World Food Prices

– in the House of Lords at 11:39 am on 3rd July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 11:39 am, 3rd July 2008

rose to call attention to the effects of rises in world food prices; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest and emphasising an absence of a special interest. First, I am chair of the charity Sense About Science, which is dedicated to promoting an evidence-based approach to the public discussion of scientific issues. Secondly, in the light of some of the remarks I shall make later, I declare a lack of any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, personally or through Sense About Science, in any agribusiness.

It is hard to exaggerate the harmful impact of the rise in the prices of certain basic crops on many parts of the developing world. I shall focus on its effects in Africa because that is where they will be most devastating. Last year, wheat prices rose by 77 per cent and rice by 16 per cent, and since January this year rice prices have more than trebled. The effect on those who live on $2 a day is nothing less than catastrophic. But the rise in prices is a symptom of a wider problem: the demand for food and the supply are getting out of balance.

It is often said that there is no shortage of food in the world and that we do not need more efficient agriculture because it is only a problem of distribution. In fact, demand is rising rapidly, and over the next 40 to 50 years we shall need to double or treble the world's food production. Some 850 million people are now badly undernourished. By the middle of this century there will be about 3 billion more mouths to feed. We are also beginning to see the effect of a welcome rise in living standards in India and China. Consumption of meat in China rose nearly fourfold between 1980 and 2003 and it is still rising. Of course this has meant a huge rise in the demand for grain to feed the extra livestock. At the same time supply has been affected by several factors: the dash for biofuels, the rising cost of energy, and an increasing shortage of good farming land, particularly in Africa, which suffers from depletion of soil nutrients, soil erosion and desertification. Global warming is likely to make the shortage of land and the problems of farmers in Africa even worse. Unlike the rest of the world, food production per head in Africa has been declining in the past 20 years or more, and so has consumption. So the prospects are dire.

What can be done? The problem is not shortage of aid. Per head of population, Africa receives about three times as much aid as any other developing region. About 13 per cent of the entire GDP of the average sub-Saharan country consists of foreign aid. Obviously, at times of famine and emergency, there is need for immediate food aid, but in two vital areas help is either severely reduced or more or less non-existent. One area is family planning. I have raised the population issue in this House before. Just to illustrate the point: the drastic reduction in aid for family planning has meant that in Uganda, for instance, the population is expected to rise from 25 million to 120 million by the middle of this century. But that is not my subject today.

The second area, surprisingly and depressingly, is the virtual collapse in aid for the development of agriculture, particularly the vital help that science can bring to enable farmers to grow their own crops. In 1980, 25 per cent of America's official development aid was for the development of agriculture. By 2003, it was 1 per cent. The record of European countries is not much better. The percentage of our bilateral aid that goes to agriculture has dropped from 11.4 per cent to 4.1 per cent. Germany's is now 2.9 per cent; France's is 2.2 per cent. As Mr Wolfowitz confessed when he was head of the World Bank,

"my institution has largely gotten out of the business of agriculture".

Support for the official organisation on which most R&D in agriculture in Africa now depends, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has also declined, leaving it severely short of funds. The recent forum in Rome may lead to some renewal of aid for developing countries, but most commentators found the results of the forum deeply disappointing. Why on earth has this happened? Helping people to grow their own food is far more important than making them dependent on food aid. As Dean Swift famously said,

"whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before; would deserve better of mankind, and do better service for his country, than the whole race of politicians put together".

I regret to say that one main cause of this decline is the influence exercised by many leading NGOS. The developed world has benefited hugely from modern agriculture. Cheaper and healthier food has been one reason why we live far healthier and much longer lives than our ancestors. Of course, modern industrial farming causes problems, the latest of which is perhaps obesity, but these are far outweighed by benefits that we take for granted.

Unfortunately, NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and advocates of organic farming have persuaded most African Governments that they must avoid the technologies from which we have benefited. There are exceptions: Oxfam International has denounced the decline in aid for agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa, and FARM-Africa is an excellent NGO with no prejudice against science and technology. However, most NGOs have sought to keep, and have succeeded in keeping, science out of African agriculture. The chief scientist of Greenpeace, for example, has argued that the de facto organic status of African smallholders—who cannot, of course, afford the use of fertilisers—gives them a wonderful opportunity to avoid the switch to chemicals, even though he acknowledges that this would increase production. He argues that it would lead to degradation of the soil in the longer term. In fact, there is no excess of nitrogen in the soil in Africa; it is being removed at an annual rate of 22-26 kilograms per hectare. Excessive fertiliser may be a problem for wealthy countries, but Africa desperately needs more. Yet NGOs urge Africa to stay organic.

I do not question the idealism of the organic movement. My main objection is that organic farming means less efficient use of land—the last thing the world needs today. Organic food costs more. Why? Not because organic farmers try to rook the public by charging higher prices, but because its yields are lower than those of conventional farming. As the distinguished Indian biotechnologist C.S. Prakash has said:

"Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty and malnutrition".

What must be done? The developed world and international institutions must give aid for agriculture top priority. If we do not, poverty, hunger and disease in Africa will get worse. Aid should include support for every technology that can increase production, which must include support for genetic engineering. Everyone concerned with aid for Africa should read a wonderful book by Robert Paarlberg, Starved for science: How biotechnology is being kept out of Africa, one of the most important books I have read for years.

No one argues that biotechnology is the only answer. Improvements in traditional plant and animal breeding can make a huge difference; so can marker-assisted selection. There will be other new technology, but genetic engineering has an important role to play as an adjunct to conventional breeding and marker-assisted selection. It should be a major part of the aid programmes of DfID and the United States.

Many myths are part of the anti-GM propaganda. There is not a shred of evidence—after a wealth of experience of over 10 years, with crops now grown on over 112 million hectares in more than 28 countries—that GM crops pose any greater threat to human health than conventionally grown crops. This has been confirmed by every national academy of sciences, the WHO, the FAO and the European Commission. Yet the NGOs continue to warn African Governments that GMOs are toxic. There is no evidence that GM crops are more damaging to the environment; in fact, they decrease the need for fertiliser and chemicals. Pest-resistant transgenic crops need less spraying with pesticides, and herbicide-tolerant crops on balance need less spraying with herbicides.

Herbicide-tolerant crops can also remove the need to plough. Ploughing disturbs wildlife in the earth, causes soil run-off, uses energy and releases harmful greenhouse gases. Most GM crops increase yields and require less land. In any number of ways they are good for the environment. It is claimed that they benefit only multinationals, not small-scale farmers. On the contrary, many GM crops are well suited to the needs of small-scale farmers. They provide a technology packaged in a seed. They do not need large-scale cultivation, more fertiliser and more irrigation, unlike the green revolution, which saved hundreds of millions of lives. There are more than 10 million small-scale cotton farmers, mainly in China and India, but also in parts of South Africa, which is the one part of Africa where GM crops have been allowed. They have greatly increased their income and improved their health because cultivating pest-resistant GM cotton means that they have to buy and use fewer pesticides and spray less often.

In any case, multinational companies are not found in sub-Saharan Africa. A poll by the Pew foundation some years ago shows that people there wish they were, because they make agriculture more productive and raise living standards. It is perfectly true that promoting GM crops suitable for the developing world is not profitable for big companies. It is a tragedy that public investment in agriculture generally, and in biotechnology in particular, has declined in Europe and elsewhere. The best hope for GM crops in Africa now probably lies with the Gates Foundation. Another encouraging development is that about half of total world R&D in transgenic crops is now done in China, which is developing crops for the third world. That is not done by multinationals but in China.

The only staple GM crop now grown in Africa is transgenic white maize, in South Africa. However, the Gates Foundation is investing millions of pounds in several transgenic staple crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, millet, sorghum, rice and maize. If introduced, they could boost the low productivity of most African farmers. The problem is that commercial trials of all these crops are held up by political opposition from Governments who are advised by NGOs. NGOs' influence in Africa is huge. Governments depend on them, partly, I readily acknowledge, because of the good work they do in providing education and healthcare.

One of the most important contributions of transgenic technology is likely to be in drought resistance. Drought-resistant GM crops are now being developed in many countries, including the United States, China, Egypt, Australia and others. Given the likely spread of desertification in Africa, no region stands to benefit more from this application of GM technology.

I hope that I have demonstrated the validity of my two main propositions: first, that in dealing with the food crisis in Africa, we must restore aid for agriculture to the top of the aid agenda; and, secondly, that this must include the best agricultural science, not consisting solely of, but certainly including, biotechnology. I hope that, in the light of the overwhelming evidence now available, NGOs will abandon their dogmatic opposition to GMOs. I hope that I can then renew my support for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as campaigners for a better environment whom I strongly backed in their early days. I will back them provided they campaign in support of science and with due respect for the best available evidence. I beg to move for Papers.

J

I believe Lord Taverne is making a mistake in attacking organic farmng for africa. Yes the developed world has benefited in terms of cheap food from chemical farming but we are beginning to learn that such methods are unsustainable. The fertilisers, pesticides and industrial methods have damaged our environment (even though it was inherently more resiliant than in africa) and they have led to early depletion of resources such as oil and natural gas.

