply attend, and it sets children up to realise their future potential in adult life. It is for this reason that Nobel economists describe nutrition as

“the most effective development investment that could be made, with massive benefits for a tiny price-tag.”

Whatever the Government’s position on the overseas aid budget, I am sure that we all agree that taxpayers’ money should be spent as impactfully as possible. Therefore, we must prioritise nutrition and use summits such as Nutrition for Growth to co-ordinate our approach with other countries to maximise its impact even further.

There is some good news. Although the problem of malnutrition is all too prevalent, the number of under-five deaths worldwide has more than halved since 1990 and the number of stunted children has decreased by 11% in the past 20 years, from 203 million to 149 million. The figure is enormous, but that is still a monumental achievement that shows that action and global co-operation to address malnutrition have worked.

Progress is now under threat. Covid has closed health centres, and pushed food prices up and wages down. As a result, it is predicted that an additional 283,000 children under five will die from malnutrition between 2020 and 2022, which is a shocking equivalent to 225 more children dying every day. In the same period, it is predicted that an additional 3.6 million children will become stunted.

We cannot stand by as years of progress unravel in this way. I have the following calls on the Minister today. Will she confirm that the UK Government will make a pledge at the Nutrition for Growth summit next week? Will the UK Government commit to reach 50 million women, adolescent girls and children with high-impact nutrition interventions by 2025, which would be consistent with the commitment they gave at the last Nutrition for Growth summit? Will she ensure that her Department has the funding required to meet that target? NGOs estimate that roughly £120 million per year is required for nutrition-specific programmes, but that accounts for just 1% of official development assistance. Will the FCDO increase the impact of other UK aid spending by adding nutrition objectives to £680 million of programming in other areas?

That is not an ask for new money; it is about targeting other programmes, such as agricultural or social protection schemes, on areas with a high prevalence of malnutrition. Will the Government and the FCDO commit to implement the OECD’s policy marker for nutrition at programme design phase, to ensure that the Minister’s Department proactively considers how nutrition can be woven into programmes? These are not just arbitrary requests or calls for more money. Each commitment would make a real difference to the lives of millions of malnourished women, children and adolescent girls.

To conclude, let me give just one example of the difference that such commitments can make, by speaking about Halima. Halima was 17 months old when she was admitted to hospital in Mogadishu. She was dangerously underweight and had peeling skin, swollen limbs and brittle hair. As a result of UK funding, Halima was given ready-to-use therapeutic food at the hospital, and her mother, Fatuma, was supported with a cash transfer scheme that enabled her to provide her daughter with a healthy, balanced diet. I am sure we are all pleased to know that after five months, Halima was bouncy, bubbly and healthy. As a direct result of decisions made in this place and by the UK Government, Halima survived.

Let us grasp the opportunity that the Nutrition for Growth summit next week affords, to ensure that there are more positive outcomes like Halima’s. I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s positive response.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing this debate on the very important Nutrition for Growth summit in Tokyo next week, and for such a thoughtful opening speech.

Since I have been chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the human microbiome, I have been furthering my knowledge about the fundamental role that diet plays in everyone’s health and its ability to change the gut microbiome for better or worse. I raise the issue of the gut microbiome because it plays a crucial role in nutritional uptake. The composition of the bacteria in the gut is implicated in a vast array of illnesses, conditions and infections that affect physical and mental health. Around 70% of the immune system is derived from the gut microbiome, so the stronger it is, the stronger our immune system and overall resilience—that is particularly pertinent in this time of covid-19.

The remarkable thing about our gut microbiome is that, unlike our genetics, it can be altered throughout our lives—deliberately, and for the better—most easily by the foods we choose to eat, among other things. Our gut microbiome needs to have many of the positive types of bacteria that are beneficial to health, which are collectively called probiotics. We can ingest those bacteria in the food we eat, especially fermented foods such as live yoghurts, and in any approved supplements that we may take. The positive bacteria then need food of their own so that they can produce the compounds that support our health and resilience. One of the reasons we are encouraged to eat a wide variety of plant foods is that they feed the positive bacteria that we all need to make for our health to be more robust, with better resistance to infection. Food that targets specific types of positive bacteria can be taken in the form of supplements called prebiotics.

