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International Development: World Food Prices

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What changes they have introduced and plan to introduce to their development aid policies as a result of increased world food prices.

My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned about the impact of higher food prices on developing countries. While our policies in food and agriculture are robust and flexible, we are reprioritising our efforts and have committed £585 million to address this challenge, of which £121 million will be spent this year. The UK is also urging the international community to double its efforts to tackle global poverty and hunger, and to join together in a global partnership for agriculture and food.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply; I welcome the increased aid package as well as the aid record of the Department for International Development since it came into being. Has aid to individual countries had to be reprioritised as a result of this, particularly given that the IMF recognises that the Horn of Africa and the west of Africa in particular have been very badly affected by the crisis? What mechanisms have been set up across government, not only by DfID but also by Defra, the FCO and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to ensure a co-ordinated government approach to this vital issue?

My Lords, the reaction of Her Majesty's Government has been principally through international programmes, particularly the World Food Programme, which has been very successful in responding to the general problem. Countries that we have helped specifically include Sierra Leone, with interim one-year budget support of £10 million. We have also helped Sudan, with an extra £40 million contributed to the UN common humanitarian plan. To Kenya, DfID contributed £5 million and, as an immediate response, is also offering £2.5 million of low-interest loans. On internal co-ordination, I am not sure that Her Majesty's Government could do better than the current integrated policies of DfID, which seeks to look to the future and to long-term investment to solve poverty issues.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that one of the significant contributors to increased world food prices, apart from the rise in the cost of fuel, is the lack of infrastructure in certain developing countries that inhibits the safe and sound transportation of goods? When the Minister, who today expressed the Government’s concern, last answered a similar Question, he said that there was no food shortage. What conversations has he had with the Foreign Office about encouraging the countries concerned to invest more adequately in their local infrastructure so that the benefit of our aid policies, with regard especially to food, has maximum effect?

My Lords, I generally agree with the thrust of that question and so do the Government. The Government’s response to an emergency is almost never to give direct food aid but to provide it locally to retain and grow the local infrastructure. Part of our aid to Sudan, for example, is for creating new infrastructure. We sincerely believe that we have to look to the next five years, and infrastructure and research are key parts of that.

My Lords, given that the United Nations World Food Programme has budgeted $5 billion to feed 90 million people this year, and that barely half of it has come in so far, how confident is the Minister that the rest of the money will come in? What leverage can he use with our EU partners? What would he like to say to churches and charities about any part that they can play?

My Lords, I find it difficult to answer the question without suggesting that the world has properly reacted. The World Food Programme had spent 50 per cent of its money by the end of June—half way through the year; it has asked for another $755 million from the world community, which it has received. The EU has paid its part. The charities play an important part, particularly since the money tends go in-country and maintains infrastructure. Their support is greatly welcomed.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some 500 million tonnes of GM soya have now been consumed without damage to anybody and without any litigation in sight, and that 12 million Indian children do not get rickets because an iron gene was put into the GM rice that India now exports? Will the Government review their whole GM policy, because GM food represents one of the ways in which it can feed itself through the use of fewer fertilisers, less water and better products?

My Lords, the UK Government do not believe that GM foods will solve the world’s problems, but they have the potential to make a very important contribution. It is the role of developing countries to make their own decisions about whether to use them. We are contributing through aid for education and research, so that the individual countries can see both the benefits and threats and make their own decisions.

My Lords, has the Minister noticed a very sensible suggestion from the World Food Programme to exempt humanitarian and UN agencies from the export ban which does so much damage to the use of regional surpluses? It is an emergency measure that the Government should support.

My Lords, my understanding is that Europe is supporting a temporary relaxation of that ban. If that answer is not correct, I shall follow it up with the noble Earl later.

My Lords, the world is having trouble now feeding its people. Could the Minister tell us how the world will cope when the population has risen from 6.5 billion now to 10 billion by 2050? Are the Government making an effort to ensure that policies are in place so that non-coercive family planning and the supplies necessary are available worldwide to help to curb population growth?

My Lords, those are two very big questions, and I fear that I can answer only one of them. The general position on food by the World Bank is a belief that global production needs to increase by 50 per cent by 2030. That is an entirely achievable prospect provided—in a sense—that the world gets its act together. Our contribution is an extremely important £400 million investment over five years in agricultural research, which will help the world to equip itself for that challenge.

My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness’s question, does the Minister realise that it took all the time from the pharaohs, the Greeks and the Romans to get up to 3,000 million people in the world by 1960, and that within 60 years—the lifetime of some people still on this planet—the population will be multiplied four-fold? How does the Minister reckon that those people will be fed if Governments and the European Union perpetually take a short-term view?

My Lords, certainly Governments in the G8 and the European Union are taking a long-term view. We believe that there are long-term solutions and we are committed to them.