The increasingly high prices for oil and gas will quickly make large scale chemical farming uneconomic and the way forward for africa will be organic farming for local consumption. Indeed that will be the way forward for the UK too. Industrial farming and bulk long distance transport of food relied on cheap oil and natural gas and those days are gone.

Submitted by John Byng Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour 11:54 am, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on securing this debate on the topical subject of food prices. As he so eloquently told us, the first aspect to note is that this is a worldwide phenomenon from which the UK is not immune. Even though only a small percentage of food is traded internationally, commodity markets are global. I shall concentrate my remarks on the effects in the western world. I declare my interests as a dairy farmer in Cheshire, as a director of the co-operative Dairy Farmers of Britain and as a member of both the NFU and the CLA.

As a farmer, I am acutely aware of whose food prices we are talking about—food pricing at both ends of the supply chain. Historically, the retail price of food has been held through a combination of efficiencies and deflation down the supply chain and especially at the farm. The farm-gate price as a percentage of the retail price has been falling consistently over many years. A farmers' co-operative's prime function is to sell its members' supplies at the highest price possible and to push prices up for its suppliers' prosperity. In the dairy sector, that has been extremely difficult, with spare capacity in the processing sector failing to react quickly enough to consolidation in the retail sector.

The Bank of England's monetary panel's ability to meet the Government's inflation target has certainly been made easier by the actions of the grocery trade. Many a debate in your Lordships' House has felt the pain suffered by the farming community. In the milk sector, supermarkets are able to take advantage and have built their margins to 40 per cent or more. Moreover, the recent price rises at both ends of the supply chain do not mean that the farm end of the chain is now sustainable. Much consolidation is still required. The price of oil is intrinsically linked to food prices. The chill chain, packaging, transport and fertilisers are all heavily dependent on oil. Despite the massive rises in farm-gate prices since spring 2007, supplies of milk are down 6 per cent year on year. Farming confidence is extremely fragile. The supermarkets have responded by reducing price rises through a reduction of their margins to 20 per cent and are looking to enter into long-term relationships to secure their supplies. Any future price wars are likely to be at the expense of their own margins.

What does that mean for the future? Has food been too cheap, and is it merely rebasing? What does it mean for government policy? To return to the global situation, the price rises have been for a combination of reasons. While supplies declined through some poor harvests, demand has increased, especially in China and the developing world. Alternative biofuels have been developed to compete for land use. Energy prices have rocketed. In addition, some exporting countries have responded by export bans, and the turbulent situation has been exacerbated by commodity speculators.

Food policy has evolved alongside those changes. In the 1970s and 1980s, farmers were encouraged to produce. The policy was food from our own resources. With the resulting food mountains at taxpayers' expense, policy evolved towards addressing the environmental consequences of changes in the production methods that brought about those food surpluses. Notions of sustainability argued for a balance between the economic, social and environmental aspects of policy. Can they be made compatible? Is there a trade-off? Who pays for public goods? Payment on the basis of income forgone in production methods had unintended consequences, as the measure was often against continuing downward movement on prices and hindered a more integrated approach.

Policy has evolved again towards an understanding of the multifunctionality of the countryside. To the three aspects of sustainability—economic, social and environmental—have been added animal welfare, price and climate change. The debate has become more complicated; the trade-off between so many outcomes to policy has resulted in a lot of mixed messages, which has become confusing to the public. The era of cheap, safe and plentiful has drawn to a close. Issues such as waste, recycling, the effect on third-world economies, climate change and renewable energy mean that food and supply policies need to be reassessed. This country's strategic approach within the context of a European policy needs re-evaluation. No doubt many aspects of present policy will remain, but it must be recognised that we need a more global approach, and a more co-operative approach will become necessary.

How far does the situation call for more of the same—for example, areas of more intensive agriculture and the acceptance and application of more scientific advances, such as genetic modification? Do we need a continuation of the present liberalisation of trade policies without protectionism and taxpayer support? It is interesting to note that the response of many in the developing world is to implement export bans, as they see price rises as continuing to undermine their domestic development. Security of supply must not be confused with self-sufficiency.

I argue that government policy must concentrate on joining up policies on climate change, land and water. Models which show the trade-offs between those outcomes need to be developed. The role and responsibilities of Government need to be readdressed. What should be the focus of any UK research and who should pay for it and what it delivers? I argue that it needs to refocus on production systems that reduce the need for water and energy. Transitional research needs to inform the debate.

We need to show some urgency in our debate. On a global scale the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—are exerting huge economic influences, with annual growth more than 10 per cent per annum. Their strategies must be acknowledged. On the domestic front, the persistence of economic pressure means that there is a developing skills shortage at the farm gate. Pillar 1 support is still critical to farm profits, while resources are transferred to Pillar 2. There is a need to link the two, underpinning land use. Supply chain contracts need to become less volatile to secure profits through longer term contracts and more co-operative relationships which are understood by the competition authorities and to the benefit of consumers.

Global pressure means food prices are unlikely to fall back to the relative levels of the past. I look forward to the policy debates initiated by the Government into land use, food policy and food security. Continuing support of the UK farming industry is vital. It must continue to be evidence based, scientifically sound and demonstrably seen to be benefiting the consumer. I remain confident that a new policy framework will emerge.

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 12:01 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for the compelling way in which he introduced the debate. I want to follow him and speak about the global context, particularly the implications for sub-Saharan Africa, of high world food prices. I must declare an interest as a farmer and as the chair of an intergovernmental programme of research, Living with Environmental Change, which is funded by all the research councils and by a number of departments and agencies. Of course, food security is very much part of the environmental change we are addressing.

These high prices amount to a wake-up call, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has told us so compellingly. We are facing a stark inability to feed the world. We are already failing to feed more than 800 million people, who are persistently hungry. We are seeing a failure to invest adequately in agricultural infrastructure, particularly in developing countries with a food deficit. The millennium goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 is looking increasingly like just a dream.

In the medium to long term, leaving aside for the moment the short term, we need to deal with emergency food supplies. The immediate requirement is to meet the stark requirements for food, which we can project forward, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. Think about it: if there are to be 2.5 billion extra people by 2030, as we are assured there will be, and if you allow for increased consumption because of increased ability, in India, China and elsewhere, to purchase food, and therefore an increased standard of living, and if you allow a margin for climate change and increased urbanisation, which means that fewer people will be involved in food production so we will have to feed more people in cities—forget about biofuels for the moment as they are almost an irrelevance—there will be a need to double or even treble food production. That is no easy consideration. We have to plan now, or probably should have planned yesterday, how to make global agriculture much more productive. The conference in Rome last month identified, as have previous conferences, the need and called for more aid, more research and much else besides. One has to ask what fundamental change we have to make to policies in order to do any better than we have done over the past decade or two.

I shall concentrate on water requirements. In order to produce extra food—double or treble the amount—water will have to be used more efficiently and more water will have to be found. One litre of water will produce one calorie, roughly. With 2.5 billion more people and all the extra margins I have allowed for, we will need another 2,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water to feed the population. That means we will have to do a lot of research on the efficient use of water and spend an awful lot on infrastructure: water storage, water harvesting, large-scale reservoirs, small village ponds and, above all, efficient irrigation systems that do not waste water. At the moment, there is evaporation and loss and most of the water does not end up where it should: on the crop.

There are already solutions. There are good systems. The Israelis, the Indians and many others have demonstrated low technology solutions, but they have to be rolled out. There has to be technology transfer and somebody has to invest. There has to be water regulation that works. In sub-Saharan Africa, not necessarily in other parts of the world, we are seeing a failure to invest in basic water infrastructure. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that GM crops may well have a contribution to make, but even drought-resistant GM crops need water. Every plant needs water, and until the basic water requirement is sorted out, we will always be fighting a losing battle.

If we and all western economies are to be persuaded, as we should be, to invest more heavily in agriculture and global food production, we must give priority to water. The great advantage about water storage and systems is that we can see where the money has gone. There is something tangible. We know that so much of the aid in the past has been frittered away. That is not to say that we should not also support grain storage, transport, roads, fertilisers, animal health, markets and much else, but if an international agency or a national government is going to prioritise and wants to make the most effective long-term contribution to meet these almost insuperable problems, it should concentrate on addressing hunger and poverty through water. Globally, 70 per cent of the water we extract ends up irrigating crops. That is what we do with water, although it is often not used very efficiently.

It is not true to say that all developing economies are failing to invest adequately in their agriculture. Countries such as China and Thailand in south east Asia and Mexico in North America have some impressive improvements in yield. They have done that by investing in agriculture, including in water storage. They have not kept up with demand because demand is increasing faster, so the problem is becoming very difficult. Nevertheless if we look at the graph of yields, which starts from a very low base compared with what we are used to in developed economies, particularly those in the northern hemisphere, they are catching up in terms of yields because they are using appropriate technologies and agriculture systems and, above all, they are harnessing appropriate agricultural research and technology.

However, the irrigated area in Africa is very small and the proportion of arable land compared with other regions around the world is desperately small. In Ethiopia, a desperately poor country, water storage per capita is 38 cubic metres. The other extreme—and it is an extreme case—is Australia, which has 5,000 cubic metres per capita. If we want to resolve the problems of Ethiopia and so many other sub-Saharan countries, we will have to provide water storage, harvest water efficiently, reuse it and much else besides.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that much relevant research is going on around the world, including into GMs, although, as he acknowledged, biotechnology in itself is not necessarily the sole solution. Crop protection, animal health, and plant and animal genetics all have relevant applications which have been used very successfully in the West.