At a recent meeting of the APPG on the human microbiome, we had a talk by Professor Gregor Reid of Western University in London, Ontario, in Canada. He spoke about a truly transformative programme that is already operational in Africa, called Fermented Food for Life, which is pertinent to the ambitions of the summit. The programme provides affordable, good-tasting foods that improve the gut microbiome, nutritional intake and health. It uses local people, local resources and a very simple production method that ferments milk, fruits, cereals and vegetables. It starts with an affordable sachet containing 1 gram of two food-grade beneficial bacteria that can produce 100 litres of probiotic fermented food. A cow or goat will then provide milk that is fermented with the bacteria in order to make yoghurt. Fermented fruit juices, vegetables and cereals, all of which are highly nutritious, can also be made. By making such foods with some of those types of probiotic bacteria, we are adding to the health-promoting properties of these organisms.

Scientists in Canada and the Netherlands have shown that communities in Africa can purchase the sachets and minimal equipment to produce those health-promoting probiotic fermented foods—supplemented if desired with local moringa leaves, which are considered to be nutritional treasures in themselves—and create a value chain that brings economic and health gains.

Research has shown that probiotic yoghurts can confer health benefits such as preventing and treating gastrointestinal infections, increasing birth weight in babies and improving the mother’s health, helping to remove toxins such as mercury from the body, strengthening the immune system, and improving general health and nutrition. Such effects are particularly pronounced in areas with high rates of malnutrition and for individuals who are immunocompromised. Many peer-reviewed research papers back that up.

There are now hundreds of yoghurt kitchens in east Africa, run by women affectionately known as yoghurt mamas. In 2019, the programme reached some 260,000 consumers. As well as the production, there is a distribution network providing employment. By improving the microbiome, the Fermented Food for Life programme is improving nutritional uptake and the health of people in low-income African countries. If such a programme can work in Africa, it can work across the world. It is easily replicable, low cost, sustainable, uses local resources and contributes to meaningful employment and community health.

With a little external investment, many more yoghurt kitchens can be set up. There is a model to follow, and we know it works. The people behind the programme know that it can be transferred to other countries where malnutrition is prevalent—it could even be transferred to Britain and other developed countries. When we talk about malnutrition, we have to link it to poverty, unemployment, low levels of education or lack of accessibility to good, affordable food. We all know that those factors affect regions in our own country.

If such a programme can work in Africa, it can work across the world. Micro-enterprises anywhere in the world can follow the same model as in Africa to produce probiotic fermented foods to improve health outcomes through the gut microbiome. These cost-effective solutions have been shown to work, and this sustainable programme of recognising the gut microbiome as an integral element of human health fits perfectly with the three key pillars of the Nutrition for Growth summit: health, food and resilience.

I know that the Government are considering whether to renew their commitment to reach 50 million people with nutrition interventions by 2025 at the summit next week, as recommended by the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition, which includes Save the Children, UNICEF and other important non-governmental organisations. Now that the spending review is over, perhaps the Minister could update us on the progress of that decision. As part of such a renewed commitment to the Nutrition for Growth summit, would the Government explore supporting programmes like the one I have described?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this debate, which is timely given the summit next week, and because yesterday was World AIDS Day, and nutrition is crucial in helping people infected with HIV/AIDS—as well as those with covid and many other diseases, as we have heard.

I am struck by the link between this debate and one that we had on Tuesday in Westminster Hall on the wellbeing economy approach to measuring success and what matters. That debate was particularly about our response to climate change, but it is at the heart of the issue of nutrition for growth as well.

Katherine Trebeck, a constituent of mine, is a leading thinker on wellbeing economics. She talks about how we can reframe the kind of goals we want to achieve and the measures that we make of society. One of her cornerstone indicators is how many girls in a country cycle to school. That can be applied in the United Kingdom and in sub-Saharan Africa. A range of things have to come together to increase that number, and the benefits of that increase are so important for so many other things across society.

Nutrition is absolutely at the core of that. Any of us who wants to expend energy—in fighting disease, paying attention in class, working in heavy industry or talking in Westminster Hall—has to be adequately fed. We recognise that in our country. One of the biggest political debates during the covid crisis was free school meals. The Government had to respond to the national outcry led by Marcus Rashford, who knows from experience that sustenance and adequate nutrition are the foundation of everything a person might want to do in daily life. The series of Nutrition for Growth summits are recognition of the centrality of good nutrition to human development. The summit in a couple of weeks will build on previous summits. We recognise that they were started under the Conservative Government of David Cameron, but of course that Government reached the 0.7% target and increased the amount of money that the UK was spending on international development. I will come back to that, because sadly that is not what this Conservative Government are doing.

