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Food: World Supplies

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the scale and gravity of any future shortage of world food supplies; and what steps they are taking to ensure a concerted international response.

My Lords, our assessment is that there is no global food shortage. This is backed up by the World Bank and other international and UK think tank analysis. Recent price rises have significantly increased the cost of food, hurting the poorest most in urban and rural areas. The Government are taking the lead in pressing for co-ordinated international action to address immediate food security needs, improve policies, bring a rapid conclusion of the Doha trade round and boost agricultural productivity in developing countries.

My Lords, how does the Minister square that statement that there is no world food crisis with the statement of the World Food Programme that there is a silent tsunami which will plunge more than 100 million people into hunger and leave instability and riots in its wake? At the G8 summit in Japan next month, will the Government, in their attempts to co-ordinate an international response to this crisis, not look again at issues such as the reassessment of subsidies for biofuels, the distortion of trade policies, the bolstering of food production and emergency assistance to help the poorest farmers through this immediate crisis?

My Lords, the Government entirely accept that there are serious problems of supply, particularly in developing countries. They believe that they are making their biggest impact by encouraging the UN-World Bank taskforce, which is developing a comprehensive framework for action, in setting out how donors, agencies, developing countries’ governments and NGOs can work together to respond. Elements that they will consider include increasing humanitarian assistance, boosting small-farm production, reducing trade restrictions and export bans, addressing macroeconomic imbalances, improving monitoring and social protection, improving international markets, and developing a consensus on the use of biofuels.

My Lords, with riots in many parts of the world by starving people protesting about food prices, what are Her Majesty's Government doing to encourage the Chinese and Indian Governments, with their large economic projects in Africa and Burma, to develop the local agriculture that would help alleviate the starvation of many of these communities?

My Lords, I can only repeat that we are trying to work through the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF to produce a co-ordinated impact. The way forward on hunger and poverty throughout the world is very complex. Crucially, it is about improving local capability and infrastructure, and creating free markets, so that the world supply can be properly balanced.

My Lords, what efforts will be made to ensure that women and girls are particularly protected, given that they are especially vulnerable at times of crisis? Does the Minister agree that this is a crisis in which the EU, standing united, has a huge capacity to help?

My Lords, the programmes do not particularly target women and children, but among DfID’s general policies there is a specific gender policy that recognises the tremendous contribution that women make in developing societies. EU member states are working together, particularly through the United Nations in the programme with the World Bank. They have done a lot of work; they had a successful meeting in Rome and there is consensus among donor countries that the way forward is in the right direction.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the ways of increasing the supply of food in the future is to lift the restrictions that we and our European partners have imposed on the development of genetically modified crops, and actively to encourage a massive increase in investment in this science?

My Lords, I shall not be tempted too far into that minefield. We recognise that genetically modified technology could contribute to world hunger, but that will not solve the problem on its own. Technologies, including genetic modification, have risks. DfID is working with Defra and the international community to ensure that developing countries can make informed decisions on whether to develop or import genetically modified organisms.

A key area of the DfID programmes is £1 billion over the next five years going into research in general, £400 million of which will go into agricultural research. I am sure that parts of that research will contribute particularly in understanding the risks and benefits in this area.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the current situation, which looks as if it will continue for some time, provides a golden opportunity to get rid of subsidies and import and export barriers, thus enabling world markets to provide a market response to the increase in demand?

My Lords, briefly, no and yes. Certainly the price stimulus is helping to focus attention on barriers. The CAP modifications that will come about if the Doha round is successfully concluded will reduce barriers. It is strongly the view of Her Majesty’s Government that that will contribute. In fact, food prices are starting to moderate. The Food and Agriculture Organisation expects next year to have a 3.8 per cent increase in cereal output. This news, together with some major removal of various protectionist decisions, has led to wheat being about $280 a tonne, down from $430 in March. Rice, which was $1,200 in May, is now less than $800, and the only crop that is staying stable is maize, at about $200 a tonne.