Much as the common agricultural policy is disliked around the world and by our Government, sometimes for good reason because of its protectionist aspects, it must be credited with having achieved what was its primary goal: to ensure that we were efficient producers of food using a smaller labour force. Again, there is criticism that sometimes the impact on the environment from leakages to soil, air and water was unacceptably high. Nevertheless, those are the issues that we continue to address, as well as protecting biodiversity.

That should be the objective of all agriculture around the world. We do not necessarily transfer the same technologies as we use in this country—they would be inappropriate for some parts of the world—but without doubt, the basic plant science, the sort of work that we are so good at in this country in plant genetics, molecular biology and much else will very soon have application in those countries. One of our roles, which is not actually very expensive, is to look to our science base, which, I have to say, has been whittled down considerably since I chaired what was then called the Agriculture and Food Research Council in the 1980s—that was 25 years ago—now subsumed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Nevertheless, we still have a science base which is extremely important. We punch well above our weight and there are already applications around the world with a very low added cost to transfer those technologies.

If you want to reduce your dependence on fossil fuels and your carbon emissions, reduced tillages have a very appropriate application. Mixed cropping will sometimes give you advantages on crop protection that you will not get from a monoculture. Those are systems that are being researched in this country and elsewhere around the world. We must concentrate on research and on providing investment in agricultural infrastructure. I have concentrated very much on water, but I repeat that we must invest in many other aspects of agriculture. Those economies around the world where people fail to understand that no civilisation can exist without ensuring that it has an agricultural base will face a crisis. We have a wake-up call now. Why on earth do so few countries and so few international agencies recognise that if we do not invest now in the agricultural infrastructure of sub-Saharan Africa and other countries, the problems will be very much worse?

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 12:12 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, according to the World Health Organisation, overweight people now outnumber the malnourished. That is not a boast; it is an indictment. One billion people in the developed world are overweight; 300 million are obese. In sharp contrast, we heard the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, saying that more than 800 million people in the developing world are chronically malnourished. For them, this global food crisis will serve only to deepen the extreme hardship in their lives. Indeed, the only reason that recent events have been elevated into a food crisis is that, for the first time in living memory, they have spread from the developing world to the developed world.

For two decades, we in the developed world grew accustomed to our cup quite literally overflowing. From 1975 to 2005, food prices fell by 75 per cent in real terms. During those years of plenty, when it became cheaper for some of our farmers to feed flocks of sheep with bread from supermarkets than with traditional grain, the international community's commitment to agriculture in the developing world waned. According to the OECD, funding for agricultural projects fell as a percentage of total international aid from 19 per cent in 1979 to just 5 per cent in 2006. World Bank lending for agricultural projects also fell from 30 per cent of all lending to just 12 per cent last year. The implications of those neglectful decisions are only now becoming apparent.

We all know that in the past year global food prices have risen extortionately—overall, by an average of 60 per cent. Over the past two years the price of wheat has doubled. The price of rice in Asia—a crop that sustains billions of people—has more than doubled in two months from $460 a tonne in March to more than $1,000 a tonne in May. According to the head of the World Food Programme, since January 2008 an extra 100 million people who previously were independent are now dependent on food aid. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has said that such a situation has the potential to,

"affect economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world".

All nations are vulnerable. We in Britain may be safe from the evils of hunger and starvation. We may even escape this crisis without witnessing the rioting that has erupted in other nations. But we are by no means immune. Any nation which exports less food than it imports should take note of the tortilla riots in Mexico, the pasta strikes in Italy and the tomato boycotts in Argentina. Any nation whose self-sufficiency to feed itself has fallen, as ours has, from 75 per cent 20 years ago to 60 per cent today, should be concerned about the food export restrictions adopted by countries, such as China, Russia and India. Any nation committed to international development should concern itself deeply with the warnings of hunger in Nepal, the Philippines and Africa.

We are told that this global instability is a result of a "perfect storm", a series of events that have combined to create a crisis. Let me run through some of them. The world's population continues to grow. One-third— 80 million tonnes—of America's maize crop is being taken out of the food chain for biofuel production. Double what the US exports in the average year was eaten up, not by people or by animals, but by refineries last year. Fuel and fertiliser costs, which account for 25 per cent to 30 per cent of farming overheads, have rocketed as a result of the price of oil more than doubling in less than a year.

We have witnessed a global credit crunch, property prices continue to fall and inflation is rising on all products. Growth is slowing and unemployment is starting to climb. There is little wonder that economists around the world are predicting stagflation, a recession or, worst of all, a depression. Our economy has never before faced such a daunting combination of challenges. The global economy has never faced a combination of these challenges—not since the great depression or the recession of the early 1990s. As if that were not enough, as we have heard, some of the most populated countries on earth are developing a taste for meat and dairy, the production of which requires more water, as we have heard from the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and, more importantly, more cereals.

Due to the awesome scale and complexity of these issues, it is hard to see how we could begin to address them in any meaningful way. However, if the analogy of a perfect storm is correct, thanks to the common agricultural policy, we in the European Union have sailed into it with all sails set. As we have heard, the CAP was established with noble intent, but the world has moved on in the half century since the policy was first introduced. Far from addressing the challenges of today, the CAP is intensifying them and making them worse. For 50 years, it has offered a disincentive to developing nations to diversify and grow their agriculture sector and it has severely limited the ability of poor farmers to compete with their subsidised counterparts in Europe and the United States.

Last year, in India, more than 25,000 farmers took their own lives after being driven to despair by grain shortages and bad debt. India, a country which experienced the green revolution, has for the past two decades seen its agricultural growth rates halved. As India Today reported:

"The spectre of food grain imports stares India in the face as agricultural growth plunges to an all-time low".

I am proud to be the chairman of the UK Indian Business Council, which is supported by UK Trade & Investment. As I have said before in this House, there is no question that the main reason that the World Trade Organisation talks, the Doha round, have stalled is because of agriculture and, more specifically, because of agriculture subsidies right here in the European Union and in the United States. At a time of significant food price inflation, the European Union cannot continue to justify a policy which subsidises cows to the tune of $2 a day while 1 billion people on this planet exist on less than a dollar a day. We in the European Union can justifiably be accused of preaching free trade and practising protectionism. With the CAP's budget of £32 billion not scheduled for reform until 2013, my question is simple: can we wait that long?

Addressing protectionism will not be enough. If the international community is to meet the challenge Ban Ki-Moon set three weeks ago in Rome and increase global food output by 50 per cent by 2030, then it must also reaffirm its commitment to advancing the science of agriculture, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said.

I feel that I should touch briefly on the sensitive topic of genetically modified food. I can see a time, perhaps soon, when we may not have the luxury of rejecting GM, as we do now. According to the European Commission, only 21 per cent of Europeans say they will eat GM food, leaving British farmers to pay, for example, a premium of £20 a tonne for non-GM soya. The rest of the world does not share our fear of GM. For example, 95 per cent of the United States soya crop is genetically modified, and it is the world's biggest exporter. Brazil, the world's second biggest exporter, aims to increase the amount of its GM crop to more than 80 per cent by 2025. If necessity brings GM back on to the political agenda—and it seems inevitable that it will—I hope that a rational debate will prevail.

I hope that the name Norman Borlaug will gain the recognition in Britain that it has abroad. His experiments in genetic cross-breeding doubled the wheat yields of India in five years and won him not only the Nobel Peace Prize but the Padma Vibhushan, one of India's highest awards. I have seen for myself how productive the coupling of science and agriculture can be. Every year for the past 15 years I have returned to South Africa, the country of my wife Heather, to visit her family home—a large mixed farm in the Free State. I have seen the increasingly important role that technology plays in raising productivity on the farm. Just last month, I witnessed a new high-tech software system go live that monitors not only the location of every one of our dairy cows on the farm in every herd, but each cow's yield, as well as monitoring at every milking various aspects about the animal. It can even predict oncoming illness. This extraordinary Israeli technology, now implemented on a South African farm, will help us on our farm to be more proactive, more reactive and more productive.

I ask noble Lords to imagine the technology we could deliver to the developing world if £32 billion were not being squandered on the CAP in the EU, where many farmers enjoy great wealth and comfort compared with their counterparts in India, for example. It is worth remembering that here in the UK, agriculture represents less than 2 per cent of our GDP and employs less than 2 per cent of our workforce. But in a country such as India, more than 600 million people live in the rural areas and are dependent on the rural economy and agriculture, which represents 20 per cent of the GDP.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on securing this important debate. As patron of CINI—Children In Need International—I know how, for those living on the threshold of subsistence, the smallest change in the food price can mean the difference between life and death. The short-term future for the 800 million who are malnourished, and the 100 million who can no longer afford to feed themselves looks very bleak. The World Bank has recently reported that it fully expects recent price rises to increase inequality and hit children the hardest, especially those in countries afflicted by conflict, HIV and drought.