Nutrition is the underlying driver of, and essential to meeting, 12 of the 17 sustainable development goals, and it is absolutely crucial to the second sustainable development goal of ending hunger in all its forms by 2030, which is not very far away at all. Again, I pay tribute to David Cameron’s work to mobilise global opinion behind the SDGs. People questioned whether 17 SDGs was enough or too many. It is the right number, because those were identified as the goals that we need to meet in order to build a more sustainable and just world for everybody.

The fact that the goal on hunger is the second SDG is recognition of how important it is to achieving everything else that we want to achieve. I pay tribute to the work of the University of Nottingham, and particularly Professor Nicola Pitchford; at a recent meeting of all-party parliamentary groups, they gave a presentation on a very impressive study they are doing in Malawi to monitor, prove and demonstrate the significance of nutrition for all the other wellbeing indicators. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi, and we share a deep interest in that country. That study will use big data from across the whole country; 4,500 mother and infant pairs will be studied over the long term to see what difference different kinds of intervention can make. Crucial to that will, of course, be the kind of food and the adequacy of the nutrition that they are able to access.

The latest FCDO annual report states that Malawi is to experience a 50% cut in the aid it receives from the United Kingdom. This has to be addressed. I know it is uncomfortable. Ministers do not like it, and Conservative Back Benchers do not like it very much either, but the reality is that the United Kingdom is set to make one of the biggest cuts to its overseas nutrition work in history. The aid budget as a whole faces a cut of roughly a third, and aid for nutrition is set to be slashed by 70%. That is the finding of the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition, which produced a through report with some important recommendations, some of which the right hon. Gentleman echoed.

The difficulty, which we were warned of when the cuts came forward, is that they are not being applied equally across the board. It is almost impossible to apply them equally across the board, so the Government are having to pick and choose between priorities, whether that is priority issues or priority countries. As soon as they do that, other projects and programmes that have been supported by the Department for International Development and the FCDO suffer disproportionately.

The reality of the cuts is that the money will not turn back on like a tap in a couple of years’ time when the Chancellor says, “We’re going to get back to 0.7%.” That will be of no use to programmes that are closing now, for experience that is being lost now, to staff who are moving to other projects or moving elsewhere, and for the progress that has been made with cohorts who are not receiving inputs now. That will have a long-term consequence, even if the budget is brought back up to 0.7% in a couple of years’ time—and we will wait to see whether that is what happens. I have to contrast that with what the Scottish Government are doing. They have increased their international development fund, despite the pressures on their budget as a whole. When Scotland becomes an independent country, we absolutely want to meet 0.7%. We have recently offered £250,000 to help with the hunger crisis in Sudan, and another £250,000 to Afghanistan because of the approaching catastrophic winter famine.

As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said, this issue affects countries all around the world. We are particularly focused, in the summit and in the debate, on Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and developing countries in the least developed category, but the issue affects so many people. As I said at the start, it affects us here at home as well. That is why I warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s commitments on free school meals. Over many years now, that has been rolled out to increasing numbers of primary school children. The Scottish Government are going further, faster, because they recognise the difference that it makes to the wellbeing of children, their educational opportunities and closing the attainment gap. If it is good enough for us here in Scotland and the United Kingdom, it should be good enough for all the countries that we work with around the world.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the foundational importance of nutrition for all the other development goals that we aspire to reach, and that the UK Government will find a way to show leadership when it comes to requests made by stakeholder groups and by the Members in today’s debate. If we do not do that, it will put all the other goals at risk, because of the foundational nature of this topic.

I know things are difficult for the Minister; first of all, half the ministerial team are off because of various commitments and self-isolation. They have been working very hard this week, between Westminster Hall and the Chamber. Also, it is difficult because it is an uncomfortable decision that has been made. However, we have to be honest about the reality of the impact of the cuts. We need to work together in order to find the best way to act to make the best of the situation, and to use the resources as effectively as possible, so that they make as big a difference as possible.

I look forward to contributing under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this timely debate, and on his brilliant contribution.

As an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health, and as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I have always had a passion for this subject. I will join my colleagues next week at the summit online; we will be there from the IDC.

Next week, this Government have the opportunity to continue the work that they have done promoting good nutrition. In 2013, this Government led the world at the first Nutrition for Growth summit, and we can do it again. Truly it is an opportunity to fundamentally change the lives of the poorest in the world for the better. This is possibly the most important time to tackle malnutrition since the 1983 to 1985 famine in Ethiopia.

Covid-19 has ripped through the most deprived parts of the world in ways inconceivable to us. It has left swathes of already vulnerable children on the very edge of starvation. This year, 225 more children will die every day because of malnutrition. An additional 3.6 million children are predicted to become stunted, and 13.6 million children are predicted to become wasted by 2022 because of malnutrition arising from covid-19. This is not intangible. It is real children whose lives are blighted.

Nutrition is the single simplest, most effective way to improve lives across the globe, yet this year we are turning our backs on the malnourished. This Christmas— supposedly a time of good will—while the aid budget as a whole is facing a cut of roughly a third, ODA for nutrition is set to be slashed by 70%, despite the relative affordability of nutrition, the efficiency of spending it represents, and the impact it has. Nutrition cuts across every single target the FCDO has. It meets targets and it changes lives. Money spent on nutrition delivers an average return of 16 times the investment and supports future generations; it does not have a one-off impact.

With this in mind, and with the legacy of the first Nutrition for Growth summit as a role model, I hope the Minister will answer the following questions. There might be some repetition of other Members’ suggestions; I tried to cut it out, but then I thought, “I must add my voice to theirs, and endorse and support what they said.” Will the Minister attend the Nutrition for Growth summit, make an ambitious pledge there, and commit to renewing the commitment to reaching 50 million children, women and adolescent girls with nutrition programmes by 2025? Will the Minister commit to adding nutrition indicators to roughly £680 million of aid in other areas, to maximise the effectiveness of the aid budget? What work is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that other Government Departments and other Governments around the world take nutrition seriously? Finally, will she commit to reading the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition’s latest document, “Time for Action”, and respond to its recommendations?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) not only for securing this debate, but for making very eloquent and powerful arguments in the run-up to the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit next week. I thank all Members who have spoken. It seems that we are breaking out into consensus, and I hope to hear a consensual reply from the Minister.

For many of us, our first and fundamental understanding of international development, and our moral obligation as global citizens to provide assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, will have been shaped by stories and images of children who did not have the well-nourished, healthy life that we took for granted. We see pleas, both on television and in newspapers, almost every day for support from our citizens for those most in need. Those of us old enough remember the horrific images from the mid-1980s of many children starving to death, which led to an international outcry. We all watched the Band Aid concert, which raised hundreds of millions worldwide to help people in Ethiopia.

The simple fact is that a healthy diet is a fundamental human need—in fact, it should be a right. That is something even the youngest child can understand, but as we debate this issue today, halfway through the United Nations decade of action on nutrition, the UN has sombrely concluded that the world is not on track to achieve sustainable development goal 2, which is zero hunger by 2030, or on track to meet global nutrition targets. Sadly, it is not on track to meet some of the other sustainable development goals, either.

In fact, the number of undernourished people has increased by over 50%, from 633 million to 957 million—almost a billion—in the past three years alone. Pause to consider that number for a second: that is one in seven people on Earth. Let us be in no doubt: this is a global crisis. That increase should shame us all, and today this Chamber is clearly sending the Government the message that they must reaffirm their commitment to global nutrition—not through vague platitudes from the Minister at the end of this debate, but through concrete and evidenced action at next week’s summit.

Nutrition has a fundamental impact on the life chances of a child, even before they are born. We all know that well-nourished women have safer pregnancies and deliver healthier babies, yet one third of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia—the leading cause of complication in pregnancy and childbirth—which increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and maternal mortality. Sadly, Governments are not on track to reach the World Health Organisation target of reducing anaemia in women by 50% by 2025, despite the fact that providing iron supplements costs less than $5 per woman. Well-nourished infants and children are healthier and have stronger immune systems, making them more able to resist infection and disease. Without sufficient nutrition, children, particularly those under the age of two, are at high risk of wasting, which causes them to be too thin and to have weak immune systems. That results in development delays, disease and, ultimately, death. Tragically, as was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, malnutrition is still linked to 45% of all under-five child deaths.