How was the global community caught unawares like this? With the World Health Organisation, the UN World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, among others, just how did this global food crisis sneak up on us like a silent tsunami? Why was Joachim von Braun, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, made to feel,

"like a Cassandra in Washington", when some time ago he tried to warn officials that 2008 would be "a dangerous year"? Surely in this integrated and increasingly interconnected world, with all our technology, we should have been warned and we should have been prepared?

The developing world need not live for ever in the shadow of hunger. The future of agriculture must not be held back by tariffs, barriers and bureaucracy, but set free through investment, technology and science to become a sustainable and vibrant industry. Together, we can deliver what Norman Borlaug called,

"the first essential component of social justice", by which he meant adequate food for all mankind; together, if we ensure that we never, ever take agriculture for granted again.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 12:26 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, my noble friend has reminded us that this is obviously a critical global issue that involves us all. Perhaps a billion people are now threatened by hunger, and there have been food riots across the world. The millennium development goals, especially the one on poverty reduction, will have been set back several years. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for introducing this debate and drawing Africa to our attention.

Speaking in the debate we are mainly Peers interested in international development and agriculture, and the Minister speaks mainly for the Department for International Development, but this is a much wider issue, and it seems that we shall not cover adequately the important subjects of trade, economics, finance and foreign policy. Many Peers with expertise in those areas may, I fear, have been frightened off by the sheer magnitude of the problem, and that is to be regretted. However, we have expert Peers contributing to the debate, and I look forward in particular to the speech of my noble friend Lord Haskins in a moment.

We who are concerned with developing countries have to look at the price rises through the eyes of the very poorest, who are hardest hit, but we also have to ask what a crisis is. Every year there is a crisis in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, and this year is no exception; the price rises we are discussing are additional problems. In spite of the FAO's excellent early-warning systems, we do not hear very much about these crises until famine is well under way. There are, for instance, acute food shortages right now after two years of drought in Karamoja, in northern Uganda, with the risk of another famine. Will the Government respond promptly to the increased humanitarian needs arising from the increase in food prices and drought, especially in west Africa and Ethiopia? To mention just one organisation in this country, Save the Children is appealing for $20 million to help around 900,000 people, including 325,000 children, who are victims of the current food crisis in Ethiopia.

We hear constantly of the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban, but we do not hear the complaints of the poorest, the malnourished and the smaller farmers suffering from drought. Only this week I have read reports of drastic falls in fruit production in Balkh province and of poor harvests in Gorh, Badakshan and elsewhere in the north. It is essential that post-conflict countries are enabled to rebuild their infrastructure and agricultural capacity. I believe that this is slowly happening even in Afghanistan, but I would like to hear that the Government are doing more for Afghan agriculture, because we are sending billions there for defence purposes.

The story is not as good in Africa, where despite our efforts through the Africa Commission and the Commonwealth, there is far too little expenditure on transport to allow goods to be transported, even within countries with huge agricultural potential such as Mozambique and Uganda, a subject mentioned yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. The immediate concern is about food prices and shortages, and one of the obstacles is the tendency of Governments in this crisis to place a ban on their exports. This is quite understandable and normally unstoppable.

The FAO recently published forecast import bills for the least developed and low-income countries—the very poorest countries—showing that their annual food imports by the end of this year could be quadruple the price they paid in 2000. The developing countries food bill rose from $190 billion to $253 billion last year. Much of this comes from regional surpluses and may be needed urgently. A current example is the food shortages in Niger, which could be met from surpluses in Burkina Faso next door. Perhaps I may therefore press the Minister on the point I raised about the World Food Programme during Question Time yesterday: what is the Government's response to the call from the World Food Programme during the African summit to exempt humanitarian agencies from export restrictions so that states with surplus food could help meet deficits in poorer countries? The noble Lord gave me some encouragement about the European Union yesterday, and I hope he will have a fuller answer today.

The world food shortages and price rises inevitably spawn instant solutions, as I well remember from the previous world food crisis, in 1974. The World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, has put forward a 10-point proposal, which I shall summarise: fund the World Food Programme properly; support emergency food for work programmes; bring in more seeds and fertilisers; double the amount of research; invest in agribusiness; support small farmers; ease subsidies on biofuels; remove export bans; support fairer trade through the Doha process; and support more G8 collective action, through the global food crisis response facility, for example.

The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, along with others, has revived the idea of reintroducing GM crops against the prevailing trend of sustainable and organic farming. I have no doubt that there is a place for GM crops and for the use of chemicals, but I have strong reservations, along the lines of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, about their use in the least developed countries. I do not dispute the noble Lord's claims on behalf of small farmers, but many have to live in environments where there is no water, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has pointed out. I am not thinking only of the flowers and fruit that we get from the vicinity of Nairobi airport, but of vast export-led plantations all over the developing world, all of which require massive irrigation.

Large-scale projects in Africa and India have traditionally favoured large farmers and exporters not the malnourished. My own experience of the green revolution in India—I, of course, remember the name of Norman Borlaug—was that many farmers grew wealthy in states such as Punjab while the majority of the poorer farmers in UP and AP were comparatively worse off because, even where they had access to irrigation, they were unable to afford the machinery, fertiliser and the other inputs required.

I know that my noble friend Lord Bilimoria will take issue with this—we will resolve the debate within the Cross Benches—but we forget in this country how serious the inequalities are in tropical countries and how hard it is for some farmers in the remoter dry-land farming areas who are dependent on the vagaries of government extension services and the outreach of non-governmental organisations. It is hard for them to pay for the inputs needed, even for drought-resistant crops. I acknowledge the research that is going on into such crops, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. As he and other noble Lords have said, we forget how little aid and agriculture research reaches these rain-fed areas—Oxfam and FARM-Africa were mentioned, and my noble friend Lord Bilimoria gave prominence to the issue. In fact, funding has recently moved away from, not towards, these areas. Multilateral aid to African agriculture fell from 32 per cent of total aid in 1981 to only 7 per cent in 2001, according to the World Bank's evaluation unit. Will Her Majesty's Government make a renewed effort to support this kind of research?

I have considerable doubts about the withdrawal of subsidies for biofuels based on research I have seen from north-east Brazil. Brazil is the golden boy of biofuels and ethanol and is undoubtedly an economic and industrial success story, but I do not agree with the assertion made last week by the Economist that it has hardly affected the rainforest. Of course it has.

In more human terms, the increase in sugar production, quite apart from the land issue, is achieved literally on the backs of the poorest and most exploited labour force, which is at the mercy of farmers who tie their migrant workers into a feudal contract—a modern form of debt slavery. Whatever we do in Europe and the US with subsidies to help ourselves, we must take an equal interest in what is happening to labour in other countries. The ILO and the churches are doing their utmost to free these workers in Brazil from tyranny. This issue is completely ignored by European negotiators, who are solely concerned with our trading interests and our own production of biofuels.

Finally, on the subject of trade, I am sure the Minister will acknowledge the effect of farm subsidies on world food prices, as well as the unexpected purchase of food by Russia and the OPEC countries. He will, I hope, confirm that the European Union is doing very little to reform the CAP at present—perhaps it is diverted by other issues—that the new economic partnership agreements are eating away at the sustainability of the poorest African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, and that the Doha round still shows little sign of life. All these things are having an adverse effect on the ability of developing countries to feed themselves, but, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said, none so much as the lack of water.

Photo of Lord Haskins Lord Haskins Crossbench 12:37 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I declare an interest as an east Yorkshire farmer who, three years ago, was happy to sell my wheat for £65 a tonne and recently has been selling it at £175 a tonne. It is one of the ironies of farming that when everyone else is suffering farmers do well, and vice versa. On the radio yesterday morning, a pundit, when asked where to put her money, thought for about 10 seconds and said, "Into agricultural land". That is where we are at present.

There have been many deep differences on the issue of food supplies in the world over the past 50 years. Until recently, the problem was for many years not a Malthusian one but rather the fact that, while there was plenty of food about, it was in the wrong places: chronic surpluses in the European Union and North America; chronic shortages in parts of Africa and elsewhere.

The priority over those years should have been to increase production in those poorer countries, where farmers have been unable to compete with surpluses dumped on their markets by Europe and the Americans; where farmers cannot afford the science and technology available to their richer competitors; where the tiny farm structure—although it is actually reducing in Africa—means that it is impracticable to employ the modern farm technology of the West; where it is impossible to borrow to invest because the asset base is so small; where, at the same time, some farmers, especially in east Africa, find it profitable to supply European and American markets with out-of-season fruit, vegetables and flowers; and where, as a last resort, the United Nations provides the most desperate regions with food, either free or heavily subsidised.

Today the escalating cost of food is creating entirely new situations, but the same questions and arguments continue. Rather than a problem of food surpluses, there is now a problem of food shortage, caused mainly, as we heard earlier, by rising demand and tight supplies, unfortunate weather circumstances and the rise of biofuels. Fifteen countries are already restricting exports because of domestic unrest about food prices, but that action further inflates global food prices and hits big food-importing countries such as Egypt and the Philippines particularly hard.

There is some uncertainty about the scale of the problem. Speculative buying has undoubtedly played a part in pushing up prices. Indeed, I suspect that consumers may not yet have seen the worst. Many farmers like me sold forward into the markets for much lower prices than today's prices reflect. When those contracts run out, as they surely will in the next few months, I fear that consumer prices will have to rise further.