Similarly, in 2019, 144 million children under the age of five were affected by stunting—being too short for their age. They, too, are more susceptible to disease and infection, and are unlikely to develop their full cognitive potential. Adults who are stunted earn about 20% less than their peers, and mothers who are undernourished are more likely to have children who are subsequently stunted, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and undernutrition. If there is a point to be made here about lifting people out of poverty around the world, it is this: we are talking about a simple and affordable investment that will ensure that nations around the world can grow out of a situation in which they are regularly in need of international development. That argument, I would think, would work for even the most libertarian Conservatives in this Government.

Furthermore, good nutrition is critical to brain development and educational achievement. Well-nourished schoolchildren are more likely to stay in school, but malnourished children are, at age eight, 20% less likely to be able to read simple sentences and 13% less likely to be in the correct school year for their age. Once again, if trade is to be a key part of our development work—which I fully support—we need to make sure that young people have good access to health and education. Food will be a key part of that. Only then will they be able to trade their way out of their current situation and be prosperous like those in other nations in the western world.

Ensuring good nutrition is therefore critical to preventing disease, reducing unnecessary death, and enabling people to reach their full potential. Nutrition is recognised by Nobel economists as the most effective development intervention. That makes it all the more regrettable that it has been neglected, and that malnutrition is on the rise. It is therefore fundamentally vital—I cannot emphasise this enough—that the UK Government recommit to reaching over 50 million children, women, and adolescent girls with nutrition-relevant programmes by 2025. Those in this Chamber have said that with one voice. The Department for International Development was able to exceed that commitment between 2015 and 2020, so there should be no reason why the FCDO could not do likewise.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on global nutrition, with rates of malnutrition soaring due to the pandemic. The disruption to economic, health, development and educational systems has meant that livelihoods have become more fragile, and has exacerbated existing inequalities. How can someone provide a broad range of food for their family when lockdowns and economic instability have meant that they have lost their job and income? How can they receive nutritional supplements when their country’s healthcare system is overwhelmed with covid patients, or when aid workers cannot reach them because of border closures? How can they receive their one healthy meal a day when the school that they go to is closed?

The impact has been catastrophic. Between 2020 and 2022, an additional 3.6 million children are predicted to become stunted, and 13.6 million children are predicted to become wasted. This will cause over a quarter of a million more children under five to die from malnutrition. That is 225 children dying every single day—these could be our children. Will the Minister commit today to conducting an impact assessment on how covid-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, rates of malnutrition in FCDO partner countries?

Nutrition is even more important in the context of covid-19, as good nutrition is essential to maintaining a strong immune system, as was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). Conversely, malnutrition is the leading cause of ill health and death worldwide, increasing the risk of developing severe covid symptoms, and therefore possibly reducing the efficacy of covid vaccines. The impact of covid should have made the UK’s investment in nutrition more important, not less—the impact of covid should have made all of the UK’s aid spending more important.

However, what did we see from this UK Government in response? We saw the very opposite. We saw the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Cabinet abandon their obligation to leave no one behind, abandon any notion of building back better, and abandon the UK’s role as a leader—let us be clear—in international development by reneging on the cross-party manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on ODA. The term “global Britain” would be funny if it was not so tragic.

Rather than step up to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable when they needed it the most, the Government stepped away and made an ideologically motivated death-sentence cut. The pandemic forced hundreds of millions of people into hunger and malnutrition, but at a time when people needed strong immunity more than ever, UK aid for nutrition-specific programmes plummeted by—wait for it—70%, from £118 million in 2018 to just £37 million this year. Despite nutrition being central to the FCDO’s development priorities, less than 1% of the UK budget is spent on nutrition-specific programmes. Withdrawing support from these life-saving nutrition programmes severely compromises the effectiveness of UK aid, including in priority areas such as covid, global health security and, fundamentally, girls’ education. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of good nutrition for human immunity and vaccine efficacy. Well-nourished girls are more likely to stay in school, succeed in their studies and delay their first pregnancy.

The tragedy of the “global Britain” approach is that the Government knew that they would be undermining this work. Their own equalities assessment concluded that these cuts would negatively impact girls’ education, harm wider efforts to advance gender equality, disrupt disability-inclusive development and diminish the ability to reach those furthest behind. It was not done without knowledge in advance. Nevertheless, they pressed ahead with this callous cut regardless. Let us be clear that these cuts have consequences: they kill. Therefore, this UK Government have blood on their dirty little hands.

I will demonstrate an example of this. In evidence given to the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, along with my colleague from the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), witnesses from UNICEF spoke of their UK aid-funded nutrition programme in South Sudan, which was cut this year by 75%, from £20 million to £5 million. What does that mean on the ground? It means that an additional 73,000 children with severe wasting may not be reached and now face the highest risk of death. These cuts stand in stark contrast with every other G7 country, which have increased their aid contributions over the past year. It is no wonder that they have done this; we have been living through covid and we all know what that has meant. It is something that every country on earth is experiencing—we are not unique. It is the Scottish Government who have pledged to increase their international development fund by 50%. Let me be crystal clear: Scotland wants no part of the UK Government’s abdication of responsibility, and sees international development very differently.

This Conservative Government have abandoned the UK’s role as leader in international development in favour of following the manifesto commitments of the UK Independence party and the Brexit party. The upcoming Nutrition for Growth summit cannot fall short in the same way that the Education for Development summit did this summer. Rose Caldwell, chief executive of Plan International UK, said that the UK had failed in its duty as co-host after the summit failed to reach its target by a staggering $1 billion.

As the host of the original Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013, which was supported by cross-party unanimity when David Cameron brought it forward, the UK should have tremendous convening power. If the UK Government wish to restore their credibility on the world’s stage in any shape or form, they must deliver a strong pledge next week to catalyse commitments from other donors. It is essential that the UK increases aid for nutrition-specific programmes and, at the very least, returns to the original 2015-20 levels and commits the necessary £120 million per year over the next five years.

The Nutrition for Growth summit is a rare opportunity for ambitious change. It is not too late. The UK Government, and Governments across the world, cannot let down those most in need yet again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing this timely debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for all the work that she does in her APPG. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who is the Front-Bench spokesperson for his party.

I will perhaps repeat some of the points that my colleagues have made, but this issue is so important that they need to be repeated again and again. As has been said, hunger and malnutrition are one of the world’s most serious but least addressed development challenges. Although the proportion and absolute number of chronically undernourished people has declined worldwide, the progress has been uneven among developing countries. The challenge we face in the international community is to build on that progress and accelerate the processes to improve nutrition.

Malnutrition affects lifelong development and contributes to half of all child deaths. Millions of children around the world are affected by the life-limiting outcomes of poor nutrition. In many developing countries, only one third of children under two are fed what they need for healthy growth; no progress has been made on improving their nutrition over the past decade.

A recent UNICEF report found that a combination of crises, from covid-19 to conflict and climate breakdown, had stunted progress on children’s nutrition in 91 countries. The report sets out that half of children aged from six to 23 months across a range of developing countries were not fed the minimum number of daily meals, and even fewer had a diverse diet that met minimum requirements.

Until recently, the Government regularly reminded us of their objective to ensure

“12 years of quality education for all girls”

—a very noble aim. However, such objectives cannot be met unless we also support nutrition. Nutrition has implications for a child’s employment prospects and therefore the economic success of their country. Good nutrition relies on food and agricultural systems that deliver healthy and diverse diets at a cost that people can afford.

It is estimated that undernutrition in childhood reduces an individual’s earning potential by 10% and has the same impact on GDP rates, with a total global economic cost of $3.5 trillion. Progress can only be made through joint global action to build, strengthen and transform food systems, so that children can get the nutrition they need to survive and then thrive. This underlines exactly why we need our Government to tackle this problem and invest in more nutrition.

However, the Government seem to be considering doing the opposite. Earlier this year we discovered that they are planning to spend 70% less on vital nutrition services, by cutting £100 million from the aid budget. They are aware that such a move would leave tens of thousands of children hungry and even at risk of starvation. Is that what we are now coming to? Are we now looking at the near collapse of British help for hungry children in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries, including Yemen, Somalia and Sudan?

Ending preventable child deaths will never be achieved if we ignore the role that prolonged malnutrition plays in a child’s development and future quality of life. It is simply not credible for the Government to claim global leadership in tackling hunger while slashing aid. That amounts to nothing more than a hollow “global Britain” slogan with nothing tangible behind it.