The immediate short-term priority is to raise food production to meet demand, thereby reducing prices. Over the next two to three years I suspect that that will happen; more land will be brought into production, the growth of renewable energy crops will probably slow or reverse and the speculators will probably burn their fingers, with a resultant collapse in food prices and, I suspect, oil prices. We have to remember that relatively small changes in food supply have a dramatic impact on prices, upwards and downwards.

Increasing agricultural output in the developing world is not easy, though. The so-called and somewhat misnamed "green revolution" that happened in the West in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has not happened in many regions of the world. Farms are often too small, equipment is often wholly inadequate and agriscience is supplied only spasmodically. The current high cost of fertilisers might actually reduce outputs and yields because poor farmers cannot afford to borrow to buy them. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has powerfully made the case to promote rather than resist the application of modern science in the developing world, but it is also important that modern technology, machinery and infrastructure, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, commented, should be made available in these regions. Such countries need the high-speed automated equipment that carries out the work in the West before the weather intervenes and which enables more land to be brought into production. Those countries need the infrastructure that enables farmers to preserve water to store crops and even to move crops from the farm to the markets.

For all that to happen, farms have to get bigger, with fewer people employed. However, many NGOs are strongly opposed to that argument; they believe that present farm structures—in Africa, as small as half a hectare and declining—are adequate and that a rural status quo should be the desirable and practical objective. Some even argue that a largely organic system of farming will meet the farms' needs. That is desirable but not realistic.

I disagree with both propositions. The rural status quo is a mirage and unachievable. The flight from the land to the cities started in the 19th century in Britain and has continued remorselessly ever since. France promoted the common agricultural policy post-war in order to stop that exodus from the countryside. It failed; despite those subsidies, the exodus has accelerated. In China, India and Africa, this flight from the land continues inexorably. Shortly, for the first time, the majority of the world's population will be urban rather than rural.

It is foolish and Canute-like to refuse to recognise these realities. However bad urban poverty may be, rural poverty is far worse. Fifty years ago I was brought up in rural Ireland where people, such as an employee of my father, raised nine children in houses with three rooms. People had one objective in the Irish countryside in those days: to get out and come to Coventry to work, however awful it was. The objective in policy must surely be to ensure that when rural migrants move into the towns and cities they have decent wages, decent conditions and decent housing. We need to manage these changes, not deny them.

If the world's agriculture went 100 per cent organic, Malthus's dire prediction of two centuries ago would probably be realised in a matter of months, not years. The contentious issue of luxury food exports to Europe from poor countries in Africa and Latin America may be less relevant in today's world as affluent consumers are deterred by high prices—see Marks & Spencer's food business yesterday, which is one sign that this is already happening—and as farmers in the developing world find that higher prices in their domestic markets make it more attractive for them to serve those markets. That export trade should be properly regulated for environmental, health and social reasons, but it should nevertheless be allowed to continue, because it brings economic benefits to these poorer regions.

In the short term, the most immediate responsibility of rich Governments is to ensure that the UN's food programmes are fully funded. I trust that, at the G8 meeting next week in Japan, the rich countries will ensure that that happens. I note in this morning's Herald Tribune that Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, says that he needs $10 billion in order to make that happen.

My final point relates to whether there should be more or less free, but fair, global trade in food. In an economic crisis it is understandable that frightened people are inclined to become protective. Both Barack Obama and President Sarkozy are already making protectionist noises. Some British farmers are jumping on to the protectionist bandwagon, arguing for more home-produced food. This is understandable but quite wrong. Protectionism was the world's disastrous reaction to the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s, with awful economic and political consequences, whereas the remarkable growth in global prosperity over the past 60 years was significantly stimulated by the reduction of trade barriers under the GATT and, more recently, WTO agreements.

In the short term, we must ensure that those countries desperately short of food can make purchases in a fair and open global market, not one distorted by export restraints and taxes. There should be a Doha agreement, but I am not optimistic that it will happen, especially if the new American Administration are ambivalent. In the medium term, as I have suggested, this sudden escalation in food prices is likely to reverse as farmers bring more land into cultivation and as demand for renewable energy crops is dampened down by Governments and the markets.

In the longer term, however, the Malthusian threat may re-emerge as climate change impacts on agriculture across the world and as the world's population is set to grow by 40 per cent. Some areas will suffer, such as north Africa, Australia and the Middle East, but others will benefit, such as many parts of northern Europe, Siberia and Canada. In these circumstances it is even more important that food moves easily and fairly from regions in surplus to regions in deficit. It is even more important that farmers in the developing world are able to enjoy the full benefits of modern science and technology and that research and development in agricultural science and technology are stepped up rather than resisted.

In my lifetime, the world's population has quadrupled, but the world's farmers have also quadrupled their output—a remarkable achievement. Against that background, a further increase of perhaps 50 per cent to 100 per cent in output over the next 30 to 40 years should be achievable, but only if those who argue for responsible science and free trade win the day.

A

Readers may be interested to note in relation to Lord Haskins point on the move to larger farms that there is a very surprisingly and very strong inverse correlation between farm size and yields. See http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/06/10/small-is-bountifu.... I quote "A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are twenty times as productive as farms of over ten hectares(3). Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Phillippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere."

Submitted by Adrian Skilling

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 12:48 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, coming as this debate does in advance of next week's G8 summit in Japan, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has given the House a timely opportunity to reflect on the effects of the rise in world food prices. We are all indebted to him for that.

Last month, following the World Food Summit in Rome, I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to make the issue a key question at next week's summit. I also tabled a series of Written Questions to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who will reply to today's debate, and he answered my Oral Question on 17 June. At the time I expressed surprise that he responded with the words,

"our assessment is that there is no global food shortage".—[Hansard, 17/6/08; col. 914.]

I express surprise again at what I think is a contentious assertion. As we have heard, major food riots and angry street protests are going on all around the world, probably in some 33 countries, and at least one Government have been dislodged as a result. Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, says that if the present crisis is not adequately addressed, one consequence could be social unrest on an unprecedented scale. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, also recently remarked that the world food crisis threatens to destroy years of economic progress and may push millions back into abject poverty. A Chatham House paper published in April suggests that the crisis jeopardises our ability to meet the millennium development goals. However, good could yet come out of this crisis if it is seized as an opportunity to reform global agriculture and longer term productivity in Africa and elsewhere.

Last month's Rome summit, convened to consider the food crisis, ended without agreement on some of the key issues that now confront the world. It was overshadowed by the bizarre decision to allow Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and 200 of his henchmen to break the European Union travel embargo that restricts their movements. It is difficult to see what a regime that has ground its people into abject poverty and starvation, with a predicted 4.1 million people reliant on food aid by 2009, but that has banned the work of relief agencies and terrorised political opponents, and under which inflation has spiralled out of control—now reaching an annual rate of 165,000 per cent—and a woman's life expectancy is now just 33, is likely to contribute to solving the world food crisis. I hope that we are pressing the United Nations to prevent such circumvention of travel bans in the future and the hijacking of important meetings by that kind of spectacle.

Every single day, 25,000 people die of hunger or hunger-related causes. We receive reports of food riots from disparate parts of the globe, of children dying of hunger in Ethiopia—where the poorest can buy only 40 per cent of the food and where 4.6 million are in urgent need of food—of famine in North Korea and the collapse of the Government in Haiti. These are all harbingers of worse to come. Many other fragile countries will reap the whirlwind of our failure to address a crisis that the United Nations World Food Programme has called "a silent tsunami", affecting every continent and plunging more than 100 million people into hunger and more countries into violence and instability.

Spiralling food prices are creating the biggest challenge that the World Food Programme has faced in its 45-year history, with millions of people who were not in the "urgent hunger" category six months ago now listed as such. Maize and rice have almost doubled in price during the past year. In the United Kingdom, higher food prices are causing us all to tighten our belts, but in vast swathes of the world, where even before the crisis around 3.5 million children died annually of malnutrition, there are no belts to tighten.

The UK Government currently spend less than 1p per malnourished child per day. The devastating impact of the world food crisis on malnutrition will add to what was described in a series of papers published by the Lancet in January as a "fragmented and dysfunctional" international response to malnutrition. Save The Children, citing the World Bank, states that more than 100 million people will be pushed into poverty as a result of food price rises. It says that 854 million people were already hungry before prices started to rise, including 178 million children under the age of five who were stunted.

The cost of food accounts for half the expenditure of a poor family. As prices rocket out of control, those families simply cannot keep up. An average family in Bangladesh that has £2.50 a day will spend £1.50 on food. A 50 per cent rise in the cost of basic food requires a further 75p, leaving them with just 25p for all other expenditure. This shocking situation has been compounded by rising oil prices that have made farming more expensive, by natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China, by flooding and droughts, and by crop failures in countries such as Ethiopia. It has been accentuated further by the rapid industrialisation of vast parts of the world, especially India and China. That in turn has led quite understandably to demands for more and better food.

The acute nature of the crisis in some parts of the world has already forced the World Food Programme to reallocate some of its resources. It has suspended some of its feeding programmes in various parts of the world—for example, to 450,000 children in Cambodia—because it simply does not have funds to meet all the challenges. WFP representatives in 78 countries around the world are facing similar dilemmas.