Perhaps what makes this situation most sad and self-defeating is that Britain has been a genuine global leader in this area for the past decade, saving lives and gaining a huge soft power benefit as a result. I implore the Minister to recommit to reaching out to over 50 million children, women and adolescent girls with nutrition-relevant programmes by 2025. That is a target that the Department for International Development made and even exceeded between 2015 and 2020.

We all know that next week the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit will take place. The first Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013 was, of course, hosted by the United Kingdom. It mobilised some £17 billion in new investment, with the UK contributing massively to that sum. Since 2013, the number of children whose physical or cognitive growth has been stunted by malnutrition has been reduced by over 13 million.

Despite the progress that I have just mentioned, nutrition remains one of the most pressing issues in global development. If progress is to continue, we must see the UK leading once again in Tokyo by taking steps to ensure that nutrition is embedded within the UK aid’s portfolio and pledging funds that are at least at the same level as those pledged since 2013. Ideally, of course, it would be great to have an uplift.

When the Minister responds to the debate, can she say whether the Government will commit to making such a pledge at Tokyo? Will they commit to fund nutrition-specific services to a level that is roughly equivalent to that between 2015 and 2020, which was about £120 million per year or roughly 1% of the ODA budget? That small increase would reflect inflation, the UK’s economic growth and the global shortfall in funding for nutrition.

Can the Minister also tell us who will represent the United Kingdom at the Tokyo summit? Ensuring that there is high-level ministerial attendance at the summit, drafting ambitious policy commitments, considering a match funding scheme and co-financing and supporting the implementation of countries’ national nutrition plans would all send a strong message that our Government take nutrition seriously.

Nutrition is so paramount in human life that it intersects with almost all aspects of development policy and is therefore fundamental to delivering on our goals. Therefore, I hope that the Minister who attends the Tokyo summit will make a powerful case for the importance of nutrition and address the issues that my parliamentary colleagues and I have raised this afternoon.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing the debate. I know that he tirelessly champions the cause of nutrition—that most basic human need—as chair of the APPG. From the discussion that we have had this afternoon, I know that Members of different parties welcome his commitment to this really important agenda. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is responsible for global health policy. She would have been delighted to be present but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale suggested, the ministerial team are in quite a few different places this week. My ministerial colleague is currently in the main Chamber for another debate, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. As I say, I am grateful to all Members for their contributions.

Six years ago the international community pledged to end malnutrition by 2030. However, despite progress in some areas, we face an ever greater challenge. Malnutrition is increasing, with huge consequences for people, the economy and society, and the pandemic and climate emergency have only made things worse. I hope that the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit next week will mark a renewed global effort to prevent malnutrition in all its forms, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is working closely with the Government of Japan to build the foundations for a successful summit.

The UK Government have made a commitment to end preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children by 2030, and addressing malnutrition is fundamental to this endeavour. Malnutrition lies behind nearly half of all child deaths and one in five maternal deaths. Poor nutrition leaves millions of women and girls suffering from anaemia. Meanwhile, with 2.2 billion overweight people, it is fuelling obesity-related diseases and making people more vulnerable to covid-19.

The Government are determined to ensure that people around the world benefit from improved nutrition. Since 2015, we have supported more than 55 million women, children and girls in this regard. Through our special envoy on famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, we are tackling malnutrition in countries where conflict and covid-19 make our job harder. We will deliver on our financial commitments in the G7 famine compact by the end of the year, and we have announced new funding to address increasing needs.

In Ethiopia, the UK has provided £76 million in humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict, including for work to support nutrition. In Afghanistan, we are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance, with £50 million committed for life-saving support since the Taliban takeover—again, that includes food assistance. However, this is not just about money. We will also scale up our action to anticipate and avert crises before they happen. That is why our humanitarian funding will do more to integrate food assistance with other support, including for nutrition, health, clean water, hygiene and sanitation. We will focus, as ever, on the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and other Members have called on the Government to make fresh commitments to Nutrition for Growth, including on spending. As Members are well aware, and as has been discussed, the seismic impact of the pandemic forced us to take the tough but necessary decision to reduce our official development assistance temporarily. However, the ODA budget is growing, and the Chancellor confirmed in the recent Budget that we are scheduled to return to spending 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance in 2024-25. We will continue to improve the nutrition of those who need it most, as we will set out in our approach paper on ending preventable deaths, which will be published on 14 December.