Even in Darfur, where the five-year conflict has led to more than 300,000 deaths and 2.5 million displaced people, the WFP has received only 17 per cent of the funds required to go on with its feeding programme. In June, it cut back its helicopter operations, which it says are the lifeline through which 12,000 relief workers are able to distribute food to remote areas of Sudan. At a recent meeting of the All-Party Group on Sudan, of which I along with my noble friend Lord Sandwich am an officer, we heard first-hand accounts of the increasingly desperate situation in many parts of Sudan. I was therefore staggered to read the Minister's assertion:

"Our initial assessment is that the flight changes announced by the World Food Programme's Humanitarian Air Service will not adversely affect the frontline work of the humanitarian operation in Darfur".—[Official Report, 26/6/08; col. WA 275.]

That is certainly not the World Food Programme's view.

In the short term, the world food crisis will lead to sudden, unexpected starvation and therefore to death. In the long term, development programmes will collapse and nutrition losses will damage children for a whole lifetime. The consequences of the 1990s famine in North Korea, for instance—I chair the All-Party Group on North Korea—can best be seen in the contrasting stature of North and South Koreans. The average adolescent in North Korea is 18 centimetres shorter than his counterpart in the south. Stunted growth and malnutrition damage bodies and educational attainment. I recently asked the Minister what assessment the Government had made of the report of the Peterson Institute for International Economics on food shortages in North Korea. Does he have the results of the independent assessment which he said would be made available early this month?

Failure to take the right decisions on agriculture, biofuel production, subsidies, tariffs and trade are the key factors in precipitating this crisis. The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has challenged the world community to find the £370 million needed to avert the immediate crisis. He has said:

"The world can afford this. The poor and hungry cannot".

The World Trade Organisation, too, can take a lead on this issue. It needs to be persuaded to abandon the grossly distorted trade policies to which my noble friend Lord Bilimoria referred earlier. Those policies have, for instance, forced Japan to import rice while it produces large surpluses—770,000 tonnes of unwanted and unneeded rice were imported last year alone.

What else might we do in the longer term? Food output in many impoverished parts of the world could be doubled or tripled by creating a special fund to support the world's poorest farmers, helping them obtain seeds, fertilisers and irrigation—a point referred to extensively by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne; I entirely agree with what he said. Drought-resistant crops need water, but they also need to be developed, with more research into ways of bolstering food production.

As well as a green revolution, we have to persuade European and American Governments not to use corn to make ethanol, or to displace food crops by oil seed for use as biodiesel. That is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. How many people could be fed by the food used to fill the tank of a four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Shogun? The US spends $7 billion annually on subsidies for maize-based biofuels. The diversion of that maize from the international markets accounts for a third of the price increase, but it also says something about our priorities that we would rather fill a petrol tank than the stomach of a starving child, and rather use food to feed our cars than hungry families. The moral bankruptcy of feeding cars at the expense of malnourished people should be self-evident.

There is also increasing evidence that biofuels have limited CO2-reduction benefit and, through the clearance of rainforests and other pristine areas such as peat bogs, will lead to an increase of CO2 emissions. Instead of subsidising biofuels, we should encourage the World Bank to get on with its plans to provide social safety nets, particularly insurance for poor farmers hit by natural disasters such as drought. That would tide them over until better times could come and allow them to stay on the land. Too many people feel forced to migrate to the squalor of urban shanty towns. Like that of my noble friend Lord Haskins, my own family came from the west of Ireland—my late mother came from the kind of conditions that he has just described. However, having visited places such as Kibeira on the outskirts of Nairobi, which is probably the largest shanty town anywhere in Africa, I am not sure that one can assert with quite such certainty as did he that life is better there than it is in rural squalor.

The World Bank also needs to atone for the too-rapid liberalisation of markets in the developing world. The consequence has been the initial dumping of food by Europe and the US, and the consequent reliance of poor nations on cheap imports attended by the abandonment of farming by their own people. "Back to the land" is a call that needs to go out across the developing world. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said, infrastructure, especially water, has to go hand in hand with the provision of that land. Whenever we debate the availability of food to feed the starving, two other lines of argument loom large. They have been referred to in this debate—one is population control and the other genetically modified crops. In the House of Lords Library Note for today's debate, we are reminded that,

"the Food And Agriculture Organisation suggest that while population growth and increases in purchasing power in developing countries are important, they alone could not explain the sudden surge in food prices in recent years".

Long before Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population and the later ideology of eugenics was promoted by Marie Stopes and the rest, there was always a tendency to attack population as the problem, rather than poverty. The greatest danger of an overexaggerated emphasis on population control is that it can lead to coercion. In China, the one-child policy has had shocking consequences such as the distortion of the gender balance, with 117 males being born for every 100 females, and not least for personal freedom. Ask the blind, barefoot, human rights lawyer, Chen Guangchen, who was jailed for four years in 2006 after exposing the forced sterilisation and abortion of more than 120,000 women in the Shandong province. Chen still languishes in jail.

Along with the argument that we must target population sits the other proposition, recently repeated by the Environment Minister, Mr Phil Woolas, that genetically modified foods can conjure up a way in which to feed the whole world. On 14 June in an editorial rebutting this claim, New Scientist said:

"GM is no magic bullet, and the idea that it alone can feed Africa is pure fantasy".

It can undermine food self-sufficiency, pollute water and land, cause significant soil erosion by depleting the soil of its carbon content and exacerbate climate change. It would be immoral in the face of the need to feed hungry people to reject GM lines out of hand, but we need to tread with extraordinary caution and tone down unjustified rhetoric. As the Independent said in an editorial on June 20:

"We will not feed the world by decimating its plant and wildlife".

To sum up, in trying to understand the forces at work in driving up food prices and their consequences, we should be careful not to tilt at the wrong windmills. At their summit in Japan next week the G8 leaders have the chance to avert this crisis. To do that in the short term they will have to increase resources, but there must also be significant investment in research and development, science and technology. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, about that. We must enhance yields, maximise land use, increase efforts to ensure an end to distorted trade policies and repudiate quick-fix solutions such as biofuels.

The House owes the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, its thanks for tabling this Motion for debate today.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 1:02 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Taverne for raising this extremely important issue. He is always in the lead in such matters. I have to declare what I hope is a very time-limited interest, which several noble Lords with a longer time commitment to it share. My father was a farmer on the South Downs and would very much have applauded what my noble friend had to say about the importance of investment in agricultural research. When he became ill and died in the autumn of 2006, I found myself having to take over his tenancies as his estate was gradually wound up. That autumn, I sold his barley out through Shoreham harbour as he had done; it was a new experience for me. He had a small arable area and his barley sold for about £10,000. Imagine my astonishment in early 2007 to find that the same acreage was then priced at three times that amount. I thought that I had misread it. Unfortunately, teenagers smoking in the fields just before harvest actually meant that a third of it went up in smoke—but such is life.

When I found that these prices were real, as the spokesperson on international development for the Lib Dems in the Lords I found myself wondering, at the beginning of 2007, when those prices were predicted for me, what on earth the effect would be around the world. I was hearing little from others at that time. We are only just beginning to address this issue, together with related issues on the rise of oil prices and climate change. We have already heard an enormous amount about the impact of the increase in food prices. There are opportunities here as well as threats, but of course it is those at the margins who are most threatened, as they are often already in the most fragile states.

The opportunity is there to bring prosperity to some of those whose farms were barely viable. I think that my father, although not quite on such margins, might have benefited from the situation. As a small farmer, he was not on the scale of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, or other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, to say the least. But after all, in Britain and the west it was the agricultural revolution which then paved the way for the industrial revolution. But if you cannot afford to eat and cannot be self-sufficient on your farm, reaching a point when you can benefit from the sales of your crops may be beyond your reach, and those are the people to whom we must pay particular attention. As populations flooded into the cities, in Britain and other western industrialised countries, as they are in developing countries now, we know—as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said—that usually their living standards declined. The urban poor will be particularly hard hit by soaring prices. They might have benefited and they may benefit later, but initially they often lose out in that move.

Many others in this debate, such as the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Alton, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, have made very clear the terrible impact of rising food prices on the poorest. As the Overseas Development Institute, on which I am a council member, put it:

"Soaring food prices pose problems for three groups. First, the poor whose ability to buy food is undermined. Second, governments of low-income countries facing higher import bills, soaring costs for safety net programmes and political unrest. Third, aid agencies juggling increased demands for food, cash and technical advice".

The real price of food had been falling since the 1950s, and maybe this can be seen as a correction. The green revolution, to which other noble Lords referred, began in the mid-1960s, and saw increases in yields, falling food prices and reductions in poverty in some parts of the world. But food prices have risen over the past few years and particularly since 2006. Why has this happened? Clearly more research needs to be done, but a number of explanations have been given today. As the noble Lords, Lord Taverne, Lord Grantchester and Lord Bilimoria, and others, have said, there have been a number of factors ascribed to this. Oil price rises have increased costs for fertilisers, machinery and transport; there has been speculation on commodity prices and some exporting countries have imposed taxes, minimum prices, quotas and bans on foodstuffs. Increasing prosperity and changing diet in India and China has increased grain and meat consumption. Support for biofuels has diverted grain from food to energy. There is a whole range of possible issues.