Meanwhile, we are working to ensure that our ongoing investments have the greatest possible impact. Our spending on women and girls’ health is designed to achieve World Health Organisation targets, including on reducing anaemia. We are also strengthening food systems so that nutritious diets become more affordable, accessible and sustainable in the face of climate change. We continue to invest in research and development, including in projects to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious vegetables in areas affected by changing weather patterns. We are also encouraging the private sector to produce more nutritious foods.

I want to pick up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). I listened carefully to her update on the work of the all-party parliamentary group on human microbiome, for which I thank her. The nutrition-specific interventions we provide are developed based on rigorous evidence, and we will consider evidence on the microbiome, too.

A number of colleagues mentioned the policy marker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and others have asked us to adopt the OECD Development Assistance Committee policy marker on nutrition across the FCDO portfolio at the programme design phase. I am delighted to be able to confirm that we are committed to doing that across the Department and are encouraging all our international partners to do likewise. We are in the final stages of agreeing our spending plans on nutrition, and I will share further details as soon as possible. I, or my ministerial colleagues, would be more than happy to write to my right hon. Friend with more information in due course.

I once again assure right hon. and hon. Members of our commitment to nutrition as we work to end the preventable deaths of mothers and children. We will continue to deliver on this commitment through to the Tokyo summit and beyond. In the light of the challenges we face, we must see a renewed global effort and we must all play our part.

I thank everyone who has contributed to this thoughtful debate in which many interesting and relevant points have been made. When I have raised this issue in the past, the arguments about the 0.7% target have inevitably been rehearsed, but that is not really the focus of this particular discussion, which is about value from interventions—that is a point that everyone has made.

The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said that people who might be at the most sceptical end of the development spectrum must realise that interventions in nutrition offer the best value. The relative sums involved for the outcomes are unquestionable, and indeed, if those interventions are not made, the huge amounts of money put in elsewhere—in girls’ education, for example—lose their value. Numerous statistics and studies show that if girls are at school but cannot pay attention to what is going on, the value of their presence there is lost. I think that argument is unchallengeable, and I am glad that there was consensus on it.

I was very interested in what the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said about the microbiome and yoghurt kitchens. That example demonstrates that we must have, at the heart of our approach to development, more local initiatives that help people in their communities and do not require vast amounts of outside resource. I was fascinated by that and heartened by Minister’s positive response on the microbiome.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is a seasoned campaigner on development issues, and he authoritatively said that 12 of the 17 development goals are underpinned by nutrition. It is not a side issue—it is right at the heart. Last week, I was very pleased to become co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, and he was also exactly right to highlight the impact of nutrition on HIV/AIDS. In fact, as he will know, one group of people that need the most support on AIDS is women, particularly in Africa.

On nutrition, we would be remiss to go through the entire debate without paying tribute to the work of Mary’s Meals, a well-known Scottish charity that puts providing nutrition and school meals right at the heart of its work, because of the impact of that on education, particularly for girls. It also works with other organisations to produce nutritious food in the first place. Frankly, I am just taking advantage of the spare time in the debate to put that on the record.

Absolutely. If we had video facilities in Westminster Hall, I would be able to show the hon. Gentleman when I joined Mary’s Meals volunteers in not only making a healthy porridge but having a good old singsong about it as well. He is right. Many similar organisations do a really important job.

The hon. Member for Ealing South always takes an important interest in these matters. I was pleased to hear that he would be participating, through the IDC, in the summit. It is important that it is not only governmental, and that interested and relevant parties play a part. Obviously, I did not agree with everything that the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said: I sort of agreed with the start and the end. The contribution of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), was thoughtful and underpinned the core asks that we put to the Minister. I was pleased that the Minister was able to confirm at least one of those asks, and I think everyone following the debate will be pleased that the OECD policy markers will be adopted at an early stage. The other issues that everyone raised are as relevant, and we hope to see a positive response to them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am not as familiar with the geography of London as I might otherwise be.

To return to the point I was making, it is clear what the asks are. I hope that the Government will look favourably on them. As I said when I met the Prime Minister, to come back to the initial point, this represents the best value of any intervention or spend that the UK Government could make. The summit is an opportunity to reaffirm global leadership, and I hope that that opportunity is seized.


That this House has considered the 2021 Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit.

Sitting suspended.