Possibly prices will drop a little but it is anticipated that they will not drop substantially in the medium term. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, the devastation and social unrest that could result is of key importance to all of us. Higher food prices could raise farmers' incomes, if farmers can respond, as in some cases in the Asian green revolution. I look forward to the battles between the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, over the plusses and minuses of how that may work through. Exactly whether we should go down the route of large farms, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, says, or small ones, will also be hotly debated and is of key importance.

In Cambodia, to take that as a case study, a higher rice price stimulated a 13 per cent increase in rice production and rice exports rose by more than 80 per cent. Rice farmers benefited but the rest of the economy suffered. Resources shifted from other farm activities to rice-growing, so livestock and fish production declined. Higher rice prices reduced household spending on other goods and services, depressing the economy; GDP fell by around 0.2 per cent; farming households were better off, with incomes for surplus producers—it is significant that they are big enough to benefit from this—rising by almost 4 per cent; but other households saw incomes fall by around 2 per cent. So it is a complex pattern of winners and losers.

In the short term, as other noble Lords have mentioned, and this is of key importance, we will need social protection—I am glad to see that DfID has recently been moving in that direction—transfers to the poor, as with the introduction of universal old-age pensions in India and South Africa, and general food subsidies. It is an issue that has been particularly addressed in concern about AIDS and the impact on orphans and vulnerable children, and how best to support them. The area of social protection is developing. More will need to go to the World Food Programme, which itself will need to be transformed to make it more effective.

In the medium term, investment in infrastructure and agricultural research, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Taverne, will be required, together with support for small farmers so that they can access finance and expertise. Other noble Lords have made these points very tellingly.

All areas of agricultural research, especially in areas with limited water, as we have heard, and with the pressures of climate change, will need to be investigated. There are major questions about how this can be done with limited land and water, and with anxieties over conservation and pollution.

A few noble Lords have talked about the impact of population growth—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Taverne particularly referred to this. Clearly, far more needs to be done to ensure that reproductive rights are respected and that women have access to education and, where they wish it, to contraception. We know what an effect this has, and that already the growth in population is showing signs of levelling off. We know what to do here. Therefore, we have to ensure that there is the political will to carry this through.

I should like to put a number of questions to the Minister. This crisis will, as Save the Children points out, impact the reaching of the MDGs, which we are a long way off in many cases anyway. Governments must therefore judge their performance in responding to the current crisis by the effect, for example, on malnutrition rates. I would like the noble Lord's comment on that. What will be done to support the social protection programmes I have referred to? Again, in the United Kingdom, it is significant that the early social protection programmes, pensions and so on, of the early 20th century underpinned our own development. The move towards social protection programmes is extremely welcome.

What will be done to investigate the role of financial speculation in fuelling price rises and volatility, and examining means of protecting consumers from the effects of such speculation? Will the Government be seeking a moratorium on the targets for the use of biofuels, a matter the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described as the unintended consequence of seeking greener policies? How will the Government target support at small-scale farmers—if the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, will allow them to remain so—and how might they be given increased access to microcredit and other financial services?

Christian Aid, Oxfam, World Vision and other NGOs rightly emphasise that particular support must be targeted at women, partly because they suffer first when there is extreme poverty—men are expected to have a larger share of food, boys are kept in education longer in a financial crisis than are girls, and so on. As Christian Aid points out, with the proportion of women in agriculture as high as 70 per cent in some countries, we need to ensure that they have good access to education, information, science and technology, as well as credit schemes and income generating activities, and of course reproductive health. Given the cutbacks in DfID, what is happening in relation to gender? How many people are working on this area, and what plans are there for expansion or contraction?

There will be new problems associated with climate change, which will need to be addressed in this context. Natural resources such as seeds, agricultural land and water must be protected in the face of climate change, and competition from cash crops. I welcome the Minister's comments on that.

We are coming up to the G8, as has been mentioned, and I know that this will be on the agenda. What does the Minister anticipate will be the G8's plans? What proposals will be put in September at the MDGs' assessment meeting? What changes will be advocated for Doha at the end of the year? The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, made very clear how important this round has become, and the pressures on it.

At the beginning of 2007, I received the anticipated prices for my father's barley. I was stunned by their extraordinary increase. At that time there seemed to be little talk of increases in food prices. Now that discussion is widespread. That is surely welcome. My noble friend Lord Taverne has stimulated us to take this further. He has said that we must restore aid for agriculture to the top of the agenda and that we must support the best of agricultural science. Everything that other noble Lords have also said from their long and wide experience endorses the essence of what he says, whatever they may feel about certain aspects of it. I hope that our Government can rise to his challenge.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development 1:15 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for moving the debate today on the effects of the rise in world food prices.

It has been an important and fascinating debate on an important and topical issue. I always think that these debates demonstrate the very high quality of your Lordships' House.

The effects of these rises in food prices have undoubtedly pitched the world into what has been described by several of your Lordships as nothing less than a crisis. There has not been, and probably never will be, enough attention given to this most pressing problem.

Yet, as we all know, attention is not enough. We need action too. When it comes to action, there is a distinct split in the way to proceed. It is a matter of timing. The crisis demands both immediate and long-term action. The immediate course of action is more or less clear. From March 2007 to March 2008, the price of corn has risen by 31 per cent, rice by 74 per cent, Soya by 87 per cent and wheat by 130 per cent. The UK needs to play its part in a worldwide effort to deliver swift emergency assistance to help those in countries hit hardest by these price hikes. This sudden increase in the price of staple foods is often spoken about as an aberration. What work did the Minister's department do to prevent the current crisis? Did the rapid increase in prices take the Minister by surprise?

One factor in the rapid price hike is the allocation of land to meet western demand for biofuels, a matter mentioned by many noble Lords. Arable soil that could be producing staple crops is being used instead to produce supposedly green fuel alternatives. I fear that the Government rushed headlong into biofuels without checking that systems were in place that would make certain of their sustainability in the truest sense of the word.

We, on this side of the House, appreciate the role that biofuels can play in reducing carbon emissions—reductions that could help mitigate the effect of climate change on the developing world. But, I hope that the Government appreciate the seriousness of the effect of biofuels on food shortages. Indeed, the Government's answer was to announce yet another review of the economic and environmental impacts, which will be "taken into account in the formation of the UK policy beyond 2010". Does the Minister not agree that this is perhaps a little too late?

As we heard in a fascinating and forceful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, concentrating on the plight of farmers in the UK—a dire indictment on the present Government's attitude towards the countryside—they have not addressed the problem, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, of urban poverty being bad, but rural poverty was worse. I could not agree with him more. There needs to be a policy on the sustainability of biofuels for the future. Could more action be taken now to address their manifest impact on food shortages? Indeed, it is very important that we realise a long-term approach will be required if we are going to address food shortages in a meaningful way.

While immediate assistance is important, it can provide only temporary and incomplete relief. Thus, the focus must be placed on measures that will have lasting impacts. We on this side of the House feel that emphasis should be placed on increasing global agricultural production by encouraging more research into new farming techniques and crops. In fact, it was the Conservative Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group which recommended last year that DfID focus more on agriculture. The group noted that,

"It is crucial to learn the lessons of the Green Revolution in Asian agriculture ... The UK and other donors must help fund the research needed to promote a 'Turquoise Revolution'—combining the neglected blue technologies of rain water harvesting, drip fed irrigation etc with green technologies to develop drought resistant, fast maturing varieties of crops suitable for semi-arid areas".

I applaud the work of FARM-Africa, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich.

This is our position, and it does not seem to chime with the Government's. In 2007, the National Audit Office found that,

"the proportion of DfID expenditure specifically for traditionally rural sectors such as agriculture has declined".

Does the Minister think that this decreased emphasis on agriculture has contributed to the current crisis? As several of your Lordships have stressed, it is important that in the short and long terms the approach needs to change. My noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly stressed the importance of water, infrastructure and new technologies. A renewed commitment to agriculture, infrastructure and helping developing countries with emerging technologies will be a main way to address food shortages and malnutrition. Any delay will exacerbate the current problems. We urge the Government to act swiftly. Yet swift action may not be enough. Unless we plan for long-term improvement, the problems that the developing world now faces will persist. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, unless there is a considered approach, we consign people in the developing world to a future of starvation and economic stagnation.

However, an opportunity for progress has arrived. Soon, the G8 and the WTO will meet. It is essential that the Government avoid the temptation of continuing trade protectionism. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, spelt out clearly that protectionist tariffs, especially across the EU, will only exacerbate the current crisis. That said, there needs to be a cohesive approach. Does the Minister not agree that there should be some EU consensus on the type of trade approach to be taken before the meeting of the World Trade Organisation? Will the Minister give us assurances that the Government will fight to preserve free-trade arrangements and resist protection which will only fuel the current crisis? It is an old debate, but it strikes at the heart of the matter. I hope that at the coming international meetings, our Government will be on the side of those who really need their help most.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Labour 1:24 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I am very new to this brief and have tried to prepare for this event, but I did not work out how many questions there would be. I have done a quick calculation and if I answer them all, they will get 10 seconds each. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for initiating this debate and other noble Lords for their contributions. The points they made were extremely important. I agreed with officials beforehand that we will produce a comprehensive response and try to pick up all the points. Therefore, I shall speak but briefly on each contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, made the point, which the Government entirely accept, that the key to the future is agricultural research. We are committed in DfID to a £1 billion research strategy over five years and £400 million of that will be spent on agriculture. DfID research will support new technologies, including GM and the development of sustainable agricultural practices. The overriding objective is to safeguard human health and the environment. We support the involvement of GMOs only as long as international rules are followed. Our work is targeted at helping developing countries make their own decisions about GM technologies. It is fair to say, however, that we accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that the debate has become too polarised and, while these technologies are probably not a silver bullet, the debate is too important to continue in that way. We should encourage ourselves and the world fully to understand the potentials of these technologies. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, mentioned the Gates Foundation. DfID supports work with that foundation and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

I am afraid that my expertise—or even my brief, to be fair—does not trespass far into the areas raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. I accept his general proposition and that of other contributors that agriculture in the UK and worldwide requires a joined-up policy on farming, land, water and, indeed, energy. The noble Lord in part touched on protectionism. The Government are absolutely clear that protectionism in the long term and short term does not contribute to solving this problem. The free movement of goods, particularly food, around the world and the bringing down of trade barriers are the keys to the long-term feeding of the world and the long-term health of its economies.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, touched on water in particular. The Government support the Commission for Africa report which called for significant increases in investment in irrigation. The work of the Met Office's Hadley Centre touches on this area. It is committed to improving the granularity of long-term meteorological forecasting in the area of climate change, because it is important that infrastructure is targeted in the right places, and infrastructure for water will never be cheap. It is important to recognise that over and over again you come back to research being the necessary starting point for sensible investment in any areas necessary to address this problem.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for his input. It was said earlier that the CAP had done some good things over the years but, frankly, it now stands in the way of trade liberalisation. None of us can comfortably live with the very seizing concept of $2 a day for a cow, compared with $1 a day for a person. The Government are committed to as rapid a reform of the agricultural policy as is possible.

It is important, however, that we keep coming back to some of the points made by the noble Lord about the importance of moving Western technology to the developing world. World organisations have reacted quite well to this latest shock. The World Food Programme has asked them for more funds; it has received more funds. Although that is still a short-term approach when we must focus on the medium and long term, I think that the developed world's response to the crisis has in many ways been commendable. The noble Lord touched on the importance of science, a general view which we totally support. He touched also on the issue of GM foods. I thank him for his support for the general concept of a rational debate.

We are involved with the World Bank, which is committed to increasing significantly its investment in agriculture. It has announced a package of another £1.2 billion for short and long-term initiatives. The noble Lord reasonably asked why we did not see the food crisis coming. My notes say, "We did". Well, yes. Last year's World Bank development report focused on the need to ramp up the investment in food and agriculture. Last year the EU and the World Bank announced plans to double expenditure. The UK led an international response, and the Prime Minister initiated an open letter to the G8 urging a co-ordinated response. I will return to that point.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked whether the Government are responding promptly to short-term needs. I think that we have. He asked about a number of specific areas, including Afghanistan and Ethiopia. We have reacted in all those areas and will touch on those in our written response. I liked his reference to the World Bank programme and the 10 points. It is crucial to centre on the Doha round; we cannot afford not to be successful there. Although it is a difficult time for the world as we run up to the US elections, much of the world sees the importance of reform. There is no question but that the Government will press this point in the G8. We all must hope for an effective way forward.

The noble Earl's specific question—I shall ensure that it is covered more precisely later—was whether the World Food Programme's call for exemptions in export bans should move forward. We agree that export bans should be lifted for the World Food Programme and for all food exports. The Government particularly encourage the World Food Programme to buy its food locally. Bans stop that trade. It is by spending money locally that we can keep the local infrastructure healthy.

We have responded to food crises, particularly in Ethiopia, where we have specifically focused £25 million for the crisis in addition to our £91 million. This is a safety net programme which we think is particularly important. I shall return to that point.

After a general review of the challenge, the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, touched on the issue of bigger and smaller farms. Our experience suggests that, certainly initially, value is created and aid provided if smaller farms are made more productive. We think that the key is not so much changing the shape of farming in the developing world but making it more productive. We certainly agree with his general view that protectionism and trade bans are wrong and that success in the world trade talks is essential. We come back to the basic point that the scientific contribution is one of the greatest contributions that the developing world can make to meeting this challenge.

We take a partly contrary view on the issue of large versus small farms because our focus is very much on rural farms, some 80 per cent of which are in poor countries. We think that the priorities are access to better fertilisers and seeds, social protection programmes—a point which the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, covered—and improving the quality of the land.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the difficult position regarding the Rome summit. Zimbabwe is a member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and, as with all United Nations organisations, it had the right to be at the summit. President Mugabe did not meet any members of the UK delegation. Zimbabwe is a very sad situation and we continue try to help the people of Zimbabwe with direct aid provided through NGOs. We are sad that that aid activity has for the moment been suspended.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, covered a number of points. If I answered all of them, I think that it would use up all my speaking time. She made the important historical point that successful agriculture has to come before successful industrialisation. I agree with her that the development of social protection programmes provides a safety net which gives countries the confidence to go forward. I also note her points on gender. DfID's response is very much one which works through women. In developing societies women are particularly at risk. Conversely, they have a particularly strong capability to bring improvement.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, properly differentiated between immediate aid and longer-term programmes. We agree. However, we should have some confidence that the demands for more money from the World Food Programme have been met. We must thank Saudi Arabia for a very big contribution. However, the real solutions will be found in the longer term through both science and longer-term investment.

We have also had a sort of biofuels debate. I do not think that we should throw away biofuels. There have been some adverse consequences, but those have not come without balancing benefits. We initiated the Gallagher review, which has now reported, and for the moment we are at the limit of how much biofuel we intend to use in the UK. Everyone is looking increasingly to the new generation of biofuels which will be much more ecologically acceptable as the way forward.

Noble Lords have expressed how difficult this crisis is for the poor. Poor families in the UK notice world food prices more than do others in this country. Around the world, however, 850 million people do not have enough, in some cases spending 90 per cent of their budget on food, and they are really suffering. Some of these people live on 50p a day. I have tried to envisage what that must mean, thinking that 50p must buy much more in the developing world. Sadly, it does not buy a lot more. It means having only one meal a day and spending most of the day looking for food.

The Government have been quick to act. The Prime Minister wrote to leaders of the G8 calling for international action to combat the impact of world food prices. By May, the World Food Programme's emergency appeal had been fully funded. It was a great achievement. However, it was a short-term response. We are also working towards a longer-term solution, and thriving agriculture is the cornerstone of that solution.

Food aid saves lives in an emergency. In the medium term, safety net programmes that make small payments to the poorest families on a regular basis can prevent life-threatening famine returning. However, in the longer term, the only solution is to increase agricultural productivity. In some ways, we forget our own history; developed societies have been able to achieve their developed status only by developing successful agriculture, the foundation on which both life and development are built.

Increasing agricultural productivity has the highest pay-offs in terms of reducing poverty. Evidence from Asia and Africa shows that, with improvements in agriculture, you also get improvements in other areas of the economy. In Zambia, $1 of additional farm income creates a further $1.50 of income outside agriculture. The green revolution has tripled cereal production in Asia over the past 40 years. Unfortunately, these benefits are not flowing through. Growth is stalling in south Asia and African agricultural growth is still too low. People now have less to eat than they did 30 years ago.

At last month's Rome food summit, the UK called for international action to double agricultural output in Africa, to double agricultural growth in Asia and to double investment in agricultural research. The UK is making a substantial financial contribution to these targets. We have committed more than £500 million to a package of measures including agricultural research and technology development. Safety net programmes are in place in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Bangladesh.

This will not be enough by itself, however. The UN has set up a task force to see what is needed. The UK is calling for a global partnership for agriculture and food to take this forward. We want to work with our partners around the world, with the World Bank, the United Nations, international agricultural research organisations and the private sector. We want to work together towards the same goal, and to hold each other to account.

Most important of all, however, is our partnership with the Governments of the countries in Africa and Asia whose citizens we are working for. They are ultimately responsible for increasing the food security of their citizens and they must lead these plans. To their credit, African Governments have already committed to increasing the proportion of their national budgets allocated to agriculture and rural development to 10 per cent. Some, such as Ethiopia, have reached that target; others, such as Malawi, are well on their way. The UK supports regional organisations, such as the African Union's comprehensive African agriculture development programme, to work with these governments. Through this, African Governments are committed to raising agricultural productivity by at least 6 per cent per year.

There is much to be done. We are working closely with colleagues, other donors and governments to include international organisations and the private sector. We will use the G8 summit next week to get the backing from the world's major economies for the international response.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for initiating this debate. It is gratifying to have consensus that there are things to be done, and that we are willing to commit the resources to do them. The House properly holds the Government accountable for how we do that but it is good to be in a place where we all share a common aim.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 1:43 pm, 3rd July 2008

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful to him for offering to supply a brief prepared by him and his department to deal with the many points made; that would be most helpful.

I also thank those who took part in the debate. Listening to the speeches, I found that I was impressed in so many cases by the points made, and I am determined to read the debate carefully so that I can learn a lot from it. Noble Lords have made a most valuable contribution. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.